Improving the nation's resilience to disasters

As summed up by the choice of sai (meaning disaster) as the kanji of the year, Japan experienced a string of severe natural disasters last summer, ranging from big earthquakes in Osaka and Hokkaido to torrential rains that caused landslides and floods over broad areas of western Japan, a powerful typhoon that paralyzed Kansai International Airport and what was called a “disaster-level” heat wave that killed dozens of people across the country.

The government recently compiled an emergency three-year program worth ¥7 trillion to fix vulnerabilities in key infrastructure such as river embankments, roads and bridges, airports and power facilities to make them more resilient against big disasters. These efforts — which had been delayed as the government’s public works spending was trimmed — are indeed necessary. But priorities need to be set on projects that require urgent action so that the government’s limited financial resources can be used as efficiently as possible. Improvement must be made not only to physical infrastructure but also to operational aspects of the anti-disaster efforts — such as better communications and sharing of information with local residents to enable timely evacuations — to mitigate the impact of disasters.

In view of the havoc wreaked by the disasters this year, the government has identified 116 rivers across the country whose embankments need to be beefed up to avert flooding that could take a severe toll in human lives, and six airports located in coastal areas (Sendai, Haneda, Niigata, Kansai International, Nagasaki and Naha) whose seawalls and drainage need improving.

Factoring in the blackout that covered the entirety of Hokkaido following the big earthquake there in September, the program calls for measures to subsidize improvements to emergency power generators and the introduction of power-saving equipment at some 125 hospitals and emergency rescue centers that must operate around the clock in times of major disasters. It is estimated that these and other items on the list that the government expects to tackle in the years up to fiscal 2020 will cost some ¥7 trillion in total, with the national government covering roughly ¥3 trillion and the remainder by local governments and the private sector.

The government has reportedly identified these points of vulnerabilities after examining key infrastructure following the recent series of disasters, and found examples such as river embankments that aren’t high or strong enough to prevent flooding, major roads that could be buried by mudslides, and airports in coastal areas that have their power grids underground — including Kansai International Airport, which was paralyzed after it was flooded by a storm surge when the area was hit by the powerful typhoon in September.

Making key infrastructure more resilient against natural disasters will be crucial, particularly in areas where serious damage is feared. Priorities need to be set, however, so the infrastructures and facilities that are most urgently in need of upgrades can be quickly fixed. That is essential since the government’s fiscal resources are limited, as is manpower. Questions have already been raised as to whether all the work can be carried out within three years in the face of the construction industry’s severe labor shortage.

The effort to beef up infrastructure to better withstand disasters has limits; therefore it must be accompanied by efforts to improve the operation of anti-disaster systems. When torrential rains struck western Japan in July, many of the landslides and floods that caused a large numbers of fatalities happened in areas that had long been identified as being at risk for such damage. Nonetheless, the forecasts of heavy rainfall hitting the risk areas did not lead to the timely evacuation of many residents and as a result a large number of them died. Mechanisms to quickly share disaster information with residents, and to prompt and assist them to safely evacuate, must be implemented or improved.

The torrential rains that hit western Japan highlighted the risk that extreme weather conditions associated with global warming will become more frequent and result in conditions, including the flooding of rivers, that can cause severe damage. A recent study by University of Yamanashi associate professor Yasunori Hada showed that the number of households living in areas with potential risks of river flooding increased by 25 percent over the 20 years to 2015 due to an expansion of housing development in more affordable suburban areas as large-scale residential development in city centers became more difficult. People living in these areas need to be properly informed of the disaster risks in their neighborhood. Measures to regulate housing development in areas with high risks of flooding or landslides may need to be considered as part of the anti-disaster efforts.