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10% of Japan's water pipes past service life

Over 10 percent of all water pipes in Japan have aged past their legally designated 40-year service life, it has been learned.

    Many pipes that were laid in the 1970s are due to be replaced, but a shortage in revenue from water bills due to a declining population has delayed the renewal process. In the meantime, problems such as water pipes bursting continue, and the Ministry of Health, Labor and Welfare is considering countermeasures.

    Many water pipes were laid in the 1970s by associations representing local bodies and municipalities across Japan. By 1978, 90 percent of all areas were supplied. As of fiscal 2013, the total length of water pipes reached around 654,000 kilometers, and the rate of coverage stood at 97.7 percent.

    Under rules for implementing the Local Public Enterprise Act, the legally designated service life of water pipes is set at 40 years. Recently installed water pipes are more durable, with some said to last for 100 years, but those installed in the 1970s and before that are not as strong, and many of them are up for replacement.

    "There's a danger of old pipes bursting during a natural disaster such as an earthquake, so we need to replace them," commented a representative of the Water Supply Division of the Ministry of Health, Labor and Welfare's Health Service Bureau.

    The ministry analyzed statistics from the Japan Water Works Association and found that in fiscal 2006, 6 percent of all water pipes had surpassed their designated life. By fiscal 2013, that figure had risen to 10.5 percent, or some 68,000 kilometers of piping, marking the first time for it to top 10 percent. The same fiscal year, however, only around 5,200 kilometers of pipes, or about 0.79 percent of the total, were renewed. At this pace, the ministry predicts that 56 percent of water pipes will have surpassed their service life by fiscal 2043.

    The reason behind delays is that income from water bills has declined as a result of dwindling populations and the prevalence of water-saving equipment. Income from water bills peaked at about 2.5 trillion yen around 2000, but recently this has fallen to about 2.3 trillion yen.

    By area, Osaka Prefecture is in the worst standing, with 25 percent of pipes having exceeded their service life, followed by Yamaguchi Prefecture at 18 percent and Nara at 16.7 percent.

    An Osaka prefectural representative commented, "The laying of our water pipes went ahead at an early stage, so we have many old pipes. We're renewing 1 percent of our pipes each year, but there are local bodies that aren't proceeding with renewal because they lack the funds."

    In fiscal 2013, there were around 25,000 reported cases of trouble, including burst and leaking pipes. In October this year, the joints of piping that was laid in the Nara Prefecture city of Sakurai ruptured, leaving some 4,600 homes either without water or with murky water.

    In Nagasaki in November, a water pipe that was laid 45 years ago burst, sinking a road.

    The Ministry of Health, Labor and Welfare began discussing countermeasures in September in a meeting of experts. They plan to compile a report in the near future including measures to reinforce management through business integration with surrounding local bodies.

    Between fiscal 2009 and 2013, a total of 279 local bodies and associations faced with revenue shortages went ahead with price hikes in their water bills.

    The town of Kusu in Oita Prefecture, which has a population of about 16,400, will raise water fees by about 9 percent in April 2016, following earlier increases in 1998 and 2007. The town's waterworks division was 22 million yen in the red in fiscal 2014.

    "The drop in revenue due to the population decline is serious," a town representative said. "There has also been an increase in water leaks due to aging of pipes. If things remain unchanged, we won't be able to maintain our water supply business."

    The Shizuoka Prefecture city of Fuji, which has boasted of having Japan's cheapest water prices, will in April 2016 hike prices by 32 percent, marking the first increase in 19 years. Not only has revenue from water bills dropped, but manpower costs have increased following the March 2011 Great East Japan Earthquake and tsunami, pushing up the cost of renewal and reinforcement of facilities against earthquakes.

    "To avoid going into deficit, it can't be helped," a local official said.

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