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Devastating floods, landslides a big blow to regional economies

Work to remove earth and sand is underway near Seno Station on the JR Sanyo Line, in Aki Ward in the city of Hiroshima on July 13, 2018. (Mainichi)

The widespread flooding and landslide damage triggered by torrential rains in western Japan has disrupted public transport systems and distribution networks, while seriously damaging agriculture, forestry and fisheries industries, dealing a serious blow to regional economies in areas around the Seto Inland Sea and elsewhere.

Among the transport systems in the affected regions, JR Sanyo Line suffered the most serious damage, with restoration of services at some sections expected to take at least a month, mainly in Hiroshima and Yamaguchi prefectures. Cargo and passenger transport disruptions would also affect other regions, hindering efforts to bring regional economies back to normal.

"It's supposed to be the busy season right after the end of the rainy season," lamented an official of a major beverage company, which had planned to ship beer and other drinks from the Kansai region to Kyushu using Japan Freight Railway Co. (JR Freight) on July 9, the first business day after the outbreak of the rain disaster. With temperatures soaring and consumer demand for cold drinks rising, any delivery delays can be detrimental to business. The official hastily changed the truck transport schedules of the firm's subsidiary to make up for the railway network glitch.

Freight trains have recently come under the spotlight for their eco-friendly nature compared to truck transport, prompting many companies to turn to railway transport through a "modal shift." According to JR Freight, the volume of transport passing through Hiroshima Kamotsu Terminal Station in the city of Hiroshima increased by around 10 percent to some 25,000 metric tons per day in normal times compared to five years ago. Faced by chronic truck driver shortages, four major breweries had just adopted a joint railway transport scheme this past April to ship products between the Kansai and Kyushu regions. However, the recent rain disaster damage to regional railway systems has forced them to switch back to truck transport for the time being. "It would be a hassle to keep counting on the alternative transport means," the official said.

The disruptions in railway networks have also seriously affected parcel delivery services. Sagawa Express Co., which uses train services for long-distance transport, has stopped accepting parcels destined for Kyushu from eastern Japan. Although the company is looking into alternative transport measures, "There are no prospects of resuming the services anytime soon," said a public relations official, citing a number of physical challenges such as securing enough vehicles and drivers.

Although JR Freight began offering alternative truck transport on July 12, the volume of transport is about 10 percent of that by train and it takes more time than usual. Amid such circumstances, transport companies in the Kansai region have been flooded with requests to take over freight that was supposed to be carried by JR trains. JR Freight has also begun looking into using the Sanin Line on the Sea of Japan coast, but that option faces difficulties such as a lack of electrification at some sections.

Meanwhile, the rain disaster also wreaked havoc on expressways, suspending up to around 2,000 kilometers of road sections at one point. The Sanyo Expressway still has some areas suspended, with workers scrambling to fully restore damaged sections. General roads in disaster-hit areas are also witnessing heavy traffic jams even when they have no damage.

Mazda Motor Corp. was forced to suspend its plant operations in Fuchu, Hiroshima Prefecture, and elsewhere until July 11. Although there was no major damage to the facilities, paralyzed traffic disrupted employee commutes and auto part procurements.

"Serious damage was seen in areas that lacked bypass functions," said Hideyuki Araki, chief researcher at Resona Research Institute Co. "Severed transport networks can not only damage corporate supply networks but also hinder disaster recovery efforts in regional areas. It is necessary to review priorities in developing public transport systems by taking cost-effectiveness into consideration."

Many farmers in areas affected by the downpours were in a state of shock after seeing the damage inflicted to their produce.

"I had never seen the river this swollen before," said Masami Kenmotsu, 74, a farmer in Soja, Okayama Prefecture. "I was just about to harvest my main product, 'Shimizu Hakuto' peaches, but the trees were knocked down."

His orchard was ravaged by muddy streams from the swollen Takahashi River, with driftwood swept from upstream strewn about. Shimizu Hakuto is a local specialty of Okayama Prefecture, known as a premium brand. "I must work hard to restore my orchard, little by little," Kenmotsu said, placing his hand on a leaning peach tree.

About 20 farmers in the same district had grapes in greenhouses and other products washed away by the flooding or suffered other damage.

Farmer Masami Kenmotsu stares at one of his peach trees in his orchard in Soja, Okayama Prefecture. (Mainichi)

Okayama Prefecture is also known for producing yellow chive and coriander. In the Tamagashi and Musa districts in Okayama's Kita Ward, both leading producers of these vegetables, most fields were submerged underwater. According to Teruyoshi Ueda, 43, who grows yellow chive and coriander, floodwater had reached almost 3 meters high at one point. "Both types of the vegetables in my fields were damaged," he said.

According to a local chapter of the Japan Agricultural Cooperatives and the Okayama Prefectural Government, a large number of peach and other orchard trees fell due to landslides and flooding in Okayama Prefecture. In the Mabicho district of Kurashiki, where wide areas were submerged underwater, rice paddies were covered by earth and sand.

In neighboring Hiroshima Prefecture, summer vegetables such as tomatoes and eggplants were damaged in the middle of their high shipping seasons, while some 12,000 chickens died due to landslides in the city of Mihara. In Ehime Prefecture across the Seto Inland Sea, known as a major citrus producer, orchard trees were knocked down by landsides in wide areas of the Nanyo region, including the city of Uwajima.

The disaster also took a heavy toll on the local fisheries industry. Fishermen were worried about the possible impact of debris swept from land into the sea on their fishing. At 19 ports in Ehime, Kochi, Hyogo and four other prefectures, driftwood was clogging up harbors, while an oyster farming facility in Hiroshima was buried in mud.

According to a survey by the Ministry of Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries, as of July 13, damage from the rain disaster from June 28 to the agriculture, forestry and fisheries industries amounted to roughly 23.2 billion yen nationwide.

"The damage mainly took place in areas prone to rain disasters. However, we have yet to grasp the whole picture due to fears for possible secondary damage," said a ministry official.

(Japanese original by Yuichi Utsunomiya and Shinsaku Mano, Osaka Business News Department)

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