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Sunday, March 11, 2012
Moving forward with reconstruction
A year has passed since the massive earthquake and tsunami wreaked havoc on the Pacific coastal areas of the Tohoku region on March 11, 2011, and many survivors continue to suffer from their devastating effects. The impact of the natural disasters was compounded by the subsequent nuclear crisis that occurred at Tokyo Electric Power Co.'s Fukushima No. 1 nuclear power plant.
Radioactive contamination forced some 113,000 Fukushima residents to evacuate their towns and villages, and many still cannot return home. Even residents outside the evacuation zones continue to contend with the dangers of radiation on a daily basis.
In carrying out the tasks needed for reconstruction, the government should uphold the basic tenet of the Basic Law for Reconstruction from the East Japan Great Earthquake.
Article One of that law says the government must push reconstruction efforts smoothly and promptly in order to "realize the rebirth of Japan full of vitality."
Citizens who were not directly affected by 3/11 must not forget the extent of the damage and suffering, and do what they can to provide support for the disaster victims. As of Friday, National Police Agency records show that the disasters claimed the lives of 15,854 people; 3,167 others remain missing. When those who died of illness or other causes after they were evacuated are included, the death toll reportedly rises to some 23,000.
Survivors of the 3/11 disasters not only lost their loved ones and homes but also the communities that contributed much to their identity and memories. In rebuilding communities, both the government and private sectors must take utmost care so that the newly built communities will be able to help nurture a sense of closeness among local residents.
The 3/11 disasters destroyed more than 370,000 buildings and damaged roads at nearly 4,000 points. The total damage is estimated at ¥16.9 trillion. The Reconstruction Agency was established on Feb. 10, and under the basic reconstruction policy, the government is to help rebuild Tohoku communities in a manner that will make them resilient to natural disasters, and to attract new investment and businesses to the region. The basic policy also says that municipal governments will play a central role in the reconstruction efforts and that the central government will provide them with financial help, manpower and know-how.
The central government must examine whether it is remaining true to the basic policy and whether it is flexibly responding to the demands of local governments and residents in Tohoku. It should sincerely listen to Miyagi Gov. Yoshihiro Murai's complaint that when the local governments in his prefecture asked the central government to accept their requests for reconstruction grants worth ¥499.1 billion, it only agreed to give ¥305.3 billion, some 39 percent less than what was requested.
The central government should also seriously consider the governor's proposal that decisions on what projects deserve reconstruction grants should be entrusted to local governments. In addition, it has been reported that in some cases more documents needed to be filled out to receive reconstruction grants than are required to receive ordinary subsidies from the central government. This process should be streamlined so reconstruction can be carried out in as timely a manner as possible.
To protect coastal communities from future tsunami damage, the central and local governments have been making efforts to relocate vulnerable households to higher ground. As of Wednesday, however, none of the affected municipalities has developed the necessary plans due to a number of problems including personnel shortages, a lack of consensus among residents — in part because of monetary and legal-rights issues -and in some cases a shortage of suitable highlands. The central government and local governments should work to facilitate progress on this front. It is important in particular to provide residents with sufficient information so they can reach informed opinions and develop a consensus.
While building new communities that are resilient to future disasters is important, the most pressing issue for local residents at the moment is unemployment. According to the health and labor ministry, some 70 percent of the 3,510 people in the disaster-hit areas whose right to unemployment insurance benefits expired on Feb. 17 have yet to find jobs. It is especially important that the central and local governments provide financial assistance to local small and medium-size firms so that they can weather these trying times and continue to provide much needed jobs.
The central and local governments also must make serious efforts to increase the number of medical professionals in the disaster-hit areas. Such efforts are especially needed in Fukushima Prefecture, where concerns about radiation have prompted a large number of medical workers to leave the prefecture.
The fact that a rapid population decrease is predicted for the Tohoku region makes efforts to rebuild all the more challenging. The central government must provide funds in an efficient manner to local governments that are struggling with reconstruction. Most importantly, the central and local governments must present local residents with clear visions and concrete goals for reconstruction to which they can feel inspired to dedicate their full energy.