As Japan recovers from another destructive earthquake in the the west at Kumamoto, I am thankful for one small thing: in the latest disaster at least there were no tsunamis.
The tsunami that followed the March 11th 2011, magnitude 9 earthquake in Tohoku caused most of the problems, including the triple meltdown at the Fukushima Daichi nuclear power station when the back up generators were destroyed by the wave.
Since then support for nuclear power has decreased significantly and though companies like Tokyo Electric (TEPCO) are determined to restart the 48 existing power station, all of which were moth-balled after the disaster, and even build new ones they have also had to accommodate the growing consumer demand to find alternative ways to generate the huge amount of electricity Japan uses.
After the earthquake Japan attempted to limit its electricity usage and many areas experienced rolling black-outs as the sudden switching off of all Japan’s nuclear power stations meant the country couldn’t generate enough power to keep going. Though people stoically accepted this as necessary at the time, memories are short and the lights are fully on again in Tokyo.
But there have been some moves towards generating electricity from more renewable sources and one logical reimagining of the rural coastland of Tohoku can be seen in the large solar energy farms that are being built there above the salt-damaged fields.
Agriculture is the number one industry in Tohoku and desalination projects started on some areas of the coast just days after the tsunami. Indeed most of the 1,800 hectares of damaged farmland around the city of Sendai in Miyagi had been cleaned, cleared of debris and made ready for planting by the spring of 2014. As part of the desalination process pumping stations powered by solar panels were set up by Sendai City Government. This combined with a switch to new methods of farming and a preference for growing vegetable over the traditional rice crop has seen parts of the Sendai coast actually become a more profitable farming area than it was before 2011. A lot of the north east coast of remains damaged and derelict however.
There are physically differences of course: massive earthworks are raising the level of the land and infrastructure to protect it from the next inundation and to compensate for subsidence caused by the quake. Also the shorelines are now often home to dykes topped with walls, barriers and lines of sapling trees that will comb the power out of any future tsunamis.
Yet is is the changes in the people that are more telling. Not all of the problems Tohoku faces were caused by the events of five years ago. The rural communities in this area, and indeed all over Japan, are ageing and disappearing as younger generations move to the cities for work and find their ambitions thwarted by such bucolic backwaters. A lot of those that survived the tsunami have themselves moved inland or even further afield; many will also retire from the plough sooner rather than later.
The Ministry of Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries (MAFF) amended the Agricultural Land Law, the Forest Law and other related laws shortly after the March 11th disaster in an effort to relax restrictions on the usage of abandoned forest and farmland. It also gave financial assistance to encourage the development of renewable resources for power generation that would localise energy supply and make these communities more disaster-resistant. As an example of this, in April 2014 the installation of solar PV systems on crop-producing farms was allowed for the first time. This “solar sharing” system allows farmers to instal solar panels above fields that are used for cultivation. It had previously been prohibited even if the land was fallow and unproductive.
The total acreage of abandoned farmland nationwide is estimated at about 400,000 hectares, and through the changes in these rules it is hoped that local economies, especially in Tohoku, will be revitalized as farming communities which cannot farm due to age or the effects of the tsunami sell or lease their land to alternative energy producers or work directly in the construction and running of the the facilities. This seems to be happening: Eurus Energy Group began operating two mega solar projects in Miyagi and Fukushima in March 2015. The Ishinomaki-Hebita Solar plant also began operating the same time. These are important symbols of the recovery of the affected regions.
Infact solar power could be a major factor in reshaping the future of Tohoku. The next century had promised an emptying landscape and provincialism, even without the destruction wrought by the events of March 11th but as the importance of farming diminishes and with continued investment from Government agencies and academics keen to take advantage of the unique, start from scratch situation of the area it could become a major producer and exporter of renewable energy. Not just solar: plans to invest in wave and wind power along with biofuels and geothermal energy are all being worked on now by clever people and brave locals with nothing to lose.
Time to go back and keep reporting on this I think.