The Yomiuri ShimbunHow will regional areas’ infrastructure, which is increasingly deteriorating, be maintained and managed? Effective measures to tackle this serious problem must be devised.
The nation’s roads, bridges, tunnels, water pipes and other infrastructure were mostly built during the postwar period of high economic growth. Consequently, many of these structures are approaching the end of their service lives simultaneously. Many local governments in regional areas are financially strapped for reasons including falling populations, so they cannot properly replace or repair these structures.
In its campaign pledges for the upcoming House of Councillors election, the Liberal Democratic Party stated it would “strengthen the nation’s land” to prevent and reduce damage caused by disasters. However, there is a lack of detail about policies to address the nation’s crumbling infrastructure. The Constitutional Democratic Party of Japan and the Democratic Party for the People have not even mentioned the upkeep of regional infrastructure. It is unfortunate that debate on such a pressing issue has barely risen above a murmur.
Following the 2012 accident in which ceiling panels collapsed inside the Sasago Tunnel on the Chuo Expressway, the central and local governments stepped up checks of the nation’s infrastructure.
According to a Yomiuri Shimbun survey conducted on the central and local governments this year, almost 40 percent of the 580 sites found to be at the most serious level of disrepair during such checks currently have no prospect of being fixed or removed.
Taking remedial action after a major accident has happened is too late. An order of priority must be drawn up and repairs efficiently undertaken. Preventive maintenance, in which repairs are diligently performed before damage occurs, is effective. Further efforts should be made to reduce the labor such checks require, such as by using advanced technologies including drones.
Sharing the load
About 15 percent of the total length of the nation’s water pipes have exceeded their expected lifespan. The huge expenses involved in renewing or replacing these pipes are a heavy burden.
Even today, the management of water supply operations is in a critical state. About 30 percent of Japan’s publicly run waterworks are in the red. As the population shrinks further, their earnings will decline.
Under the revised water supply law, from this autumn it will become easier to introduce the so-called concession formula, which allows local governments to sell the rights to operate water services to private companies. This change is aimed at tapping private-sector expertise to enable such services to operate more efficiently. However, local governments remain reluctant to take this step for reasons including unease over safety issues. The concession approach cannot be taken without the understanding of water users.
Regional collaboration among public utilities is one method to break this stalemate. If public operators supplying water to a small population take steps such as sharing facilities and placing bulk orders for construction work, they can trim their expenses. They should positively make such efforts.
Moves to expand regional cooperation in the provision of services are spreading, as seen with garbage disposal, firefighting services and the reorganization of public hospitals. The role of prefectural governments will be important in coordinating the interests of each party and broadening cooperation.
The promotion of “compact cities,” in which urban functions are concentrated in a central area, also can be considered an effective option for dealing with population decline. By concentrating infrastructure for public facilities together with housing and commercial complexes, administrative costs can be kept down.
Detailed policies tailored to the conditions of each region must be worked out.