Japan govts slow to designate tsunami-prone zones

A man watches waves break into anti-tsunami barriers after a storm in Iwaki, Fukushima Prefecture September 16, 2013.

JAPAN - No prefectural government has designated locations prone to tsunami disasters as special zones subject to building and other restrictions, more than one year after the full enactment of a new law to ensure such communities can better deal with calamities, according to the construction ministry.

The lack of action is mainly due to concerns among prefectural governments that setting up such zones in their areas could hamper city planning activities. Some local governments have not even started preliminary work to identify such disaster-prone zones.

The law was created in the wake of the Great East Japan Earthquake in March 2011, with the aim of making tsunami disaster-prone communities more resistant to the impact of natural disasters.

Since the law took effect about 18 months ago, however, not a single area has been designated as a zone subject to legal restrictions on construction and other projects, according to a survey by the Land, Infrastructure, Transport and Tourism Ministry.

Many victims of the 2011 disaster have expressed the need to make communities tsunami-resistant by taking precautionary efforts that help reduce the impact of such calamities. Experts, however, say that the current situation could turn the law into a letter dead on arrival.

The law, which took full effect in June last year, authorizes each prefectural government to designate areas that are at risk of severe damage if a tsunami strikes as caution zones. Areas that could suffer even greater damage can be designated as high-risk zones.

In the latter zones, the law authorizes prefectural governments to impose restrictions on housing land development projects while urging owners of tall buildings to move them elsewhere if such structures might be flooded and destroyed.

The law also requires new school buildings, hospitals and other public facilities to be built on ground higher than that of an anticipated tsunami.

In caution zones, meanwhile, the law requires city, town and village governments to order social welfare facility operators to conduct regular evacuation drills and prepare tsunami hazard maps.

However, only 13 prefectures—including Ibaraki, Shizuoka, Osaka and Miyazaki—have made projections for possible tsunami-caused floods, which are essential for designating caution and high-risk zones.

The government’s Central Disaster Prevention Council has revealed damage predictions for massive quakes expected to strike along the Nankai Trough. Although many such forecasts cover western Japan, no prefectural government in that part of the nation, including Kochi, has designated any danger zones under the law. Yet seismologists have said coastal areas in Kochi Prefecture could be hit by tsunami as high as 30 meters in the event of an envisaged Nankai Trough quake.

“Designating danger areas means restrictions will be imposed on various construction projects. It’s impossible [to designate such zones] unless we’re clear about future city planning,” a Kochi prefectural official said. This sentiment was shared by Shizuoka and Tokushima prefectural officials.

Another obstacle facing the tsunami-prone zones is the lack of progress in adequately explaining the details of the law to local governments. “We don’t fully grasp the specifics of the system,” a Wakayama prefectural official said. Ehime prefectural officials concurred.

The law leaves it up to each prefectural government to decide how wide a designated area should be. “One issue is how to match our designation criteria with those of other local governments. I want the national government to take the initiative in designating standards,” a Shizuoka prefectural official said.

The lack of progress in fully implementing the law has prompted the construction ministry to set up a section for providing consultation services, tasked with urging prefectural governments to designate caution and high-risk zones as soon as possible.

However, despite encouraging local governments to do so, the ministry appears indecisive about taking stronger action. “Each prefectural government needs to consider its unique situation in designating such zones. Considering this, we cannot set a deadline,” a ministry official said.

“Each community’s residents must be aware of the dangers of their area. If you live in a place that is difficult to evacuate from during an emergency, the most you can do is take precautions,” said Shizue Sato, 81, of Ofunato, Iwate Prefecture. Sato’s home was swept away in the 2011 tsunami. “I don’t want people to go through such a painful experience again,” she said.