CHIANG RAI, Thailand, Feb 9 (Thomson Reuters Foundation) -
On March 11, 2011, local official Shuya Takahashi was in
Higashi-Matsushima city hall when a towering tsunami struck the
scenic, low-lying coastal city in northeast Japan.
The 10.5-metre (34.5-ft) wave, triggered by a huge off-shore
earthquake, inundated 65 percent of the city, partially or fully
destroyed almost three out of four residential homes, and left
some 1,100 people - 3 percent of the city’s population - dead or
missing, including Takahashi’s university-age daughter.
“I myself lost my family and home, and I am one of the
disaster victims, (and I ) happened to be in charge of
reconstruction of the city,” he told a two-day conference this
week bringing together researchers, environmentalists and
government officials from East Asia to discuss ways to make the
region’s cities safe, environmentally friendly and inclusive.
“(The) tsunami reached a school which was a designated
evacuation site. The railway line was swept away... The
residents, including us, the city officials, did not know what
to do,” Takahashi recalled.
“I started to help the people. Things were under water. I
realised then that Thailand, Japan, or anywhere - disasters can
happen anytime,” he added in an interview on the sidelines of
the gathering in northern Thailand.
The magnitude 9.0 quake, the strongest ever recorded in
Japan, triggered a massive tsunami which knocked out the
Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant, causing the worst nuclear
crisis since Chernobyl a quarter of a century earlier.
Higashi-Matsushima was one of the areas worst-hit by the
tsunami that killed some 18,000 people in total.
Tasked with leading the city's reconstruction, Takahashi
said he was determined that “we should not allow what we
experienced to be repeated again”.
Since then, the city has embarked on an ambitious, two-track
recovery programme: rebuilding a better city and taking part in
the national government’s “Future City Initiative” to tackle
environmental issues and an ageing society.
But developing a "new city" is no easy task. "It needs very
careful planning and very good consensus among the citizens,”
Takahashi told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.
In Higashi-Matsushima, that meant holding multiple meetings
until a consensus was reached that 7,000 people, or 17.5 percent
of the population, would relocate to seven sites on higher
ground. Particular attention was paid to proximity to public
transport and the ability to move entire communities so their
close bonds could be retained.
There is now a 2-km (1.24-mile) no-build zone along the
The city has also gone on a renewable energy drive. It has
built a large-scale solar power plant at the site of a park that
was swept away by the tsunami, installed solar panels on the
roof of its emergency evacuation centre, and set up a subsidy
system for residents who want to install solar panels at home.
Higashi-Matsushima’s production of solar power is now 20
times greater than in 2011, Takahashi said.
Last June, the city also launched a disaster-resilient
"eco-town", comprising 85 public housing units with a micro-grid
powered by solar energy and biodiesel plus battery storage,
which can be linked to the local hospital in case of an
These projects and activities are managed by the
Higashi-Matsushima Organization for Progress and Economy,
Education and Energy (HOPE), an association set up to provide
support during the tsunami recovery period. Its members include
businesses, academics, the government and residents.
It has not all been plain sailing, however.
One of the biggest challenges, Takahashi said, was
resettling the residents of Nobiru, the devastated area where
Takahashi himself comes from. They were previously living in a
zone of 230 hectares (568 acres), but their new location is far
smaller at 92 hectares. It is "very compact" but much safer, he
While critics have derided Japan's recovery from the 2011
crisis as slow and incomplete, all Higashi-Matsushima's
relocation sites were ready in five years, and it is now
embarking on bigger infrastructure projects including building
sea walls and better road systems.
It will take another two to three years for these to be
completed, Takahashi said.
He credited the city’s relatively quick recovery to the high
level of civic mobilisation by its citizens before the disaster.
In the immediate aftermath, when the city office stopped
functioning, it was community groups that sprang into action -
setting up soup kitchens, organising the search for missing
persons and discussing recovery plans.
Residents also sorted the enormous amount of waste and
rubble - 100 years' worth - by hand, managing to recycle 99
Still, help from the national government was crucial,
Takahashi said, citing measures such as a temporary tax increase
of 2.1 percent to fund the reconstruction.
Asked if he had entertained the thought of leaving the city
after such a personal tragedy, he smiled and shook his head.
“It’s my destiny. There’s no choice,” he said.
(Reporting by Thin Lei Win; editing by Megan Rowling. Please
credit the Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of
Thomson Reuters, that covers humanitarian news, climate change,
resilience, women's rights, trafficking and property rights.