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Japanese giant works to
process tsunami debris

Meticulous: Insulator workers segregate debris into combustible and non-combustible waste at a disaster debris and waste management site in Ishinomaki. JP/Ismira Lutfia Tisnadibrata
Meticulous: Insulator workers segregate debris into combustible and non-combustible waste at a disaster debris and waste management site in Ishinomaki. JP/Ismira Lutfia Tisnadibrata

Mountainous disaster debris disposal and the reconstruction of fisheries and the agricultural sector are just a few of the Herculean tasks in the 10-year recovery plan that the Miyagi Prefectural Government in Japan has laid out after a major earthquake, a giant tsunami and ensuing nuclear leaks struck the region. The disasters’ second anniversary, which falls on March 11, sheds light on the efforts to fully rebuild the affected communities.

Miyagi, along with neighboring Iwate and Fukushima, were the three most affected prefectures on the eastern part of Japan. In total, they generated 22.5 tons of tsunami debris. Miyagi accumulated the most with 15.6 million tons while Iwate and Fukushima accumulated 4.7 million tons and 2.2 million tons, respectively.

Of all the affected areas in the three prefectures, Ishinomaki, a fishing town famous for its fresh fish and fishery products in Miyagi, was burdened with the highest volume of debris, roughly 6.2 million tons.

Kennichi Horiuchi, deputy chief of the reconstruction policy bureau at the Ishinomaki Municipal Government said the figure included debris from some 53,742 damaged buildings.

“The volume is equivalent to the amount of waste produced by our residents in a hundred years under normal circumstances,” Horiuchi said recently.

He added that the municipality had relocated about half of the total disaster debris generated from the tsunami inundation, up to 6 kilometers inland from the coast, to temporary storage sites scattered in 21 locations with an area of 91.5 hectares.

Some of the storage sites are situated on the coastal plains, making the areas look like barren wastelands decorated with piles of debris and stacks of about 21 thousand damaged vehicles.

The storage of debris is segregated into categories such as buildings, vehicles, home appliances or fishing nets, before being transported by heavy duty trucks to the disaster debris and waste management facilities in Ishinomaki’s coastal district of Hibarinocho. There is also a storage site for timber logs plucked out of the debris. The logs were uprooted from a local protected forest that was engulfed in the tsunami.

“The debris is dumped onto conveyor belts. The belts carry the debris into waste insulators in which it is manually segregated into combustible and non combustible waste,” said Abe Akutagawa, an engineer at the facilities that have been operating since Sept. 17, 2011 and have the biggest incineration in Japan with a daily capacity of 1,500 tons.

Debris management in Ishinomaki is estimated to cost ¥21.1 million (US$262.5 million) and the national government has given the municipality the green light to use some of the debris and ashes from the incinerator for land reclamation to reconstruct the damaged Ishinomaki fishing port.

Given the massive volume of debris in Miyagi, which is about three times Iwate’s and six times of Fukushima’s, the prefectural administration has asked surrounding prefectures to share the burden of debris processing and disposal.  

“We have so far completed about 33 percent of debris disposal in the prefecture and we have a target to reach complete disposal by March 2014,” Takamasa Chiba, the head of the Miyagi Prefectural Government’s earthquake disaster restoration policy division, said in his office in the downtown prefectural capital of Sendai City.

Chiba added that the Miyagi government’s ¥12.83-trillion recovery plan comprised three phases, namely restoration that would continue until this year, reconstruction (2014–2017) and development to reach full recovery (2018–2020).

But efforts have been faced with growing public dissatisfaction over the slow progress of recovery.

“Japan is very centralized when it comes to planning. The recovery plan would be easier to implement if people followed what the government laid out for them,” Chiba said.

Nevertheless, some Miyagi residents have rolled up their sleeves and have assisted in the revitalization of their once-thriving fishing industry and the agricultural sector, which are among the top three out of the 10 key recovery issues.

Nagato Kimura, president of fish cannery Kinoya Ishinomaki Suisan, said some of the hurdles in restoring Ishinomaki’s fish processing industry was getting new employees and the risk of radiation from the Daiichi Nuclear Power Plant fallout in neighboring Fukushima.

Kimura said the cannery was now down half of the 80 employees it had before The Great East Japan Earthquake and its following tsunami. Finding people willing to take up cannery jobs was not easy as the town had a shrinking and aging population.

Younger people had moved to bigger cities like Sendai to search for jobs in the absence of employment during the recovery process, while those who remain, Kimura said, “ rely on monthly compensation from the government and have lost the motivation to work.”

Chiba, from the Miyagi prefectural administration, acknowledged that the dwindling population was a serious and apparent problem on the coastal areas and that it was foreseeable that municipalities in Miyagi would suffer from a lack of manpower to support smooth recovery projects.

The job opportunities currently available did not match with the job seekers’ profiles, especially those in the coastal towns, he said, while it would take a couple more years for factories to reopen, therefore, a speedy industrial recovery was essential to provide jobs for locals.

“We would also need more people to do field work on reconstruction projects,” Chiba said.

But Kimura is determined to get the Suisan cannery back on track with its ongoing reconstruction. The project is estimated to cost ¥3 billion and comprises ¥2 billion in government funds in addition to ¥1 billion in bank loans with low interest for industry makers who are rebuilding their tsunami-ravaged businesses.

Data from the Ishinomaki municipal administration showed that there were 84 fish canneries before the disasters and 45 of them had resumed operations as of October 2012.   

Kimura said as a result of the tsunami, his cannery lost ¥2 billion. About 300,000 cans of fish were also buried in the mud. Kimura and his employees spent four months digging up the cans and cleaning them up so they could be sold.

He added that the cannery had received an outpour of orders from all over the country and that people offered to buy them at prices higher than the actual sale price out of solidarity.

“A restaurant in Nagano even told me to just deliver the cans, even with the mud covering them,” Kimura said.

The cannery has recorded post-disaster sales of ¥450 million in 2012. Although it is a stark contrast to its 2010 sales record of ¥1.8 billion, a sales slump is not what worries him most.

“My main concern now is radiation [contaminating the local fish],” Kimura said.

Kunio Suno, president of Ishinomaki Fish Market, which was also ravaged by the tsunami and is still operating in a temporary building, reiterated Kimura’s concern, saying that there was still an official ban on certain species of fish due to possible radioactive contamination from the nuclear meltdown.

“Those are species that inhabit waters close to the shore,” Kunio said.   

While the fishing industry in Miyagi is facing challenges involving nuclear radiation, Nobuo Haryu, president of Butai Farm Company in Sendai City said local farmers must find new farming ways and desalinate their farmland after the tsunami swamped and drenched the soil of its fertility with gigantic volumes of saltwater and sunk its elevation by 1-meter.

“We have formed a consortium of farmers and technology companies to conduct research and to invent new agricultural models so we can provide food to the people,” Haryu said.

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