05/20/2022, 10.40
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Leaky dam shuts Toyota down, reveals weak underbelly of Japanese infrastructure

by Guido Alberto Casanova

A leak in a canal dam in Aichi prefecture sent industrial plants into crisis for a few hours. By 2033, two-thirds of pipelines and road bridges will be over 50 years old, and there is a shortage of maintenance: spending on public works dropped 40 percent between 1996 and 2019.


Tokyo (AsiaNews) - Aichi Prefecture is one of the most important areas for Japan's economy and the country's automobile capital. For a few hours on Wednesday, May 18, the city's industrial hub of Toyota, where the eponymous automaker is headquartered, suffered a worrying drop in running water that forced some factories to suspend operations.

The problem began on Sunday the 15th when a large leak was noticed in the Meiji Canal Dam on the Yahagi River, one of the region's most important rivers. As of dawn Wednesday, the infrastructure, which supplies 131 businesses scattered in nine surrounding towns through the local sewage treatment plant, stopped pumping water because of a hole created in the riverbed. According to local authorities, there is no telling how long it will take before the dam is repaired.

In the absence of a reservoir, the dam has been forced to cut off water supply to both farmers and industrial establishments in the area. Most of these factories belong to companies controlled by Toyota or its suppliers. Due to the reduced water supply needed to process components, some of the car company's assembly lines suspended production.

The interruption lasted only a few hours, and some companies were able to maintain their production by resorting to groundwater. Currently, a temporary pumping system has managed to restore an adequate level of supplies. The episode, however, demonstrates an aging infrastructure problem that has become increasingly evident in Japan in recent years.

According to the ministry, by 2033, 62 percent of all water management infrastructure in the country will have passed the 50-year age threshold that is commonly considered the natural expiration of these facilities. By that date, 63 percent of road bridges and 42 percent of tunnels will also have passed the same threshold. Maintenance and repair work is then a burdensome cost for the local governments that have responsibility for these structures, as in the case of the Toyota Dam. There is often a lack of funds and personnel to inspect the infrastructure and carry out the necessary work to ensure its safety.

Last July, this neglect turned into tragedy in Atami, Shizuoka Prefecture. The landfill built on a mountainside collapsed downstream due to torrential summer rains, overwhelming the town below and killing 26 residents. As written in documents viewed by the Asahi Shimbun newspaper, local authorities were fully aware of the precarious state the embankment was in, yet they did not order the work that would have been necessary to prevent its collapse.

In October, on the other hand, in Wakayama Prefecture, 138,000 people were left without running water at home for about six days. The bridge over which the pipes that supplied the city ran collapsed due to corrosion of the metal, and the city administration admitted that it had underestimated the problem. "If inspections had been done in the right way, all this could have been avoided," the mayor said.

Japan has prospered thanks in part to quality infrastructure that has served the country's needs. Today, however, investment in this item is a fraction of what it once was: between 1996 and 2019, spending on public works dropped by 40 percent. Revitalizing Japan also means solving this problem, but the time available to Tokyo is not infinite.

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