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Editorial: 30 yrs. on, lessons of catastrophic Mt. Unzen eruption cannot be forgotten

It has been 30 years since the huge volcanic eruption of Mount Unzen's Fugen peak in southwest Japan's Nagasaki Prefecture.

    Forty-three people died or went missing in the disaster. Many were working in connection with media covering the event, including three Mainichi Shimbun staff. They were reporting in an area where an evacuation warning had been issued.

    Individuals accompanying them, including taxi drivers and volunteer fire fighters on the lookout, also lost their lives.

    Their deaths put pressure on the media over the way they covered the disaster and underestimated nature's ferocity. It became an important lesson for future natural disaster reporting.

    In 2014, 63 mountain climbers and others died in an eruption on Mount Ontake, located on the border between the central Japan prefectures of Gifu and Nagano. Japan is home to 111 active volcanoes, about 7% of the worldwide total. How we prepare for natural disasters is a serious issue.

    But the preventive measures are still only halfway there.

    First, provisions for evacuation plans are not sufficient. The special measures law on active volcanoes, revised following the Mount Ontake eruption, made the drawing up of the plans a legal requirement for municipalities in regions that need to be on alert for volcanic activity. But only around 70% of these local governments have finished devising evacuation plans.

    The number of researchers is also insufficient. When it comes to each area formulating disaster prevention measures, the presence of experts with understanding of volcanoes' specific characteristics is indispensable. To improve the accuracy of eruption prediction technology, further human resources development is essential.

    To ensure residents and mountain climbers do not forget the frightening disasters caused by volcanoes, it is also important that efforts be made to pass on what happened to future generations.

    This spring, at the site of the Fugen peak media reporting center referred to as "teiten," three vehicles buried in volcanic ash were excavated after 30 years. The center has been outfitted as a relic for future generations, and the vehicles have also gone on display.

    Local people are the ones who pushed the project forward. They did it, they say, with determination to stop the memories of the disaster eroding with time.

    Volcanoes also bring with them a number of blessings to regions, such as spectacular landscapes and onsen hot springs. In the Shimabara Peninsula, home to Fugen peak, people's livelihoods are supported by tourism, along with agriculture.

    But it has been pointed out that the large accumulation of lava that followed the eruption, known as a lava dome, could collapse in a large earthquake or torrential rains. Local residents therefore still need to remain on guard.

    One of the unavoidable realities of Japan is that people must live alongside volcanoes. The lessons of natural disasters must lead to improved disaster prevention measures.

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