Reconstruction ≠ Recovery

It was the 10th year anniversary of Hurricane Katrina at the end of August, and the post-disaster recovery in the region hit the headlines, reporting what has been happening in the last decade. The reportage has been mixed, while the general consensus appears to be that much more should have happened.

The aftermath of Katrina has relevance to Japan and the Tohoku region as well. The scale of destruction was massive. Both disasters were experienced by two of the wealthiest and technologically advanced countries, where the protective features (tsunami walls in Japan and levees in New Orleans) that were designed to thwart the disaster from taking place, failed causing unimaginable damage people were not prepared for, as they trusted technology, and the system, to protect them and their property. Equally, the coordination and speed of the recovery has not impressed the world. Both New Orleans and Tohoku are battling with complex social and economic problems stemming from social inequalities. While in Japan the social problems relate to economic viability of local industries and demographics, inequalities guided by ethnicity have become a prime concern in post-Katrina situation. In Japan, tens of thousands still reside in temporary housing, four years after the disasters. In New Orleans, the last FEMA trailers left the city over 6 years after the hurricane hit its shores.

While some report that Japan will face a massive problem of relocation on account of the country lacking habitable land, are expressing a lack of understanding and expertise on Japan which actually has an abundance of habitable land in Tohoku that has for a long time been underused, with the whole area experiencing rapid depopulation. In fact, the whole country is depopulating! The problem therefore is not the lack of land, but the lack of constructive and community-led recovery that would create opportunities for sustaining thriving and fulfilling existence for people in these regions. It is a problem for Tokyo and other metropolitan areas that are experiencing an influx of people seeking better opportunities, fearing contamination, and wanting to offer a better future for their children that is not possible in Tohoku. These communities were in the decline even before the disaster struck, and the trend has only been accelerating after the disaster.

Much of what is branded as recovery in these regions, is actually reconstruction. It is buildings, dams, walls and roads, but it is not recovery. The Japanese government is lining the pockets of construction companies with centrally allocated funds to stimulate the economy in Tohoku and speed up the recovery of the infrastructure. While building roads and buildings will still take years, the local economy and the local residents are gaining little from this so-called recovery. The economies and industries native to the region are facing challenges due to contamination (and fear of contamination) of parts of the region, and salination of fields. The utter destruction of the area stagnated the development of native industries for years (fisheries etc.) with many having lost their contracts in the meantime to competitors outside the region.

But what is recovery actually looking like in Tohoku? I collected few images from newspapers and online sources to exemplify that reconstruction really is not recovery…nor is it really reconstruction either:

Kesennuma three years n between. Kyotoku Maru No. 18 to the left, now removed, affected tourism and local economy Image: Japan Times (5.3.2015)

Kesennuma three years n between. Kyotoku Maru No. 18 to the left, now removed, affected tourism and local economy
Image: Japan Times (5.3.2015)

Kesennuma, three years in between. The orange banner marks the height of the planned seawall. The housing plots cleared for building new homes remain empty. Image: Japan Times (5.3.2015)

Kesennuma, three years in between.
The orange banner marks the height of the planned seawall. The housing plots cleared for building new homes remain empty.
Image: Japan Times (5.3.2015)

Kuvankaappaus 2015-8-31 kello 12.58.00

Rikuzentakata, three years in between. The housing has not returned. Image: The Economist (7.2.2015)

What the above images show (even though few in number) is that while the basic infrastructure in terms of roads and harbours etc. may largely be carried out already, housing and other signs of human habitation and use of space is still missing.

So who is this reconstruction for then? And more importantly by who?

A recent article in the Jacobin unravels some of the complexities of reconstruction, and lack of recovery, over the last 10 years in New Orleans and argues that recovery has managed to deepen social injustices and turned recovery into an exercise of gentrification where those who suffered the most have received the smallest returns. While the article discusses the public housing crisis in the US political context, the underlying message where the poor, the old and the black don’t have much say in the way or where, their communities are rebuilt (or if at all) as they cannot afford to have a say. In Kesennuma, one of the worst hit communities in Tohoku, the first public housing complex opened only in early 2015. People’s vulnerabilities under the neoliberal system are exposed in a situation of abnormalcy, like a disaster, and made worse if the people themselves are not given agency to have a voice over their own futures.

Rather than seizing an opportunity to improve lives for the weakest and reducing their vulnerabilities to future adversities, post-disaster recovery has the danger of seizing the opportunity to make the vulnerable populations disappear by reducing their opportunities to regain their lives with any semblance of what used to be, to zero. Reduction of public housing stock to a token effort in New Orleans is an indication of this top-down induced vanishing act.

So while the Japanese government celebrates the advances that have been made in Tohoku, reporting on the number of housing units being built, kilometres or roads and railroads, this reconstruction means nothing unless it is accompanied by life. And life will not re-enter unless it has ways of sustaining and fulfilling itself. This requires for the authorities to truly listen what is happening in the lives of those most affected, and mere consultation cannot achieve this…my personal view is that consultation is often carried out with a predetermined goal in mind, with the task of consulting people only designed to reaffirm what has already been decided. A tokenistic effort towards democracy. The controversial documentary 3/11 by Tatsuya Mori witnessed a glimpse of authorities and media only listening what they wanted to hear. In a scene where Mori follows two women looking for their missing children in the rubble, one of the women says they have met many reporters, but the reporters don’t want to hear….they state more diggers and machinery is needed to go through the rubble faster, but the reporters say they can’t report that. The mundane news of machinery does not sell papers…the stories of lost children and hardships of people does.

The Japan Times (5.3.2014) writes the following: “

“What we really need are stable jobs, such as those in the fishery and seafood industry. Without that, I don’t think a real ‘recovery’ will ever come to Kesennuma,” Mittsu [local resident] said. But the central and local governments have seemed more interested in planning big public works projects, rather than measures to promote sustainable industries in the Tohoku region.

The central and local governments now plan to build gigantic seawalls along the coasts of Iwate, Miyagi and Fukushima prefectures, to prepare for the inevitable tsunami. The 400 km of seawall will cover as much as 23 percent of the 1,700-km coastline of the three prefectures, according to the Kahoku Shimpo, a regional daily based in Sendai. Construction is estimated to cost ¥850 billion. Many of the seawalls would be higher than 10 meters, and some even would top 14 meters. Many locals believe the gigantic seawalls are mainly for the benefit of the construction industry, which they suspect of having close ties to politicians.”

The construction state in Japan appears to be alive and kicking. Well, at least in Tokyo.

While the construction boom in Tokyo, readying itself for the 2020 olympics, is at it’s hottest, Tohoku is suffering due to constraints on public spending, and construction companies being able to pick and choose where they take on. If the contracts are more lucrative in Tokyo, why would they labour for public housing projects in Tohoku? But the government insists that reconstruction is the way forward (with the aptly named Reconstruction Agency as a good indication of this), and assigns blame on communities who are slowing down progress by failing to find consensus (and as a result wasting the government cash gift horse of trillions of yen). But is there a consensus to be found within constrained boundaries of the bureaucratic reconstruction framework that emphasises the number of unit and kilometres of road built, not the recovery of the immaterial aspects of local communities?

While the reconstruction may be booming in some areas of the country, and even some areas of Tohoku, placing blame on the communities themselves, many of which are still labouring under the conditions of temporary housing (designed to last only for two years), may not be the most productive way out of the impasse. Building housing that is affordable, safe and available for all is the (at the moment the only) aspect of reconstruction that needs to advance quicker. Unless people are able to rebuild their homes, they are unable to rebuild their lives and their communities. Many are left in a limbo that is disrupting their opportunities to re-establish their lives in the region that many love and do not want to leave. Some can’t wait any longer, for some there are no opportunities in the devastated regions, some just want to forget. This is the real reason why Tokyo and the other metropolitan areas are attracting many displaced people, not the non-fact that the displaced would not have room in the region.

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