FROM THE ARCHIVES: Ghost towns trapped in red tape two years after disaster in Japan

This story first appeared in The Straits Times on March 11, 2013

FUKUSHIMA CITY - Bureaucratic red tape and lack of skilled manpower are holding up the reconstruction of disaster-hit areas of Japan's Tohoku (north-east) region, even two years after it was slammed by giant tremors and tsunami waves.

Former nuclear plant worker Yasunori Hashimoto, 72, and his wife are still living in temporary housing after their house in Odaka district of Minami-Soma city, just 30m from the sea, was washed away by tsunami waves.

"We are waiting for the local government to take action, but nothing has been done so far. Because of this, we cannot make any plans, such as selling our land," he said.

Many of the tsunami-ravaged townships may be destined to lie vacant for years, said observers.

In coastal areas of the three worst-hit prefectures of Iwate, Miyagi and Fukushima, many communities have seen an outflow of workers to other parts of the country due to the lack of jobs.

A survey by the leading Asahi Shimbun daily of 42 townships in the affected areas found that half expect it will take six to 10 years for things to return to normal.

Though major infrastructure and public services in Tohoku have mostly been restored, even now, some 320,000 evacuees are forced to live in temporary housing due to delays in building permanent homes for them.

Problems include the difficulty of finding suitable locations on high ground for housing projects and sorting out mortgage rights.

Many municipalities also lack officials capable of drawing up relocation projects and overseeing their execution.

Municipalities in the three affected prefectures said they need to borrow an additional 1,490 staff, including officials with experience in handling construction projects, from other local authorities. But so far, only half that number has been secured. Engineers, architects and city planners are also badly needed.

Fukushima prefecture has an additional problem - the tsunami-stricken Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant, the decommissioning of which will take years.

Declared unsafe due to high radiation, communities within a 30km radius of the plant turned into ghost towns, with their residents gone.

"Because of the radiation from the power plant, people evacuated over a wide area, making the situation very complex," said Professor Hiroshi Suzuki, who chairs Fukushima prefecture's reconstruction committee.

Prime Minister Shinzo Abe has vowed to speed up reconstruction by getting the central government to take the lead, rather than leaving decision-making to the local authorities as the previous government had done.

Money is not a problem. The previous government earmarked 19 trillion yen over five years for reconstruction. The current government has upped that figure to 25 trillion yen (S$325 billion).

But Mr Abe has been criticised for allowing part of the money to be used for public works projects nationwide under the name of disaster prevention.

The scarcity of jobs in Tohoku remains unsolved, prompting an exodus of young people in particular to other regions.

Government incentives aimed at encouraging firms to invest in Tohoku are not working as well as hoped. Many new factories are being built in safer inland areas rather than close to devastated areas.

Another major concern is the hold-up in removing huge mountains of quake debris, which are obstacles to reconstruction.

The government had planned to dispose of all such debris by next year. But as of January this year, Iwate prefecture has managed to get rid of only 24 per cent of its share. Miyagi has done a little better at 31 per cent. But Fukushima has removed only 12 per cent.


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