A Sense of Speed Necessary for the Recovery

Faculty Fellow / Program Director, RIETI

Securing the labor opportunities essential for rebuilding lives

In regions lying along coastal areas affected by tsunamis, the rebuilding of once-destroyed livelihoods in a manner that will enable those who have escaped the disasters to live their future lives safely and securely is a significant issue. Such rebuilding efforts include numerous civil works projects such as resettlement on higher ground, building coastal levees, and raising sunken land. At the same time, however, it is also necessary to address the economic issue of securing labor opportunities. Addressing this in terms of a stock and flow relationship, it goes without saying that even if the living environment, or "stock," recovers, livelihoods cannot be established with the loss of the sources of income, or "flow."

And yet, fielding this problem is not an easy task. Many of the disaster-stricken regions prior to the tragedies were primarily engaged in the fishery industry. However, when taking into consideration that these regions were in the midst of experiencing the structural trends of a graying population and a lack of successors, as it is often pointed out, restoration will not exclusively lead to a form of long-term sustainability; in fact, recovery efforts also require creativity. Our experience from the Great Hanshin-Awaji Earthquake also shows that when eastern Kobe and the area between Osaka and Kobe, the home to numerous individuals employed in the relatively unaffected city of Osaka, are compared to western Kobe, which contained a mix of residences and workplaces amid a high concentration of small- to mid-sized enterprises engaged in what was then a highly internationally-competitive area of chemical shoes production, a significant gap in subsequent recovery efforts between the two regions rears itself. With this most recent earthquake, similar difficulties are occurring across a geographically widespread area.

Trade-off between thorough recovery and speed

Fishery is not limited solely to heading out to sea and catching fish. Rather, it represents an industrial cluster that encompasses a variety of related industries in its backyard. In order for a fish market to exist, not only are the shipyards and ironworks that handle fishing boat repair and the suppliers of the ice and tackle required for fishing necessary, but also the brokers who distribute caught fish within the market and the processing vendors who accept so-called "sub-standard" items that are not filtered into the fresh fish market. Furthermore, existing beyond those industries are the tourist services that supply local marine products to tourists.

The Sanriku coastal region, which has been repeatedly hit with tsunamis hitherto, has a traditional saying tsunami tendenko or "When a tsunami strikes, it's every man for himself." In other words, it is taught that rather than attending to the safety of family and relatives, everyone worrying about his or her own safety first and escaping in any which way possible will result in a greater number of lives being saved. However, the idea of "any which way" does not fit in well with the subsequent process of recovery, meaning that diverse business operators ranging from primary to third-tier industries need to stand up in a uniform manner as a single cluster. Where those efforts are concerned, the role of public policy is sure to be significant.

Having seen the power of nature with our own eyes, it is only natural to think that in disaster-affected areas, it is better to construct buildings which are assured to be secure and do not compromise safety with the future in mind. However, at the same time, we must also be attuned to the local voices calling for a sense of speed in the process. Attempts to make buildings that are more secure require corresponding levels of cost and time, meaning that there is a certain degree of tradeoff between these opposing elements.

Recovery efforts that take advantage of private-sector vitality

According to comments offered by officials from local governments in disaster-affected areas where fishery flourishes, these areas are witnessing the creation of a situation characterized as "being unable to recover despite wanting to." In such areas, not only have fishing boats and tackle been washed out to sea and port facilities and processing stations decimated as a result of the tsunami, but also the impact of land subsidence caused by earthquakes remains, as does other extensive damage such as flooding occurring over an expansive area during high tides. Given the need to raise sunken land, efforts to rebuild business operators who have suffered from disasters are foreseen to involve tremendous expense. Supporting the local small- and mid-sized enterprises that have protected local employment over time to such a deep extent means that the existing systems are likely to contribute even more to the long-term sustainability of the regional society rather than public assistance, jobless benefits, or other policies that are intended to support consumption. And yet, one is forced to note that when compared to those for primary industries, which are prone to encountering natural disasters firsthand, support systems for commercial and industrial business operators, for which it has been hard to predict large-scale, collective damage on a comparable level, are weak.

Meanwhile, local governments have intensified previous efforts to build robust levees for the purposes of safe and assuring town development, and are also coordinating the raising of the ground for the region as a whole as well as implementing building regulations to monitor disorderly development for the purpose of pushing forward zoning plans. As such, even if there were business operators capable of self-providing capital expenditures, it would be for naught if they conflicted with the regional plans. As such, these business operators have no choice but to stand by quietly and let the situation unfold. While those sentiments are not lost upon the local governments, the latter is largely unable to execute plans due to ambiguity regarding the amount of fiscal support from the national government and the schedule in play. The situation therefore demands swift execution of support from the national government. With their administrative functions having been reduced at the hands of an earthquake, local governments are in likely need of not only funding but also assistance in the form of human resources.

Under circumstances such as these, vast areas across earthquake-stricken disaster sites that remain perpetually empty after having their debris cleared seemingly symbolize the vain urgency felt by business operators. If a lack of compromise on recovery efforts results in a near-total lack of a sense of speed, even business operators with the ability to rebuild without depending on official assistance may lose the window to regain their footing. As fishery involves inter-regional competition, similar industries in other regions may develop while recovery efforts continue to be delayed. There are also fears that an inability to guarantee the livelihoods of employees during suspended operations will trigger a population outflow. The possibility also exists that business operators who are aging may simply give up on recovery altogether. Even if effort and time goes into making secured buildings, if the industry in the area is allowed to hollow out, then recovery there is surely destined to be difficult.

Alongside a long-term vision that emphasizes durability, recovery-related administration must also be mindful of the frustration of disaster-stricken areas, which have faced such situations firsthand. These areas have already lost so much of that which is precious to them. However, a visit to these areas reveals that there are still pockets of vitality remaining among private business operators. It is necessary that the national government conducts assistance that both maximizes the use of this vitality and maintains a sense of speed. Furthermore, in order to enable uninhibited activity by local governments and private organizations that have approached disaster-stricken areas with the ardent intention to help them recover, the national government must unflinchingly delegate authority to these parties and support the unified efforts of the region to protect employment.

October 25, 2011

October 25, 2011