BANGKOK – The official and unofficial memorial ceremonies marking one year since the massive March 11 earthquake and tsunami that devastated the Tohoku region of Japan, killing some 16,000 people, are now past. The question remains though: Will Japan’s politicians and bureaucrats come together and heed a simple lesson that other policymakers faced with massive rebuilding efforts have learned before — namely, that bigger is not always better on the road to recovery?
Certainly, no government, business or community leader has all the right answers. In the United States, the slow pace in rebuilding New Orleans and replacing damaged infrastructure along the Gulf Coast immediately after Hurricane Katrina struck in 2005, causing some $85 billion in damages, is a case in point. So, too, was the tortured path forward to begin construction at the Ground Zero site in New York following the terrorist attacks that destroyed the World Trade Center complex and killed thousands more than a decade ago.
Mistakes and missteps will be made in the elusive goal of rebuilding better. Reconstruction and rehabilitation of damaged or destroyed social, residential and industrial infrastructure is often done amid continuing human tragedy, political infighting and cold economic realities that intrude upon an initial spirit of cooperation and solidarity. This is true everywhere, from the poorest to the richest nations.
In Japan, as elsewhere, construction firms, real estate developers and insurance companies — all with their own financial incentives and perspectives — add to the mix in shaping what is to be rebuilt, as well as when and how, following a natural or man-made disaster. Even the multilateral financial institutions, such as the Asian Development Bank, which have provided technical assistance and financing support to help developing nations rebuild infrastructure after natural disasters — including China after the massive May 2008 Sichuan earthquake, which killed some 68,000 people — are not immune to incentives gone awry.
This is particularly true if management pushes for, and evaluation systems subtly encourage, bigger lending envelopes and bigger infrastructure projects at the expense of smaller, more focused projects that may well have a greater impact on poverty reduction and economic development.
In Japan, the size of the post-earthquake and tsunami rebuilding challenge remains immense. Reconstruction is expected at this point to cost the country — and its taxpayers — more than a quarter trillion dollars. This even as some 3,500 people remain missing, thousands more remain in prefabricated temporary housing and apartments and uncertainty clouds the trajectory of not just the tsunami-damaged Fukushima No. 1 nuclear power plant, but also the wider nuclear energy industry, which in recent years powered a significant portion of Japan’s homes, export sector and industrial output.
As of last week, however, due in part to regularly scheduled safety checks, only one of some 54 nuclear reactors in Japan are now working.
As Japan’s national government as well as local governments — particularly in the most severely affected prefectures of Miyagi, Iwate and Fukushima — continue to review and approve master rebuilding plans and reconstruction blueprints, they would be well served to recognize that not every proposed piece of new mega-infrastructure or every hamlet project needs to be built.
While building back everything as it was, and where it was, might have tremendous symbolic value and popular appeal in the short-term, the nation’s demographics — an aging population and increasingly depopulated rural communities — and troubled budget situation suggests another way forward: a more focused, sustainable long-term approach to rebuilding communities, where greater consideration is given to the voices of all stakeholders, young and old.
Admittedly, this may mean consolidation of some communities, greater centralization of community services, and the reshaping or outright cancellation of some big projects supported by well-connected construction companies and constituency groups. These are not popular actions even in the best of times, and political realities may prevent them from happening now.
Around the world, this past March 11, presidents, prime ministers and everyday citizens paused and noted the tremendous resilience of the Japanese people and their determination to rebuild better and stronger than before.
Before- and after-photos of the earthquake and tsunami-ravaged areas, showed tremendous steps forward and stood in stark contrast to the one-year-after photos by other nations in their own responses to natural calamities. Japan has much to be proud of.
The road to recovery though is about to get tougher. The earthquake and tsunami debris is largely cleared and the Fukushima plant, for now, seems stabilized. Focused rebuilding efforts, big or small, should include safeguards against corruption, cronyism and other forms of excess.
Much more needs to be done now in ensuring strengthened public communications and greater accountability for moneys to be spent, whether reconstruction efforts are publicly or privately financed.
Results matter. The people of Japan, particularly the taxpayers increasingly asked to foot the bill for the tremendous rebuilding efforts to come, deserve no less.
Curtis S. Chin is a senior fellow and executive-in-residence at the Asian Institute of Technology and managing director for River Peak Group. He served as the U.S. ambassador to the Asian Development Bank under Presidents George W. Bush and Barack Obama (2007-2010).
By subscribing, you can help us get the story right.