Japan disaster spawns an industry

Following the 2011 Fukushima quake, the Kochi region has emerged as a centre for disaster mitigation technology and expertise.

A landscape photo of Tosashimizu city in Kochi Prefecture in Japan’s southern island of Shikoku. Jiji Press / AFP
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KOCHI PREFECTURE, JAPAN // In 2011 a magnitude 9 earthquake caused a huge tsunami that slammed into Japan’s Honshu Island, devastating the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant and killing tens of thousands of people.

The costs related to the atomic meltdown alone are staggering – and rising.

Japan’s government last month nearly doubled its projections for costs related to the Fukushima nuclear catastrophe to ¥21.5 trillion (Dh690.52bn), increasing pressure on the plant’s operator Tokyo Electric Power Company, know as Tepco, to step up reform and improve its performance.

The new projection, part of a recommendation from a government panel considering the future of Tepco and Fukushima, also calls for ¥7.9tn in reparations, up from ¥5.4tn, and ¥5.6tn for the treatment and storage of contaminated soil, up from ¥3.6tn.

“For now, we don’t expect the costs to increase further, but new developments and unforeseen factors mean there is a chance they could go higher,” economy, trade and industry minister Hiroshige Seko said.

The tsunami is believed to have been the most expensive natural disaster in Japan's history, so far costing an estimated US$300 billion, according to International Business Times. The eventual death toll was over 15,800, with another 2,500 missing. Further to this, 45,700 buildings and 230,000 vehicles were destroyed.

One region of Japan has taken steps to mitigate the cost, both human and structural, of a future tidal wave.

Kochi Prefecture has striven to prevent damage to houses and buildings in case of an earthquake and tsunami, and make sure people in potential disaster areas can not only find shelter but also have food and basic equipment while awaiting aid.

Kochi Prefecture, with a capital of the same name, is located on the south coast of Shikoku, the smallest and least populous of the four main islands of Japan.

In the western part of Japan, the plate boundary is marked by an underwater trench called the Nankai Trough, passing just south of Shikoku island. A large earthquake has struck the Nankai Trough every 100 to 150 years.

In August 2012, the Japanese government, based on the experience of the Tohoku earthquake, as the Fukushima quake itself is known, estimated a worst case scenario of 320,000 dead throughout Japan and ¥220tn in damages from a major Nankai Trough earthquake.

In a bid to reduce that figure, the Kochi prefectural government has encouraged earthquake-resistant improvements to homes, and as of the end of March 2016, 77 per cent of homes had been made earthquake resistant.

Among other measures, the government has built tsunami evacuation towers. These are steel and reinforced concrete buildings, built in areas where there is no high ground or tall buildings, for people to escape to in an emergency.

The prefecture began building them in 2013, and has completed 90 of the 115 it plans to construct, says the Nankoku City crisis management department chief Manabu Nomura. A total of 14 towers have been built in Nankoku, a city in the east-central part of the prefecture, financed 50-50 by the city authorities and the prefecture, at an average of ¥100 million per tower, Mr Nomura says.

The towers, which are fitted out with provisions and basic survival equipment, do not have doors and are open to residents, who can enter at any time.

The food and equipment such as torches and cooking facilities, are locked in specially-designed storage rooms that automatically open in the event of an earthquake of magnitude 5 or more.

So residents can get well acquainted with them, the towers are used for local festivals and firework displays. Evacuation drills focused on the towers are also regularly carried out by locals, Mr Nomura says.

The biggest towers’ top two storeys can hold up to 565 people each, and 115 in the smallest tower’s top two storeys. Each is no more than about five minutes on foot for people within a 300 metre radius from the tower, Mr Nomura says. The Ominatosho-Minami Tower, for example, is built right beside an elementary school and a nursery school.

“It would take 37 minutes for a tsunami to get to this tower,” Mr Nomura says.

Because of the destructive power of a tsunami, the piles supporting the towers have been dug deep into the earth, at 39 metres for the deepest towers, and 14.5 metres in the case of the Ominatosho-Minami Tower, Mr Nomura says. “[Capacity to dig deep] depends on the hardness of the ground,” he says.

Similar but more basic escape towers have been built elsewhere in Japan, including in Hamamatsu city, Shizuoka Prefecture.

In addition to the Kochi towers, small shelters in which four adults and two children can remain comfortably while waiting for rescue or for the waters to recede have also been placed at strategic points across the prefecture, and evacuation routes to towers and sites in the mountains have been laid out.

“With all these measures, we have been able to decrease the number of expected deaths in the prefecture resulting from an earthquake and tsunami from 42,000 to 14,000,” says the Kochi governor Masanao Ozaki.

Besides the risks of earthquakes and tsunami, Kochi Prefecture has the second-highest number of typhoons that make landfall in Japan. With an annual rainfall 1.6 times the national average, Kochi Prefecture has experienced many large-scale wind and water disasters. “You may think that these risks are weaknesses, but you can turn them into strengths,” Mr Ozaki says.

Many companies in the prefecture manufacture products designed for disaster prevention, and the Kochi prefectural government has been promoting them not only within the country but also abroad.

In order to support both outside sales and local production and consumption of “Made in Kochi Prefecture” disaster prevention products and technology, the prefectural government has established a system to certify products that pass quality and safety tests as “Disaster Prevention Related Products of Kochi Prefecture”, with 116 products currently registered.

Among these are canned fish made by Kuroshio Cannery in Kuroshio City, and a water steriliser manufactured by Kowatec Corporation in Nankoku.

Mr Ozawa has accompanied teams promoting his prefecture’s disaster prevention products to other disaster-prone countries, going to Indonesia in November 2015, the Philippines last September and Taiwan the following month.

The Kochi government’s ultimate goal is to bring the worst-case scenario of deaths from the Nankai Trough earthquake down to 1,800, Mr Ozawa says. Emphasising that the prefecture now spends an annual ¥440bn on disaster prevention, 10 per cent of its budget, compared with less than ¥220bn before the 2011 earthquake, he says the challenge now is to build more earthquake-proof housing.

“We have a subsidy system for that,” Mr Ozawa says.

There are three goals for disaster management: protecting lives; protecting property; and ensuring continuation of daily and commercial activities, says Norio Maki, a professor at Kyoto University and a member of the university’s Disaster Prevention Research Institute.

Kochi Prefecture should now work on effecting measures to assure continuation of daily and commercial life following a devastating earthquake and tsunami, Mr Maki says. “That means that it should work on preparing recovery from disaster,” he says.

One of the prefecture’s strong points is that it has experience with disasters. Another is that it has worked hard to turn its disaster protection products into businesses, Mr Maki says. “They promote those products in Japan and other Asian countries,” he says.

For his part, Makoto Okamura, who teaches seismic geology at Kochi University’s faculty of science, lauds the prefecture for constructing the evacuation towers, which he considers the most important feature of all the anti-disaster measures.

A member of his university’s Center for Disaster Prevention Promotion, Mr Okamura also thinks the prefecture achieved good results in promoting tsunami and earthquake awareness in schools. However, such education for adults is absent, so their knowledge is very limited, he says.

“The prefecture should support disaster education in the workplace,” Mr Okumura says.