Photo/IllutrationUtility poles felled by Typoon No. 21 in Sennan city, Osaka, on Sept. 5, 2018 (Asahi Shimbun file photo)

In a couple of months, typhoon season will arrive in Japan following rainy season.

Last year, five typhoons made landfall in Japan during the July-September period, all causing major damage.

One major factor that should be a priority to make Japanese cities and towns less vulnerable to the destructive forces of typhoons is the abundance of utility poles and overhead power lines.

Last year’s Typhoon No. 21 felled or damaged some 1,800 utility poles in various parts of the nation including the western Kinki and Chugoku regions and Hokkaido, the northernmost major island.

The fallen poles blocked roads and damaged vehicles and buildings. Electric grids were disrupted in many locations, cutting power to up to 2.6 million households.

Utility poles are designed to withstand winds blowing at a velocity of 40 meters per second. But Typhoon No. 21 had a maximum wind velocity of more than 45 meters per second.

Even less powerful winds blowing at velocities of around 25 meters could create dangerous situations for utility poles if something gets caught in power lines, putting strong force on the poles.

At the end of last year, the government made emergency inspections of infrastructure and decided to remove all utility poles along some 1,000 kilometers of roads that are designed for emergency transportation during disasters.

Implementing this plan, however, will be a long, challenging process since the work requires close coordination with electric utilities and 80 percent of the some 1,700 municipalities nationwide have never carried out undergrounding, or the replacement of overhead power lines with underground cables.

It is urgent to provide related know-how to these municipalities.

What is surprising is the fact that the number of electric poles keeps increasing at a rate of 70,000 per year despite the enactment of a law to reduce them in 2016, which defines the responsibilities of electric utilities and local governments to help achieve the objective.

The law has proved extremely ineffective.

In addition to the plan adopted after the emergency inspections of infrastructure, there is a separate plan based on the law to eliminate poles along some 1,400 km of national highways and other major roads.

The government says the process of removing poles along the total of 2,400 km of roads will start by the end of the next fiscal year, which begins in April 2020. But the government does not even know exactly how many poles are involved.

This calls into question the government’s commitment to this policy goal.

The government should start by urging utilities and telecommunications companies to refrain from setting up new utility poles as much as possible in line with the spirit of the law.

Then, the government needs to designate priority areas, such as roads used for emergency evacuations during disasters and where fallen poles could cause serious disruptions in traffic, and begin the work to remove the poles in these areas steadily under a specific, well-designed plan.

A panel of experts to provide advice on this issue set up by the land ministry has discussed how the cost should be shared.

In a meeting of the panel in March, members made specific proposals. One would require utilities and telecommunications firms to remove poles during a 10-year grace period to mitigate the effects on their financial conditions. If they fail to meet the deadline, they would be stripped of the license to use the poles in the 11th year onward.

Given that replacing above-ground power grids with subterranean systems takes about seven years, this is a realistic and reasonable proposal.

It is vital to work out plans acceptable to the businesses involved to secure their cooperation for steady progress.

Local residents, for their part, should act in line with the benefits of the local communities without taking a "not-in-my-backyard" attitude toward such issues as where the transformers should be placed.

Even in Tokyo, only about 8 percent of the areas in its central 23 wards have subterranean power networks, far lower than the 100 percent rate for Paris and London.

Japanese society as a whole should recognize and understand the risks posed by fallen poles. This is a policy challenge that Japan, as a disaster-prone nation, cannot afford to eschew.

--The Asahi Shimbun, May 24