The Japanese don't want to merely recreate what existed before the tsunami. They want to incorporate ‘disaster-resilience' as a key element in reconstruction.

Eight months have passed since that fateful March 11 when the earth heaved and produced the most powerful earthquake recorded in Japan. But it was the gigantic tsunami, which came roaring ashore about 40 minutes later, that caused the greatest damage and loss of life. The tragedy was compounded when radioactive substances began to spew out of the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear plant as some of the reactors there could not be safely shut down.

Japan, says its government, is now well on the road to recovery. Places at the heart of the disaster were still struggling, agreed Shinichi Nishimiya, Deputy Minister for Foreign Affairs. However, in many places, even in the affected areas, more so outside them, “Japan is back to where it has been before the disaster.”

The supply chain disruptions in manufacturing had been sorted out and production was back on track, he told a group of Asian journalists, including this correspondent, who visited Japan recently at the government's invitation. The International Monetary Fund expected the country's economy to grow at 2.3 per cent in 2012, probably the highest among developed nations, he said.

But the enormous task of bringing back lost livelihoods and restoring communities torn asunder by the calamity lies ahead. The worst hit are the three prefectures of Iwate, Miyagi and Fukushima in a part of northern Japan known as Tohoku. (The country is administratively divided into 47 prefectures.)

Official statistics put the number of those killed or missing at over 20,000. Some 3,00,000 homes were completely or partially destroyed. More than 1,24,000 people became evacuees — forced to flee and live elsewhere.

About 23,600 hectares of prime farmland was rendered uncultivable by the tsunami. Fisheries and fish-processing industries, a major source of jobs in the coastal areas of Tohoku, have been wrecked.

Many of those who left their homes did so because of the high radiation levels caused by the problems at the Fukushima plant. The number of evacuees from the 20-km no-go ‘restricted area' around the plant came to “several tens of thousands,” according to Koichi Shiraga, director for International Public Relations at the Nuclear and Industrial Safety Agency.

Some 78,000 people had been living in the restricted zone. More towns and villages outside the 20-km zone, where about 10,000 people were staying, also had to be evacuated after the winds blew a plume of radioactive material into the area.

Rebuilding the regions laid waste by the tsunami will itself be quite a challenge. The Central government's ‘Reconstruction Headquarters in response to the Great East Japan Earthquake,' a body created to oversee and coordinate the process, estimates that it could take 10 years and cost 23 trillion yen (over Rs. 14 trillion). Over 80 per cent of that money would need to be expended over the next five years. This does not include the costs imposed by the nuclear accident, according to Yoshio Ando, a counsellor at the Reconstruction Headquarters.

This time round, the Japanese don't want to merely recreate what existed earlier. They want to incorporate ‘disaster-resilience' as a key element in reconstruction.

Just a month after the disaster, the Cabinet appointed an “advisory panel of intellectual figures” to formulate broad guidelines to guide reconstruction. In a report submitted to the Prime Minister in June, the panel, known as the Reconstruction Design Council, observed: “As we engage in reconstruction, a concept of ‘disaster reduction' will be paramount. Such a concept should not be based on the premise that a large-scale natural disaster can be completely contained, but rather that the damage from such a natural disaster should be minimised.”

An extensive system of breakwaters and seawalls had earlier been established to protect many coastal communities from a tsunami. But the tremendous damage caused by the towering waves this year “taught us a lesson that any preventive measure can be overwhelmed” when a major disaster struck, said Mr. Ando.

One proposal for making communities less vulnerable to a future tsunami is to move homes and core urban functions to safer locations on higher ground. The areas near the coast could be used instead for agriculture and fisheries and fish-processing that could not be relocated. Other ideas include having high-rise evacuation buildings that could offer refuge as well as dikes and levees to reduce the impact of the waves.

While the Central government could provide technical assistance and financial support, it was up to the local authorities to decide how best to implement the guidelines for reconstruction in their area, said Mr. Ando.

Ishinomaki city in the northeast, with a population of about 1,62,000, is perhaps symbolic of communities across coastal Tohoku that were wrecked by the tsunami. Nearly 4,000 of this city's residents were killed or are still missing. About 70 per cent of the houses were completely or partly destroyed. Deputy Mayor Etsuro Kitamura gave the visiting journalists an idea of the magnitude of the problems.

“We have this huge amount of debris to clean up,” amounting to an estimated six million tonnes, he pointed out. It included the mud and sand brought by the encroaching waves as well as rubbish and rubble from the buildings that crumbled or were damaged. The total debris was equivalent to a century of garbage that the city would normally have produced. Just getting rid of all of it could cost about 200 billion yen.

Providing jobs was another major concern. “We estimate that about 30,000 people lost their jobs,” he said. “We are facing the challenge of reviving fisheries and the fish-processing industry” that were ruined. The paper and pulp industry, another major employer, too was badly affected. Only about half of the 2,200 hectares of agricultural land affected with salinity was made cultivable again.

“What we can do right now is provide temporary jobs,” such as the cleaning up operations. The hope was temporary jobs would help people pull on long enough for industries to recover and provide better employment opportunities, Mr. Kitamura said. He is not alone in worrying about what the tragedy might do to industries and jobs in the region. “As a result of the current disaster, there is the possibility that Japan will see the ‘hollowing out' of its industries,” warned the Reconstruction Design Council in its report. Companies could relocate their offices overseas, resulting in a loss of employment.

The Central government intends establishing a “Special Zone for Reconstruction” to help the disaster-afflicted regions with tax and financial incentives as well as greater flexibility in land use. This was ‘a crisis in the midst of a crisis,' occurring as it did when the country was already facing economic stagnation and other problems. So, the government feels that “the nation must restart efforts to revitalise Japan in order to support the reconstruction of east Japan and address issues that already existed before the earthquake.”

But government aid should not go only to large companies, observed Hiroyuki Takeuchi, who heads theIshinomaki Hibi Shinbun, a local newspaper. Many small and medium companies in Ishinomaki could not reopen without such assistance. People who had worked in these companies were suffering as a result.

Then there is the mess in and around the Fukushima nuclear plant that has to be dealt with. The government intends to decommission the four troubled nuclear reactors and decontaminate the radiation-affected areas in its vicinity so that people can return one day.

A post by David Cyranoski on journalNature's blog says the decontamination process could involve the removal of over 100 million cubic metres of soil and debris. The Japan Atomic Energy Agency is said to have selected three major decontamination demonstration projects as well as 25 smaller projects to develop technology to make the process more efficient.

All this will take time and cost money. A Reuters report quoted Prime Minister Yoshihiko Noda as saying the clean-up would require at least $13 billion (which would work out to about one trillion yen or about Rs 650 billion). Environment Minister Goshi Hosono, who also has the responsibility of dealing with the nuclear accident, told reporters recently that dismantling the reactors could take 30 years. For Japan, the road to full recovery stretches ahead.

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