Editorials

Ensure effective state spending to prevent disasters

The Board of Audit’s annual report on the use of the state budget highlights a number of cases in which government funding used to beef up measures against natural disasters has not produced sufficient results. While the report says that overall wasteful or inefficient use of taxpayer money in fiscal 2018 — ¥100.2 billion — was the second-lowest in a decade, the fact that state-funded projects designed to save people’s lives in major disasters are not properly executed should be taken seriously.

In response to the series of disasters that hit the nation this year, including deadly typhoons and the massive flooding they caused, the government plans to feature large-scale spending to improve disaster-prevention infrastructure as well as fund reconstruction of disaster areas in an economic stimulus package to be prepared soon. It is equally important to constantly monitor whether such measures already in place are having the intended effects.

The latest Board of Audit report focuses on the adequate use of state funds for disaster-related projects in view of the severe damage caused by typhoons and earthquakes in recent years. The report cites one case in which state-subsidized programs implemented by local governments to probe the durability of reservoirs — whose damage in torrential rains and earthquakes has caused flooding that endangered nearby residents — were conducted based on incorrect criteria. The deviation means necessary repairs may not have been made to facilities with a high risk of damage.

According to the report, control offices of expressway operators — which serve as command posts to keep expressways usable in times of major disasters — had placed roughly 20 percent of their emergency power generation facilities in locations deemed at high risk of flooding. While none of these facilities were knocked out of commission by the recent Typhoon Hagibis, some expressway interchanges — close to which many control offices are located — in Ibaraki and Nagano prefectures were inundated by floodwaters.

The report also highlights insufficient earthquake resistance among key government-funded infrastructure. It is required that power equipment to operate floodgates and drainage pumps at river control facilities and sewerage plants is tested to see if it can withstand the worst anticipated quake. But the Board of Audit found that no such tests have been conducted at about 60 percent of the facilities examined. Another survey of control facilities at dams and water-intake structures found that only about 10 percent of them were designed to survive a seismic shock of 6 or higher on the Japanese quake intensity scale of 7. Quake damage to control panels and switchboards at such facilities could render the dams and other structures uncontrollable, which, the board warned, could result in secondary disasters such as flooding.

In yet another example, the board noted that roughly 40 percent of large buildings like hotels, hospitals and condominiums that were identified by state-funded tests to need improvements in their quake-resilience have since been left unaddressed. Under legislation passed after the 2011 Great East Japan Earthquake, the national government provided grants to owners of large structures constructed under previous building standards to undergo quake-resistance tests, with the results to be reported to local authorities. But in a survey covering 5,000 structures on which such tests were conducted from 2013 to 2017, only 1,260 of the 3,789 buildings that were found to be at risk of collapse in a powerful quake have either been repaired or were undergoing repairs.

No repair work has been carried out on 1,536 buildings, while local governments have not confirmed whether any work has been carried out on the remaining 993 structures. Of the 1,536 buildings that have not been repaired, at least five years have passed since the tests showed that 426 need to be improved, while local governments have not issued any guidance or advice for repairs on roughly 30 percent of those structures.

Whenever the nation is hit by a major disaster, the shortcomings of infrastructure to defend people from harm become painfully clear. Scrutiny of past anti-disaster measures to see if they have had the intended effects will also be necessary, not just to check against inefficient use of taxpayer money, but also to verify whether they will be effective against future disasters.