KURASHIKI, JAPAN (REUTERS, AFP) – Japan risks more severe weather and must find ways to alleviate disasters, a government spokesman said on Thursday (July 12), as intense heat and water shortages raised fear of disease among survivors of its worst weather disaster in 36 years.
Torrential rain that struck western Japan a week ago caused floods and landslides, killing 200 people, many in communities that have existed for decades on mountain slopes and flood plains largely untroubled by storms.
But severe weather has been battering the country more regularly in recent years, raising questions about the impact of global warming. Dozens of people were killed in a similar disaster last year.
“It’s an undeniable fact that this sort of disaster due to torrential, unprecedented rain is becoming more frequent in recent years,” Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga told a news conference in Tokyo.
Saving lives was the government’s biggest duty, he said.
“We recognise that there’s a need to look into steps we can take to reduce the damage from disasters like this even a little bit,” he said. He did not elaborate on what steps the government could take.
Television footage showed dozens of rescuers, including troops, removing massive rocks with mechanical diggers from houses buried in landslides.
Rescuers were also manually shovelling dirt to search for missing people.
More than 200,000 households had no water a week after disaster struck and many thousands of people were homeless. With temperatures ranging from 31 to 34 deg C and high humidity, life in school gymnasiums and other evacuation centres, where families spread out on mats on the floors, began to take a toll.
Television footage showed one elderly woman trying to sleep by kneeling across a folding chair, arms over her eyes to keep out the light.
With few portable fans in evacuation centres, many survivors waved paper fans to keep cool. Tight water supplies meant that people were not getting enough fluids and in danger of suffering from heat-stroke, the authorities said.
“Without water, we can’t really clean anything up. We can’t wash anything,” one man told NHK television.
The government has sent out water trucks but supplies remain limited.
Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, on a visit to Kurashiki city, promised to provide help as soon as possible. He is set to visit two other hard-hit areas on Friday and the weekend.
More than 70,000 military, police and firefighters toiled through the debris in a search for bodies. Teams used diggers and chainsaws to clear landslides and cut away wreckage of buildings and trees.
Many areas were buried deep in mud that smelled like sewage and had hardened in the heat.
With around 60 people still feared missing, the local authorities said they would continue searching house by house looking for survivors, or victims.
"The critical 72 hours have passed," said Mutsunari Imawaka, an official with Okayama prefecture, one of the worst-hit regions.
"But we will continue our search, believing there are still survivors," he told news agency Agence France-Presse.
He said at least 18 people were missing in Okayama alone, and that several thousand people were checking houses across the region.
Mr Abe, who cancelled a foreign trip as the death toll rose this week, brushed aside criticism of the response during a trip to Okayama on Wednesday.
"We have done our best since the disaster happened," local media quoted him as saying.
On Thursday, he pledged to ramp up help for affected areas and said the government had secured around 71,000 temporary homes for evacuees.
"Looking ahead, as we are expecting a massive amount of disaster-generated waste, I plan to send a team to each prefecture to support" cleanup efforts, Abe said, according to footage of a morning meeting broadcast on local television.
The government has already said it will set aside around US$20 million (S$27 million) for the relief effort and Abe said there would be financial support for local governments to help with the reconstruction effort.
WATER, POWER SHORTAGES
Abe, who is expected to visit another disaster-affected area on Friday, said the government would "do everything we can so that people will not have to continue living in uncomfortable situations in shelters".
Around 10,000 people whose homes were buried by landslides or submerged in flood waters are still in shelters.
Even some of those whose homes were not destroyed are struggling with water and electricity shortages.
Military vehicles are being used to bring drinking water to areas without supplies, and a steady stream of volunteers have been signing up to help the cleanup operation or offer donations.
The scale of the disaster means the process of returning to normal life will be slow, officials said.
"We don't know how long the recovery will take," said Okayama official Imawaka.
"The roads and water systems are damaged, so it's hard to predict at this moment."
And the authorities warned against the ongoing risk of landslides, with rain forecast in some areas on Thursday, as well as heatstroke in other places where temperatures approached 35 deg C.