Editorials

Beefing up the government's disaster response

The Reconstruction Agency was launched 7 ½ years ago to facilitate efforts to rebuild areas ravaged by the March 2011 Great East Japan Earthquake during the initial 10-year intensive reconstruction period. Upon recommendation by the ruling coalition parties, the government reportedly plans to revise relevant laws next year to extend its legally mandated term beyond March 2021.

The decision to keep the agency in operation seems to make sense given that the reconstruction efforts are only halfway finished. Still, simply keeping the organization on its current mission will not address the question of how to beef up the government’s disaster prevention, disaster response and reconstruction functions in an integrated manner — a challenge that is all the more urgent as more catastrophic mega-disasters are anticipated in the future.

The agency was set up in early 2012 as an organization directly under the prime minister’s control to serve as command post for the reconstruction efforts. It functions as a liaison between the national government and disaster-hit prefectures and municipalities, and distributes grants to finance the reconstruction projects.

That the agency is to maintain operations beyond the 10-year period after the disasters is proof that much is left to be done in rebuilding the areas impacted by the earthquake and tsunami as well as the Fukushima nuclear disaster. Infrastructure ruined by the tsunami that struck Tohoku’s Pacific coast has been steadily rebuilt, including new roads along the Sanriku coast. The JR Joban Line is scheduled to resume full operation next year for the first time since 2011.

On the other hand, a sharp exodus of people from the disaster-hit areas has reduced local housing demand, and many of the land plots redeveloped in the reconstruction projects are vacant. More than seven years on, roughly 50,000 people remain displaced from their homes due to the effects of the Fukushima nuclear disaster. The decommissioning of Tokyo Electric Power Holding Co.’s crippled No. 1 plant will take 30 to 40 years. Keeping the agency in operation beyond March 2021 should demonstrate a political commitment to follow through on the reconstruction efforts and serve as a message to those affected by the disasters that support for them will continue on a long-term basis.

In earlier discussions over the future of the Reconstruction Agency, however, there were calls that it should be restructured into an organization that will take charge of the government’s functions to prepare for, respond to and mitigate the damage of big disasters, and facilitate the reconstruction of affected areas. The National Governors’ Association called for the creation of what it called a disaster-prevention ministry, while Komeito, a junior partner in the ruling coalition, at one point advocated establishing a reconstruction and disaster prevention agency. In its recommendations to the government in early August, the Liberal Democratic Party-Komeito coalition also called for beefing up the government’s system for preventing big disasters, emergency response, rescue and reconstruction efforts.

Currently the Reconstruction Agency wouldn’t play such a role when a new mega-disaster hits Japan. If a major earthquake hits in the Nankai Trough off the Pacific coast or directly beneath Tokyo, as is feared, new legislation must be enacted to create a new organization to take charge of reconstruction efforts. When deadly earthquakes hit Kumamoto three years ago and Hokkaido last year, there were calls in the affected areas for a national government organization to aid and coordinate local reconstruction efforts.

In addition to the big earthquakes that have caused extensive damage in recent years, the threat posed by typhoons and torrential rains has been intensifying as extreme weather becomes more frequent and causes river flooding and landslides that take heavy toll on lives. We need to learn from the lessons of the Great East Japan Earthquake and the knowhow accumulated with the Reconstruction Agency to build a system that enables prompt reconstruction after big disasters.

Big natural disasters bring a broad range of damage throughout wide areas, from the destruction of buildings and houses to traffic disruption, paralysis of social infrastructure such as when power outages render computers unusable and cut internet access, economic damage from the disruption to supply chains, and so on. It should be explored whether there is enough government manpower dedicated to improving the nation’s disaster-preparedness, responding to disasters and mitigating their damage, and facilitating prompt reconstruction in the wake of disasters. Along with extending the mission of the Reconstruction Agency, how the government can better cope with major disasters should be on the policy agenda.

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