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Water outages remain an obstacle to recovery in quake-hit Hokkaido

Satomi Koyama, right, dries clothes she washed with water brought to her by a friend, in Atsuma, Hokkaido, on Sept. 9, 2018. (Mainichi)

While infrastructure such as power and public transportation are back online in much of Japan's northernmost prefecture of Hokkaido after a large earthquake on Sept. 6, some 6,000 households across five municipalities including hard-hit Atsuma and Abira remain without running water, posing an obstacle to returning to daily life.

In the town of Atsuma, where the earthquake registered a maximum of 7 on the Japanese 7-point seismic intensity scale, roughly 1,950 households are still without water. At her home, 35-year-old Satomi Koyama washes her 7-month-old daughter Mashiro's clothes by hand. Carefully transferring water collected in the bathtub into a washing pan, she carefully washes each item of Mashiro's tiny undergarments one at a time. "Since the power came back, I can use the dryer, but there is still no water. I want to at least change the baby's underwear every day," she explains, sweat glistening on her forehead.

After the earthquake struck in the early hours of Sept. 6, Koyama's 41-year-old husband left for the town hall where he works to deal with the disaster. Koyama took their children, three boys in sixth, fourth and third grades, along with Mashiro, to an evacuation center near the town hall. They spend the days at their home and night at the center.

At the facility, there is potable water and also food. There are also wet wipes and diapers for Mashiro. With the return of electricity to the area, residents now have access to the internet, but the water outage is still a large obstacle to returning to their normal lives. "Whatever you do, you need water," lamented Koyama. "If the water outage at our house continues, then I don't know what we will do."

There are three water purification plants in Atsuma, but the newest plant in the northern part of the town that opened in July sustained heavy damage from the landslides that followed the quake. At another plant in southern Atsuma, water is leaking heavily from pipes and cannot be carried to homes. It is unclear when the two purification plants will be able to go back online, and even restarting operations at the third plant which had been used up until July will take more than one month at the earliest. Facing what a town official called unprecedented damage in Atsuma, the municipal government plans to increase the number of water stations by tenfold, as there are currently only three locations for residents to receive potable water.

Atsuma Mayor Shoichiro Miyasaka held his first press conference since the quake in the town on Sept. 10, stating, "We have a long and difficult road ahead of us, but I would like all the residents to join together and move toward tangible recovery together." He also confirmed that the restoration of the water purification plants in the town would take about a month due to the heavy damage to the facilities.

As for residents wishing to move into temporary housing facilities, Miyasaka said that the town was currently conducting a survey of the situation. Both public and private housing will be used, and the temporary facilities will be built on municipal land to make up the difference. The mayor stated that the goal is to have residents start moving in this month, and according to the municipal government, there are currently some 50 households that have requested placement in temporary housing and an application will be made to the prefectural government this week for the construction of facilities for roughly 130 households.

"From my past experience, I thought that the area was not at risk of landslide damage, so I can hardly believe what happened," Miyasaka said. "We never imagined that we would be struck by such an enormous earthquake."

Meanwhile, in the neighboring town of Abira, where roughly 2,900 households are without water, the town's mainstay dairy industry has taken a hit. Water has been restored to only portions of the residential and business areas in the town, and the surrounding areas where the farms are located are still struggling with the water outage. According to a local agricultural association, as of Sept. 10, of the 20 farming households in Abira, five are having difficulty securing water for the cows to drink and to clean the milking equipment, rendering them unable to produce any milk.

At Kohanawa farm, one of the dairy producers left without potable water, 30-year-old Hiroki Kohanawa is in charge of some 60 dairy cows. "Cows are animals, so water is crucial. I received some groundwater from a neighboring farmer," he said.

At farms lacking the pumps to bring up groundwater, farmers are securing drinking water for their dairy cows by traveling to water purification plants themselves or filling association tanks meant for shipping milk with water, the farming cooperative says. However, this is not enough to clean the milking equipment, hoses and tanks, and many farms have no choice but to throw out whatever milk is produced.

At Kohanawa, due to the power outage that swept over the area after the quake, the latest milk shipment could not be accepted by the buyer, and 5 metric tons of milk worth roughly 500,000 yen had to be dumped. "The cows are like family," Kohanawa said. "I want to protect them the best that I can."

Along with the restoration of power, volunteer applications for recovery assistance efforts around Hokkaido were also opened on Sept. 10. Volunteer centers in Atsuma and the town of Mukawa opened, and activities like cleaning the inside of residents' homes began in Abira.

Due to a flood of applications and inquiries after the quake and a lack of a framework for accepting volunteers, people had been asked to hold off on any activities in order to avoid confusion.

"I want to pay back the kindness and support I received after the (1995) Great Hanshin Earthquake," said a woman in her 50s from Kobe in western Japan. "I want to help the children breathe a little easier."

(Japanese original by Hideto Okazaki, Osaka City News Department, Kotaro Adachi, Hokkaido News Department, Hironori Tsuchie, Tokyo City News Department, and Yoshimasa Abe, Hokkaido News Department Chitose)

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