After 3/11 'reconstruction period'

The government set a 10-year period of intensive efforts for reconstruction from the March 2011 Great East Japan Earthquake and tsunami. In three years, the Reconstruction Agency, launched in 2012 to take charge of rebuilding the areas devastated by the disasters, is set to be abolished. Of course, reconstruction efforts will likely not be over by 2021, and the government will consider a successor organization to take over the agency’s function. What’s important will be for the government to turn the experience of the post-3/11 reconstruction efforts into know-how to be shared and utilized in responding to and recovering from future disasters.

Seven years after the tragic events of 3/11, infrastructure destroyed or damaged in the disasters has been mostly rebuilt. In the most heavily hit prefectures of Iwate, Miyagi and Fukushima, 99 percent of damaged national roads have been restored and services have resumed on 97 percent of the railway networks. Construction of public housing for people made homeless is 94 percent done. Projects to develop elevated land for housing in coastal communities ruined by the tsunami are 80 percent finished.

Progress on reconstruction varies among the affected municipalities, however. Along with the degree of devastation from the disasters, choices made by municipal governments and local residents on how to rebuild their tsunami-ravaged land and communities have resulted in some mixed outcomes. For example, projects to build up land in tsunami-flooded coastal towns took time — and when they were finally completed, the number of former residents and shop proprietors who returned was significantly fewer than anticipated.

Reconstruction is a race against time — the longer it takes, the more difficult it is to restore the ravaged communities to what they were before the disasters. Iwanuma, a coastal city in southern Miyagi Prefecture, put priority on the speed of its reconstruction efforts and preserving the community ties of residents after the tsunami flooded nearly half of its area and damaged more than 5,000 houses. The municipal government was able to close all public shelters within three months of the tsunami, and residents evacuated to prefabricated temporary housing units — who numbered some 1,000 at peak — managed to vacate the units within five years. The city’s population of some 44,600 today is about 500 more than it was before the disasters.

In the Iwate town of Otsuchi, which lost more than 1,200 residents in the tsunami, construction of the public houses and apartments for survivors is only about 60 percent complete, and one out of 10 residents continues to live in temporary housing units. The loss of one-third of the town government workers in the tsunami is blamed for the delay of reconstruction projects. In Rikuzentakata, redevelopment of housing land is expected to take up to fiscal 2020 following time-consuming efforts to reach a consensus among more than 2,000 landowners. In Ishinomaki, Miyagi Prefecture, roughly 2,200 residents were still living in prefabricated housing units as of December, with nearly 300 of them having no prospects of moving to new houses or apartments.

These mixed results are the outcome of hard decisions made by local governments and residents under the tough circumstances of the post-3/11 period. The experiences of the municipalities and communities hit by the disasters, including what decisions they made and what they went through as a result, should be reviewed and shared by the national government so that the lessons drawn from the data can be utilized when the nation responds to future disasters. Preserving and disseminating the knowledge gained in the reconstruction from the 3/11 disasters should remain a key task of the national government even after the 10-year reconstruction period is over.

Another key mission for the government going forward will be to promote city planning, national land development and infrastructure building in ways that are resilient against natural disasters — so that damage from future disasters can be minimized. Through fiscal 2016, a total of nearly ¥32 trillion was spent on the post-3/11 reconstruction projects. Given the nation’s tight fiscal conditions, it’s not clear how much funding the government can secure should much-feared mega-quakes take place in the Nankai Trough off the Pacific coast and in the Tokyo metropolitan area and cause catastrophic damage.

Currently, the Cabinet Office is in charge of disaster management as a national government function. Mitigating the destruction caused by natural disasters — including the power to review and possibly order changes to city planning and land development projects from the viewpoint of minimizing damage — should be added to the function.