Better national strategy needed to prepare for major disasters
Sept. 1 is Disaster Prevention Day. Disaster drills and related events are scheduled around the country. On this occasion, the government should conduct a full review of its antidisaster measures.
Reconstruction work from the damage caused by the Great East Japan Earthquake has only been half completed. Torrential rain caused extensive damage in various parts of the country this summer. The government must conduct simulations of various kinds of disasters such as earthquakes, tsunami, torrential rain and volcanic eruptions, and work on measures to minimize damage.
Today is the 90th anniversary of Great Kanto Earthquake, which killed 100,000 people.
The earthquake occurred shortly before lunchtime, when many families used fire for cooking. The collapse of houses and strong winds spread the flames. Many administrative offices and bridges were razed, obstructing evacuation and rescue efforts. Water supplies were cut, hampering firefighting crews. Fire reportedly killed 90 percent of the victims. This shows the importance of making buildings earthquake-resistant and developing towns where fire cannot spread easily.
Nonetheless, urban areas still have many districts where wooden houses are clustered together. The alleys in some areas are too narrow for fire trucks to enter.
Japan needs resilience
Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s Cabinet has established an office under the Cabinet Secretariat tasked with making the nation more resilient through planning and coordinating measures to prevent or reduce damage from disasters. The Cabinet wants to have a bill passed through the next Diet session on a basic law to make Japan more resilient against disasters.
The Cabinet is also scheduled to draw up a bill on special measures to deal with a possible huge quake with a focus directly under the Tokyo metropolitan area and a massive Nankai Trough earthquake that could affect a very wide area ranging from Shizuoka Prefecture to Kyushu. We expect the Diet to enact them as soon as possible.
What would make local communities more resilient against disasters? It is important to plan countermeasures to help people unable to return home from work or school if a disaster paralyzes public transportation systems. As many as 5 million people were stranded in the metropolitan area when the Great East Japan Earthquake struck in March 2011.
The government must work on effective countermeasures, rather than throw a lot of money around on public works projects. In this regard, it is essential for the central government to coordinate actions with local governments and private companies.
Bigger role for govt
The Disaster Countermeasures Basic Law, the basis for other laws on natural disasters, stipulates that municipal governments are primarily responsible for disaster preparedness in areas under their jurisdiction. Municipal governments are assisted by prefectural governments that are supported by the central government, according to the basic law. However, this system failed to function after the Great East Japan Earthquake devastated municipalities over a wide area.
After the March 2011 earthquake, the government revised the basic law twice, mainly to enhance the central government’s role. According to the revisions, the central government would take emergency measures instead of municipal governments if the local governments were unable to function after a major disaster. The central and prefectural governments also would be able to supply relief materials to victims in disaster-hit municipalities without waiting for requests from municipal governments.
The revisions have also enhanced evacuation measures in case of a disaster. Municipal governments are obliged to make lists of residents needing assistance when forced to evacuate by collecting personal information on the aged, disabled and other people considered vulnerable in a disaster.
Even though such lists have been drawn up, their effectiveness has been questioned because the ratio of those disaster-susceptible people who have been listed compared with the total is often low.
This is due mainly to the tendency of local entities to overemphasize the Personal Information Protection Law, under which listing the names of individuals is supposed to require their consent. Instead of sticking rigidly to the law’s provisions, local governments should place priority on drawing up lists that are useful at times of emergency.
The Disaster Relief Law, meanwhile, calls for prefectural governments to abide by the “principle of in-kind benefits,” under which disaster victims are to be provided with such facilities as evacuation centers and temporary housing.
In disaster-struck regions, however, this principle has been criticized because it is a major impediment to local governments in their efforts to make use of housing units rented from the private sector as “equivalent temporary housing.”
Since this includes houses or apartments rented by the victims, administrative procedures concerning their eligibility under the in-kind benefit principle are cumbersome and complex, as they include the need to have the rental agreements concluded afresh in the name of the local governments concerned. This principle should be flexibly implemented.
Studies should also be made in response to wishes from disaster-hit areas to make it easier to obtain certification of disaster victims and approve government cash assistance to rehabilitate their livelihoods.
Are these arrangements under existing laws sufficient for the government to cope promptly and effectively when an immense disaster occurs?
Compiling its final report in July last year, the government council for the promotion of antidisaster measures said additional steps must be worked out “to ensure the country’s existence as a state.”
The antidisaster basic law allows the prime minister to declare a state of emergency after a disaster. The issuance of this declaration is limited to when the Diet is in recess, while issuance of emergency ordinances following the declaration is restricted to such things as the rationing of daily necessities and controlling commodity prices.
The council’s report also referred to the need to expand emergency measures for such purposes as protecting commuters unable to return home and ensure public order in the aftermath of a massive earthquake. In addition, the panel urged the government to make preparations in case the Diet was unable to function after a powerful earthquake beneath the capital.
The revisions of the law, however, failed to change its provisions in these respects. It is possible that Diet debate may have been avoided because such attempts may infringe the Constitution.
Prepare for crises
By placing top priority on human lives, it goes without saying a bare minimum of restrictions should be placed on the freedom of habitation and movement as well as on other fundamental human rights, such as owning property.
Most foreign countries have “emergency situation articles” in their constitutions that lay down what a government should do in response to an emergency.
The Constitution must be revised in this respect. If amending the Constitution is considered impractical because it is time-consuming, legislation of an “emergency situation basic law,” which was once discussed by the Liberal Democratic Party, New Komeito and the Democratic Party of Japan, should be taken up again.
The situation in which government is slow to respond in taking necessary measures every time a disaster occurs must end.
It is essential to thoroughly review the nation’s antidisaster legal system as an integral part of the country’s national strategy.
(From The Yomiuri Shimbun, Sept. 1, 2013)