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Editorial: Collaboration in waste disposal key to recovery from typhoon in Japan

Massive volumes of household furniture and other items that were damaged by flooding and storms triggered by Typhoon Hagibis and by the heavy rains that followed are plaguing various regions across Japan.

While the torrential rains that lashed western Japan and other areas in July last year generated some 2 million metric tons of waste, the total volume of refuse from the latest typhoon disaster is expected to top that figure. It is expected to take several years to dispose of all such waste.

Municipal governments are primarily responsible for handling disaster waste. In the wake of a disaster, refuse is first collected at temporary storage sites before being transported to garbage disposal facilities. If waste collection lags behind, it will hinder efforts to rebuild local residents' lives. As debris generated in flood disasters is apt to decay easily, there is also a risk of an infection breakout. Such waste poses a significant obstacle to recovery efforts.

Areas affected by the recent typhoon disaster face a range of problems stemming from the enormous quantities of waste. One town was even forced to shut down its temporary waste storage sites after local facilities became unable to catch up with the massive amounts of waste being discarded. It is said that no small volume of refuse has been dumped in parks and fields because temporary waste collection sites are full.

Efforts to handle waste over a wide area in collaboration with other local authorities could be a driving force in solving such issues in the event of a large-scale disaster such as Typhoon Hagibis, in which the volumes of waste exceeded local authorities' processing capacity.

In the northeastern Japan prefecture of Fukushima, one of the two waste disposal facilities in the city of Koriyama was submerged in water after the typhoon hit. In response, the city has been transporting waste to the town of Namie and the city of Minamisoma to have it treated at facilities owned by the national government.

In central Japan, an initiative has been launched to have Toyama Prefecture and other areas accept disaster debris from Nagano Prefecture, which suffered severe flooding damage due to Typhoon Hagibis. Such efforts should be promoted swiftly in various regions.

If local municipalities sign a pact to mutually accept disaster waste, they would be able to swiftly draw up specific action plans for waste disposal in the event of a disaster. However, the progress of such efforts differs from one prefecture to another.

It is also essential for local bodies to work out disaster waste disposal plans in advance, including the estimated volume of waste and candidate areas for setting up interim garbage collection sites. In 2014, the Ministry of the Environment called upon local bodies across the country to map out such plans, but less than 30% of municipalities had done so by March 2018. Likewise, some of the areas affected by the most recent typhoon had not prepared plans.

Behind the lack of preparedness lies a shortage of government staff with expert knowledge in smaller municipalities and the failure to find vacant lots suitable for temporary waste storage sites, among other factors. The national and prefectural governments should boost support to those local bodies to facilitate their formulation of disaster waste disposal plans.

In this age of climate change, the broader the areas affected by a disaster are, the more serious the waste disposal issue becomes. We must reinforce a system to support cities, towns and villages in waste disposal, both in preparation for and in the aftermath of disasters.

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