Media Mix, Nov. 3, 2019

Shiroyama Dam

Here’s this week’s Media Mix about the government’s lack of preparation for the recent run of flood-related disasters. Though the conclusion I drew from all the information I gleaned in the media is that there’s really no ideal way to prepare for such disasters in the long run, it doesn’t mean the government is off the hook. The only genuinely effective solution would be to relocate people living in dangerous areas, but that’s hardly going to be a popular move in a free democracy. More palatable would be some policy that discouraged any new housing or development in at-risk locations, but nobody wants to tell someone else where they can and can’t live. Still, this kind of squeamishness seems to extend to existing water management policy. According to the land ministry only 51 dams in western Japan have formulated systems for pre-release of water when there is a threat of over-capacity from projected heavy rainfall, and only about half have ever carried out these plans. In eastern Japan, which, prior to the three storms that recently struck in rapid succession, had not suffered from major flooding in many years, there are almost no systems in place for pre-release. And one of the main reasons is that much of the water is conserved for waterworks. If a local water authority releases too much water in fear of flooding and the result is insufficient water capacity for households and agrucultural users, they might be subject to lawsuits. The land ministry also requires that local governments obtain permission from users to pre-release water in the case of possible heavy rainfall, but that’s easier said than done. In the end, many don’t even bother to make such plans.

That is one of the reasons why there was such confusion at Shiroyama Dam in Kanagawa Prefecture when Typhoon Hagibis was doing its worst. Water levels were approaching capacity, and the water authority kept announcing it would release water, possibly endangering households farther down the river, but they kept postponing the release. That’s because they were working without a plan. The dam was built 54 years ago and they’ve never been in this situation before. Eventually, they did release water, but almost five hours after they first announced they would. In those five hours certain residents didn’t know whether they should evacuate. Of course, they should anyway, considering the amount of rainfall, but it doesn’t instill confidence in the authorities if they don’t seem to know their own system and how to approach a critical situation that could have disastrous results. Managing water can be a perilous business, and if the public isn’t made aware of the real situation, then they have every right to be angry.

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