Outcry Over Construction Halt of $5B Japanese Dam Project

Giant gray pylons loom over this hot springs town — part of a $5 billion dam project that now may never be finished.

Construction at the Yamba dam, five decades in the making, has been halted by Japan's new government, which wants to scrap dozens of public works projects it considers wasteful.

Yamba, the first to get the ax, has become a national symbol of the big-money projects favored by the old government led by the Liberal Democratic Party.

The LDP — which ruled the country for nearly all of the last 50 years but was recently ousted in national elections — pumped billions of dollars into rural areas for elaborate tunnels, bridges and dams, many of which get little use.

Prime Minister Yukio Hatoyama's rival Democrats promised during their campaign to end that legacy of public works spending. The party wants to free up funds for new polices like handouts to farmers and families with children.

Just hours after he was appointed last week, Land and Infrastructure Minister Seiji Maehara said construction on the dam would stop.

But the freeze of the Yamba has sparked an outcry from local residents who have become invested — emotionally and economically — in the project. Many have construction-related jobs, and they don't want the sacrifices they made for the reservoir the dam will create — giving up their land, moving family graves — to go to waste.

"I just want them to finish it. It's sad to still be here, you can tell people are hurting just by their faces," says Tsutomu Mizuide, a 16-year-old whose family runs a small restaurant in an area that will be submerged.

The Yamba dam, about 80 miles northwest of Tokyo, was first designed to help control flooding after a typhoon ravaged the mountainous area. In the years since, it has grown to include power generation and water provision for four different prefectures plus Tokyo.

When the project first got under way decades ago, local residents waged a spirited campaign to save the area, but as the fight dragged on, most people gave up in resignation, accepting cash payouts for their land or resettlement deals.

Some owners of hot spring inns had been hoping to use replacement land provided by the government — lakeside property near the new reservoir — to kick-start the local economy.

"We don't really mind whether they stop construction on the dam or not, we just want our new life," said Yoji Hida, who runs an inn that goes back about 200 years old and is also the chairman of a local group backing the project.

Around Naganohara, the sights and sounds of construction are everywhere. Highway tunnels have been drilled into the surrounding hills, large bridges in various states of completion crisscross overhead and broad swaths of earth have been blanketed in concrete. New houses for those who will be displaced are being built, and family graveyards have been moved to higher ground.

Some have suggested the current budget of $5 billion could double before all of it is complete.

The project is about 70 percent finished in terms of budget, but construction on the dam itself has yet to begin. It was to be completed by mid-2016.

After the outcry from local residents, Maehara toured the works on Wednesday, drawing a media contingent of hundreds to the small town, where wooden inns display handwritten signs with the names of their guests.

He had planned to talk with local leaders, but they refused on the grounds that there was nothing to negotiate as his decision had already been made.

At a news conference in a local town hall, Maehara said the various supporting roads and bridges would be finished, but the dam would be canceled. He said his ministry is reviewing 143 dam projects.

Residents gathered outside, where "Quickly rebuild livelihoods, quickly finish Yamba Dam" was posted on the building in large letters.

Still, while the town's elders work to present a unified picture of support for the dam, some locals never warmed to the project. As Maehara was leaving the press conference, Yohei Watari, a 23-year-old local resident who works as a salesman, attempted to get close enough to say he was against the dam, but was held back by a man in a suit.

"The government should listen to everyone's opinion, for or against," he said.

Yoko Watanabe, the director of an anti-dam group that has about 300 members, said there are powerful political forces at work in the town.

"Previously, there was strong opposition to the dam. But those who were opposed were pressured, and those who favored the dam are now leaders in the town," she said. "Residents are being used as pawns in a political conflict."