Japan’s Rubble Economy

TOKYO – On March 11, a year will have passed since Japan was struck by the triple tragedy of an earthquake, tsunami, and nuclear accident. According to figures announced by the country’s National Police Agency, the Great East Japan Earthquake left behind 15,848 dead and 3,305 missing – the largest loss of life due to natural disaster in Japan since World War II. Searches for the missing – mainly at sea – are still continuing.

The number of buildings affected by the earthquake or the tsunami include 128,582 completely destroyed, 243,914 partly destroyed, 281 completely or partly burned, 33,056 flooded (including 17,806 above the ground floor, and 674,641 with other types of damage. Approximately 320,000 people lost their homes, of which more than 90% continue to live in temporary housing. Where to rebuild their homes remains undecided.

The Great Hanshin Earthquake that struck western Japan in 1995 took 6,343 lives, in part because the city’s mazelike streets prevented access by emergency workers. In the aftermath, the city was reborn in a dramatically different and safer form.

Despite numerous difficulties, recovery from that earthquake was faster than expected: there was no tsunami to complicate matters, and rebuilding efforts could be focused on buildings that had collapsed in the earthquake. Moreover, the government provided strong leadership and official agencies responded rapidly, ensuring, among other things, a rapid cleanup of the rubble.

Indeed, aside from fiscal issues, disposal of rubble is the greatest obstacle preventing reconstruction after natural disasters everywhere. The rubble produced in the Great Hanshin Earthquake was equivalent to the amount that Japan normally processes in roughly eight years. Difficulties like damaged waste-disposal facilities were overcome by local governments’ cooperation and burden-sharing. And, fortunately, plans to build Kobe Airport on an artificial island near the coast ensured demand for landfill.

In Japan, waste disposal relies mainly on incineration, but use of landfill off the coast made it possible to process the waste more quickly. Even so, disposal of the waste took approximately three years, at a cost to the central government of ¥324.8 billion.

Compared to the Great Hanshin Earthquake, reconstruction after the Great East Japan Earthquake is moving at a snail’s pace. Rubble is equivalent to 11 years of waste in Iwate prefecture, and 19 years of waste in Miyagi prefecture – enormous volumes that exceed these regions’ disposal capacity. The cost of waste disposal, estimated at ¥776.7 billion, will be more than double the disposal cost following the Great Hanshin Earthquake.

Unlike the relatively rapid cleanup after the Great Hanshin Earthquake, only 5% of the total amount of rubble created by last year’s disaster has been processed so far. Temporary sites for rubble in affected areas are being piled with the remnants of building materials and domestic appliances and furnishings, creating little mountains here and there, as rules on recycling instituted since 1995 require sorting waste by material. Moreover, there are no plans to build an artificial island to use up the rubble, as was done with Kobe airport.

Owing to the tsunami, some of the refuse will ride the waves of the Pacific, reaching Hawaii and the West coast of the United States in a year or so. But the damage caused by the tsunami also caused significant delays in reconstruction. Local governments worry about how far from the coast new residential areas should be built, amplifying concerns about the future for people who are being forced to live with strangers in temporary housing in an unfamiliar area.

But the main reason for reconstruction delays is concern about radiation from the destroyed Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant. Fear of radioactive contamination has stoked strong opposition from residents in areas that would need to accept rubble – even when the rubble is from areas nowhere near Fukushima. In addition, although incineration greatly decreases the volume of waste, the concentration of radioactive cesium has been increasing over the past year, making it difficult to find suitable final disposal sites.

The heads of local governments in various regions are attempting to convince residents not to fear radiation and to allow for dispersal of rubble. But the unseen enemy has aroused concerns – particularly among mothers of young children – that are more a matter of psychology than of science. As the world’s only victim of a nuclear attack, Japan’s allergy to radiation is stronger than anywhere else.

Nevertheless, with the exception of the special circumstances caused by the Fukushima catastrophe, Japan is hardly the only country with a mess to clean up before it can reconstruct. Thailand, which earlier this year suffered prolonged flooding, is also facing the need to dispose of rubble as it works to rebuild. Measures to prevent flooding and steps to repair damaged areas of Bangkok cannot even begin until the rubble is cleared. Haiti and New Zealand have also encountered similar problems.

Reconstruction constitutes a special kind of public-works project. The disposal of rubble, given its labor-intensive character, has a particularly marked effect on job creation, at least in the short term. One might call this “rubble economics.” It is the inevitable formula for recovery – one shovel load at a time.

Yuriko Koike is Japan’s former Minister of Defense and National Security Adviser.

Copyright: Project Syndicate, 2012.

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