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Editorial: Give priority to putting disaster victims' lives back in order

Efforts to restore regions hit by the Great East Japan Earthquake, tsunami and ensuing nuclear crisis and the livelihoods of residents in affected areas have come to the crossroads as March 11 marks the fifth anniversary of the triple disasters. The government is ending its intensive reconstruction period and is poised to implement a new policy to support disaster-ravaged areas.

    About 30 percent of communities ravaged by tsunami have completed their relocation to higher ground, but there are many areas that face harsh realities, such as depopulation and the aging of society. It is necessary to consider what is needed to support the livelihoods of disaster victims.

    Newly built houses are lined in a residential area developed on a hilly area in the Koizumi district of southern Kesennuma, Miyagi Prefecture, which faces the Pacific coast.

    Residents of the Koizumi district, hit hard by the tsunami, began consultations on relocation of their entire neighborhood to higher ground shortly after the disasters. The construction of the new residential area based on advice from scholars is viewed as a model of local resident-led regional development.

    However, some unexpected problems have surfaced over the past five years. Some people unable to wait for the development of the new residential area acquired land lots in other areas while others left their hometown. Koizumi residents had initially planned to develop 90 land lots but actually created 65. Some 17 of them remain unsold.

    The biggest problem for residents of the area is that little progress has been made on efforts to attract shops to their neighborhood, forcing residents to go far away for shopping. Many households in reconstruction housing units in the same district comprise of elderly people. Shigeaki Oikawa, who served as a coordinator in the relocation of the neighborhood, says, "Government organizations should pay closer attention to securing means of transportation for us."

    Over the five-year intensive reconstruction period, the national government set aside 26 trillion yen for disaster recovery efforts. In particular, the central government has characterized relocation of neighborhoods devastated by tsunami to inland areas or higher ground and land elevation and readjustment projects as the core of what it calls "creative reconstruction." Projects to relocate tsunami-hit neighborhoods to higher ground materialized in many areas because the central government agreed to fully foot the cost of such relocations.

    In some regions, such relocation projects were carried out smoothly thanks to in-depth discussions among local residents, like one in Iwanuma, Miyagi Prefecture. Projects to relocate whole neighborhoods hit by tsunami to higher ground have played a certain role in maintaining these communities.

    In many other areas, however, such relocation projects were not carried out as planned. Many residents were forced to abandon moving to new neighborhoods as time went by. As a result, the number of households covered by these projects in all the disaster-ravaged areas decreased by some 8,000 from approximately 28,000 as initially planned.

    Many coastal areas in the Tohoku region have been suffering from depopulation and the aging of their populations for many years. The Great East Japan Earthquake, tsunami and the nuclear crisis have further contributed to the outflow of younger people. According to the latest census, all municipalities in coastal areas of Iwate Prefecture saw their populations shrink from pre-disaster periods. In Miyagi Prefecture, the populations in Onagawa and Minamisanriku among other municipalities decreased sharply.

    Some neighborhoods that relocated to higher ground or inland areas are just like marginal villages because there are few young residents. Serious questions remain as to whether these neighborhoods will be able to maintain their communities in the long run.

    It is expected to take a considerable amount of time to complete large-scale projects to elevate land in the Iwate Prefecture city of Rikuzentakata and other areas. One cannot help but wonder whether it is appropriate to force residents of these areas to live in temporary housing for more than five years while waiting until the elevation work is completed. The national government should scrutinize whether it could have shown residents sufficient options regarding reconstruction methods that suit the situation of each area.

    The government should be aware that many residents face difficulties in putting their livelihoods back in order because the reconstruction of their housing has been delayed. Officials regard the next five years as a period when the government will aim to complete its disaster recovery efforts. However, much of the 6.5 trillion yen that will be set aside for recovery efforts over that period will be used for building infrastructure, such as storm surge barriers and roads.

    The central government should shift its disaster recovery efforts from public works projects to livelihood assistance and the creation of new industries. Projects for building large-scale storm surge barriers with the aim of blocking tsunami, which stirred controversy over landscape conservation, are being delayed because of a shortage of construction materials and soaring personnel costs. The necessary height of such levees should be flexibly reviewed.

    Priority should be placed on efforts to create new jobs and maintain regional communities. Even if communities in disaster areas are urged to be independent and self-reliant, this would not sufficiently tap the latent strength of regional communities. Private-sector ideas are becoming more important under such efforts rather than assistance that the central and local governments extend to disaster-ravaged areas.

    There are good examples of efforts to revitalize the economies in disaster areas. In Ishinomaki, Miyagi Prefecture, "Ishinomaki 2.0," an organization made up of local residents and those from other prefectures, is promoting the revitalization of the local economy. The organization is aiming to build better neighborhoods than the pre-disaster period under the slogan, "We never think of restoring our town to the pre-3.11 (March 11) situation."

    Specifically, the group is carrying out projects to support young people's efforts to start businesses in the city after they visited the area to participate in volunteer activities and promoting exchanges between these young people. Architect Tsukasa Nishida, 40, a resident of Yokohama who is involved in the group's activities, says, "Participation of young people living outside is necessary for disaster recovery."

    Young people who have moved to the Karakuwa Peninsula in Kesennuma, Miyagi Prefecture, from various other areas have launched a project to revitalize the local economy. Close attention should be paid to these activities even though they are still small-scale.

    Use of vacant lots and vacant rooms in newly developed residential areas on higher ground and reconstruction housing will likely pose a challenge. It is necessary to consider allowing young people, who are interested in the reconstruction of disaster-ravaged areas, to move into these vacant lots and rooms. Such efforts will help maintain communities in these areas.

    The situation of disaster-hit regions that suffer from depopulation and the aging of their populations reflect Japan's future. The government as well as the general public should take the reconstruction of disaster-ravaged areas as a task for the entire nation and support such efforts from a long-term perspective.

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