‘Great Wall’ tsunami barrier making waves

|     Lars Nicolaysen     |

Koizumi, Japan (dpa) – Masahito Abe gazes out across the gentle ocean swells lapping at the same shore where a wall of water came up the beach almost four years ago.

On March 11, 2011, a 9.0-magnitude earthquake triggered a tsunami that killed 40 people in Abe’s hometown of Koizumi alone.

Hundreds more communities along the northeast coast of Japan were hit, with almost 19,000 people losing their lives.

The giant wave reared as high as 23 metres as it came up the beaches of Miyagi province, one of the worst affected, killing dozens of villagers working on the largely unprotected agricultural seaboard.

To safeguard Japan’s coast against future tsunamis, the government is gearing up to construct and expand hundreds of sea walls.

Around 30 per cent of Miyagi province’s 830 kilometres of coastline will theoretically soon be shielded with masses of reinforced concrete against all but the mightiest onslaughts from the sea.

But critics of the plan like Abe detest what’s becoming known as the “Great Wall of Japan.”

Masahito Abe with the beach of Koizumi, Japan behind him. DPA

“What utter nonsense,” the schoolmaster says about the 800-metre-long, 22-billion-yen (187-million-dollar) concrete bulwark that is planned for Koizumi, one of the largest individual floodwall projects in Miyagi.

Standing 14.7 metres tall, the breakwater would scarcely reach halfway up the wave height of the 2011 tsunami. And it is also questionable just what it would really protect.

Currently just a name on the map, the small town of Koizumi, population 1,800, will be rebuilt three kilometres inland, out of reach of a similar disaster. Residents who are still housed in temporary shelters are expected to start building their new homes soon.

Abe, who relocated his house onto a hill more than a decade ago because of the persistent tsunami threat on this coast, fears the wholesale destruction of ecosystems through construction of the barrier.

Violently flooded areas of Koizumi used to host more than 100 animal species, but the tsunami has changed the coastline and lowered the beach, causing many animals to vanish or dwindle.

“That’s nature,” he says stoically. “Traces of the tsunami should be left so that future generations learn from the experience here.”

But the remaining diversity of species can still attract tourists to the region, he believes, while the wall would completely ruin the natural environment.

Critics like Abe also warn against the false sense of security the barriers might give to people. While there were cases where existing sea defences saved lives in 2011, there were others where people died because they stayed where they were, believing the walls could not be breached.

Tatsuya Sato, head of the local planning authority, rejects the arguments against the barrier project, insisting that Koizumi constitutes a clear danger zone.

“There are large agricultural areas and irrigation facilities, a salmon farm, Highway 45 and a railway line,” he explains. Then there’s a kindergarten, retirement home and a shrine, which would be used as a shelter in emergency situations.

“For this reason, we regard construction of a wall as absolutely essential,” says the official.

Such a huge tsunami will occur once every 1,000 years, it is calculated. But if there is a repeat catastrophe on the same scale in the near future, the wall alone would be woefully insufficient. So escape routes and evacuation drills are also important to the province’s emergency contingencies.

Yet the proposed concrete defences are deemed vital because they can fend off most lesser tsunamis likely to occur. And the bulk of Koizumi’s population already gave their consent to the construction plan at a meeting, the official adds.

The schoolmaster snorts at the notion that anyone was properly consulted. Since those that attended the meeting initially asked no questions, the planners simply interpreted that as consent, he says.

What’s more, he believes the residents have been duped into thinking that the slow reconstruction work of their new houses and streets will only pick up pace once the concrete walls are built.

Critics of the seawall plan think it is really all about the government wanting to shovel lucrative contracts towards the construction industry, one of the strongest bases of support for the Liberal Democratic Party of Prime Minister Shinzo Abe.

Whatever the case, some residents of Koizumi have already sold their land by the sea to the state for construction of the huge barrier.

The views to the ocean horizon are uninterrupted today, they may soon be blotted out for shoreline dwellers. The bulldozers are expected to start working in the very near future.