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Editorial: More efforts needed to prevent solitary deaths in disaster-prone Japan

Three years have passed since the Kumamoto Earthquake struck in April 2016, claiming the lives of 273 people.

The foreshock and main shock, both of which registered up to 7 on the 7-point Japanese seismic intensity scale, caused serious turmoil to local residents and damaged many people's homes. A total of 16,519 people are still taking shelter at temporary housing in and outside Kumamoto Prefecture.

Of up to 47,800 people who were living at such housing units at one point, more than 30 percent have been unable to solve their housing problems. This is because the construction industry is preoccupied with public works projects relating to disaster recovery and has no leeway to rebuild houses for evacuees.

If evacuees' lives at temporary housing are going to be prolonged, support measures that respond to the needs of each and every evacuee are of growing importance.

In the case of the Kumamoto Earthquake, about 70 percent of evacuees live in private apartments that local bodies are leasing from their owners as temporary housing. This is because affected local bodies did not have the leeway to wait for the completion of the construction of pre-fabricated temporary housing units.

Local governments' leasing of private apartment complexes as temporary housing for disaster victims spread in Miyagi and other prefectures devastated by the March 2011 Great East Japan Earthquake and tsunami because of a delay in the construction of pre-fabricated temporary housing units. Evacuees can promptly move into private apartments leased as temporary housing units and there are fewer problems involving residents' privacy.

However, it is difficult to grasp the circumstances of individual evacuees living at such apartments because they are dispersed in extensive areas, and there are fears that those living alone could die without being cared for by their families or others.

Solitary deaths are one of the serious problems involving people living prolonged lives as evacuees. Of 28 evacuees from the Kumamoto quake who died without being cared for by their families or others, 22 were living at private apartments rented as temporary housing units.

Measures to prevent solitary deaths among quake evacuees will become a growing necessity. Each municipality in affected areas dispatches counselors to pay close attention to the livelihoods of evacuees. However, there are not enough counselors.

The Kumamoto Prefectural Government should step up its efforts to secure enough personnel to work as counselors such as by asking private organizations for cooperation. Concerned local bodies also need to proactively organize various events to encourage evacuees dispersed over extensive areas to come together again.

In the case of a feared Nankai Trough earthquake, it is assumed that 1.21 million out of up to 2.05 million temporary housing units would be secured by leasing private apartments, compared to 870,000 of 940,000 such housing units following a powerful temblor occurring just beneath the Tokyo metropolitan area. There is a high chance of these megaquakes occurring in the foreseeable future.

It is necessary to consider how to help local bodies share information on temporary housing and its availability before a serious natural disaster occurs and how to create a network of temporary housing residents.

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