Home Blog Typhoon Hagibis and Japan’s Climate Change Adaptation Strategy

Typhoon Hagibis and Japan’s Climate Change Adaptation Strategy

March 19, 2021
Typhoon Hagibis destruction

Even as the massive storm approached Japan, people felt relatively safe facing the floodwaters of Typhoon Hagibis. Historically prone to earthquakes, tsunamis, typhoons and other severe storms leading to heavy flooding, Japan has state-of-the-art infrastructure providing protection from catastrophic floodwaters. In September 2018, when Typhoon Jebi departed Japan with relatively little damage, international media lauded Japan's infrastructure and disaster strategies.1 Two months later, confident in its ability to thwart dangerous climate events, Japan published its national Climate Change Adaptation Plan. When Typhoon Faxai came and went in September 2019, everything went according to plan and further bolstered national pride.

So, October 12, 2019, seemed no different than previous days when previous storms threatened Japan. The government issued a special warning of heavy rainfall, train services were suspended and many shops in Hagibis' impending path were shuttered for the day. But as we explore in greater detail below, this was a different day and a different storm. The hulking heavyweight Hagibis was approaching. A perfect storm was brewing, and Japan's confidence in its climate change adaptation plan was directly in its path.

Japan's Extensive Flood-Protection Infrastructure

Encompassing a spectacular chain of 6,852 islands, Japan has bravely endured thousands of years of natural disasters pummeling its social life, national development and economy. With alert eyes trained by the familiar signs of impending disaster, the Japanese have embraced their challenge, choosing to develop defensive solutions that cost much less than the damages and death tolls resulting from Nature's fatal blows.

Viewing disaster management as a problem to be solved by engineering, Japan has invested multiple billions of yen in nationwide built infrastructure.2 Launching projects in the late 1950s, civil engineers began building dams and levees and continually reinforcing riverbanks with concrete to contain rising waters. Building codes now mandate earthquake-proof construction, and storm surge risks are reduced with world-class defenses built along the shores of coastal cities.

With around 2.5 million people currently living in low-lying areas of Tokyo alone, the Japanese capital has understandably received a significant share of investment in floodwater management over the years.3 Five river systems and many individual rivers crisscross and threaten the plain upon which Tokyo sits. Starting in the 1950s with 6-7% of the national budget invested in disaster and risk reduction, Japan's financial commitment to Tokyo has since risen continuously. Dams, levees and reservoirs have been built across the city. A vast underground network of drainage tunnels has also been constructed alongside gas pipelines and subway lines. Completed in 2006 after 13 years of construction, Tokyo's ¥230 billion (USD 2.16 billion) Metropolitan Area Outer Underground Discharge Channel is the largest floodwater diversion facility in the world.

Adapting to Climate Change in Japan

As extreme climate events and severe natural disasters increase, rising death tolls and economic losses are necessitating new ways to reduce Nature's impacts. For example, disaster management responses to Japan's tragically famous Tōhoku earthquake and tsunami of 2011 were quick, efficient and saved many lives. But the subsequent nuclear meltdown at Fukushima Daiichi transformed a relatively common seismic event into the most expensive disaster in human history.4

On November 27, 2015, Japan's Cabinet launched the "Adaptation Plan for Climate Change Impacts," systematically promoting comprehensive government-wide efforts to mitigate climate change impacts.5 It was supplemented in June 2018 with the "Climate Change Adaptation Law," clarifying the legal position of Japan's adaptation measures and establishing a legal mechanism for promoting public cooperation with these measures.6

Following up in November 2018, Japan published its "National Climate Change Adaptation Plan," mandating regular assessments of climate change impacts and detailing specific adaptation measures for mitigating climate impacts on diverse sectors.7 Additionally, the national plan requires a full reassessment of climate change impacts and reformulation of adaptation measures every five years, revising the plan upon completion as needed.

Typhoon Hagibis: A Perfect Storm

Known in Japanese as taifu, typhoons are large, low-pressure systems developing in the equatorial waters of the Pacific and moving toward Asia. When concurrent storms occur in the same basin, names (in addition to numbers) are assigned to help reduce confusion. Gathering strength at one of the fastest speeds ever recorded, Typhoon Hagibis transformed from a tropical storm into a Category-5 super typhoon in 18 hours.8 Next, every possible negative outcome converged on its path, upgrading Typhoon Hagibis to a perfect storm.

Causing damages exceeding ¥1.8 trillion, Hagibis broke Japan's record for non-tsunami water-related natural disasters.9 Damage to agriculture alone topped ¥100 billion.10 Dumping record-breaking rainfall, Hagibis destroyed levees at 135 locations along 71 rivers, flooded over 68,000 homes and forced thousands into evacuation centers.11 Although several train services were suspended, this proved ineffective as floodwater inundated the Nagano depot, damaging 10 trains and 120 carriages, potentially costing ¥30-40 billion to replace. Hundreds of thousands of households lost power and water in 38 prefectures, with 22,000 lacking power and 133,000 without water almost two weeks later. The death toll, varying from 84-98, marked Hagibis as the deadliest typhoon to strike Japan since 1979.

Admitting the extensive economic impact of Typhoon Hagibis, Prime Minister Shinzo Abe asserted, "The national government will continue to do everything possible so that the victims of this disaster can return to their normal lives as soon as possible.” However, Professor Kazuhisa Tsuboki of Nagoya University's Institute for Space-Earth Environmental Research warns against unrealistic expectations of 'normal life' returning. Tsuboki asserts, “We should expect the frequency of powerful typhoons and heavy rains to grow with global warming.” He adds, discouraged by the Meteorological Agency's use of inadequate satellite imagery, "Ideally, we should be flying weather observation aircraft, but that’s still at an experimental stage.”11

Director Nobukuyi Tsuchiya of the Japan Riverfront Research Center confirms Tsuboki's assertion, noting that Tokyo is unprepared for increased rainfall associated with global warming. In spite of Japan's extensive investments, Tsuchiya, a former chief civil engineer of Tokyo's Edogawa ward, complains, "Unfortunately, the flood control action in vision of climate change has not yet been established in Japan.”3

Typhoon Hagibis battered Japan's state-of-the-art floodwater infrastructure, slammed the Climate Change Adaptation Plan and shattered national confidence in engineered security. Some engineers now call for accelerated flood control programs, while other engineers warn that Japan faces diminishing returns on new infrastructure investments as storms grow more destructive.2 While actively encouraging upgraded flood controls, Yasuo Nihei, a professor of river engineering at Tokyo's University of Science, admits, "realistically, there will be rains you can't defend against."

How You Can Help

Natural disasters and environmental damage are occurring with increasing severity and frequency - not just in Japan, as we've explored in this post, but all across the globe. For this reason, professionals trained in environmental law are needed now more than ever. As rising numbers of environmental laws enter the mainstream, these are the go-to individuals who help implement adaptation measures aimed at protecting us and our environment from natural disasters.

If you're interested in combating the rising climate crisis, consider how an Online Master of Jurisprudence in Environmental Law from Tulane University Law School can give you the knowledge, skills and tools needed to successfully meet this challenge. We offer up-to-the-minute training for participants on all sides of environmental issues, helping build appreciation for the impact of environmental law on all potential stakeholders - completely online in the comfort of your own location.