A serious shortage of soil and subsequent price increases are delaying efforts to rebuild the disaster-hit Tohoku region and prolonging the misery of survivors who are desperately trying to resume normal lives.
According to one estimate, the prefectures of Iwate, Miyagi and Fukushima need at least 40 million cubic meters of soil, enough to fill up 32 Tokyo Domes, for new foundations, farmland and other large projects.
The problem is more pronounced for farmers who need fertile topsoil to grow their crops.
"There is an overwhelming shortage of soil,” an official with the Miyagi prefectural government said. “Municipal governments are unable to obtain soil because of increases in personnel and transportation expenses."
The rising prices for soil have prompted some government officials to consider using rubble from last year’s Great East Japan Earthquake and tsunami instead.
According to land ministry officials, 19 coastal districts in seven municipalities of the three prefectures plan to raise their foundations by several meters to protect residents against future tsunami.
A Miyagi prefectural government official in charge of the project said about 20 million cubic meters of soil would be needed in that prefecture alone.
An additional 15.4 million cubic meters of soil will be required to raise the level of seawalls. And in municipalities such as Sendai and Ishinomaki in Miyagi Prefecture, authorities plan to raise the height of roads as an additional anti-tsunami measure. One estimate has placed maximum demand for soil to elevate roads at 5 million cubic meters.
Huge amounts of soil are also needed to raise harbors that sank due to the quake and tsunami, as well as to prepare plots in neighborhoods where disaster victims will move en masse.
And the demand for soil will only increase when other municipalities finalize their rebuilding plans.
A lack of mountains along coastal areas means that soil must be transported from further inland. However, the coastal areas face a shortage of dump trucks because many are still being used to remove debris from the disaster zones.
According to a study of construction material expenses conducted on behalf of the central and local governments by the Economic Research Association, the price of soil for construction projects has jumped by 10 percent from the level before the March 11, 2011, disaster.
Government officials are considering procuring such materials in greater volumes rather than for individual projects to increase efficiency and reduce costs. They are also considering recycling concrete waste extracted from the debris.
The land ministry plans to provide soil that will be removed from sites where the Sanriku Expressway will be built. Experiments are being conducted on soil quality of the sediment left behind by the tsunami in the coastal areas of Sendai.
But the continued rise in the prices for soil is directly affecting disaster victims trying to rebuild their lives.
A 59-year-old self-employed man in Kesennuma, Miyagi Prefecture, had asked a company to raise the height of the approximately 150-square-meter plot for his home, which was destroyed by the tsunami. The company told him in late March: "There is a soil shortage everywhere now. We will have to raise the price from next month."
To resume his business, the man asked the same company in January to raise the foundation for the site of his company's office, which was also swept away in the waves.
Because the city government was slow to devise a rebuilding plan, the man decided to rebuild his home on the same site, rather than move to higher ground.
"The price has risen by 10 percent in two months and the price of land in higher ground is also increasing," the man said. "This is becoming ridiculous because disaster victims are being forced to pay higher prices for everything."
Much of the soil being used for rebuilding is dug up from mountains or higher ground. According to a number of construction materials companies in Miyagi Prefecture, the price of soil for construction projects is now about 1,500 yen to 2,200 yen ($19 to $27) per cubic meter.
"The price of soil has gone up everywhere with the increase in demand after the disasters,” the owner of a construction materials company in Sendai said. “Because the 11-ton trucks I own make several round-trips every day, fuel costs have also shot up."
In addition, the company owner said he had to raise the daily pay for workers from 8,000 yen to 10,000 yen because of personnel shortages.
Sendai plans to have about 2,360 households living on 1,250 hectares away from the coast rebuild without moving.
However, because the area is expected to be flooded by as much as 2 meters of water should another major tsunami hit, the Miyagi prefectural capital has also started a subsidy program to help raise the foundations of homes. The plots are each about 330 square meters. The city estimated that about 780,000 cubic meters would be needed if half of the households raise their foundations by 2 meters.
Work has already started in some areas to raise the foundations.
"Soil is becoming more expensive, and we have a shortage of workers,” said an official of one company handling the work. “We are competing with the government for the soil, and disaster victims who ask for such construction later will be placed at a further disadvantage."
Rebuilding agriculture in the Tohoku region could be trickier.
In the three prefectures, the tsunami inundated 20,000 hectares of farmland.
The Miyagi prefectural government plans to restore about 14,300 hectares of farmland in low-lying areas, but one official said it would be impossible to transport the huge volume of fertile topsoil needed for such a project.
"Farmers have taken years to develop their soil by providing fertilizer,” the official said. “It will not work to just bring in any soil from somewhere else."
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