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Alanah Nasadyk – Blog Post 1: Yokohama Site Visits

Alanah Nasadyk – Blog Post 1: Yokohama Site Visits

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Well, it’s been just over two months since I hopped on a plane and into my life in Japan. So, I think it’s about time to share some more of my experiences and reflections with you all. During this time, I’ve had even more chances to become familiar with the frequency and power of disasters in Asia. I’ve been through my first and second typhoons, and was surprised and saddened to learn that a popular hiking mountain, Ontake-san, erupted claiming the lives of over 50 people on September 27th. The first typhoon, named Typhoon Phanfone, was the most intense weather event I’d ever witnessed. But, I was safe in my dorm even with the onslaught of heavy rain and roaring winds, that one could be forgiven for mistaking as a shrieking kaijuu like Godzilla or wrathful kami. One of my bosses at the office advised me to work from home to avoid the storm, and later on, I learned that during such strong typhoons many other workers and children stay home too. Not everyone was safe though, two US military personnel stationed in Okinawa that underestimated the danger were swept into the surging waves. Landslides brought on by the rain also caused property damage. As the second typhoon, or Tyhpoon Vongfong, passed through the Yokohama area, I caught a glimpse of Japan’s disaster preparedness systems in action as I received an alert warning me of heavy rains and potential flooding through the cellphone I received through the CITYNET Yokohama Office. Although the text itself was of little use to foreigners that can’t read many Kanji (the Chinese characters used in written Japanese), it did prompt me to check the news to make sure that I was still safe, so I was impressed by this smart safety measure.

A sunset over Yokohama.

However, speaking of smart safety measures, this time, natural disasters are not the only thing I intend to focus on. For this blog post, I would like to give some insight into some of the activities I’ve been engaging in as a Project Assistant with the Citynet Yokohama Office (CYO). Starting in September, myself and another intern from Temple University’s Japan Campus, Marina Suzuki, participated in a number of site visits to familiarize ourselves with the infrastructure of the City of Yokohama and better understand how the city has been planned and operates to meet citizen’s needs, improve sustainability, and promote safety. The information we gathered during our site visits will also be used to describe to Citynet’s member cities’ representatives what kind of infrastructural learning opportunities that they can undertake during a knowledge-sharing visit to Yokohama.

The massive garbage claw at the Tsurumi Incineration Plant.

The first site we visited was the Tsurumi Incineration Plant, not far from the dorm where I live. We visited the second site, the Yokohama City Recycling Centre, just a short walk away on the same day. During these tours, I developed a concept of how Yokohama’s solid waste is managed and how over time the process has become more and more sustainable. For example, originally the incinerators used to burn garbage had large smoke stacks that released all of the by-products of burning waste without any processing, but over time technology was put in place to remove different pollutants, and today no black smoke is emitted from the smoke stacks of the incinerator because of the chemical filters in place. Due to the scarcity of space in Yokohama, landfills are not a viable option, so instead, waste is burned and the energy from the heat of the burning waste is harnessed via a steam turbine electricity generator. This turbine generates enough energy to run the plant and to supply energy to the city as well generating revenue for the plant. In this way, the energy in the solid waste is not wasted. However, the process is not perfect, ideally waste should be diverted, reused, or reduced altogether. As well, although the ash left behind by the burnt waste is purified of most noxious chemicals, both the ash and the spent filters are disposed of on reclaimed land in the ocean. This surely has environmental consequences, and of course, the burning of waste still contributes to greenhouse gas emissions. The City of Yokohama has made great strides in reducing the amount of solid waste by encouraging recycling, so much so that several of its Solid Waste Incineration Facilities have been shut down because they were no longer needed.

At the Tsurumi Recycling Centre, there are programs and campaigns in place to encourage recycling and to show residents how to separate their waste properly. The City of Yokohama’s waste management campaign also includes providing residents with information on reducing waste on a personal level by using reusable containers and bags and not eating out as often, to name a few suggestions. Anyone visiting Japan from Canada is sure to be shocked by the amount of unnecessary packaging used on an everyday basis, especially for food items and groceries. I wish Yokohama and other places throughout the world the best of luck in reducing their waste production. But, in the meantime, it is sensible to be recycling the energy of solid waste instead of leaving it to pile up in landfills or worse, to be dumped in public places. Reflecting on Yokohama’s infrastructure has also made me consider the way my hometown is managed. Victoria’s newly piloted composting program is another good alternative to sending organic waste to landfills and a way of recycling the energy in solid waste rather than allowing it to take up space in landfills. Encouraging at-home composting and local composting programs can be a great way to boost small-scale farming, gardening, or even green landscaping in urban places, which might help work on a few issues at once: food security, climate change, and waste management.

Looking at the steam turbine that generates electricity from incinerated waste.

Now that I’ve mentioned the specter of food insecurity, I would like to share a little bit about another of the sites the CYO members visited during my internship. The last site we visited was Keystone Technology’s urban agriculture operation, located near the Shin-Yokohama station. Marina wrote an urban farming project proposal and in order to learn more about whether Keystone Technology’s urban agricultural methods could be applied in some of CITYNET’s member cities we went on a site visit.

Keystone Technology's LED urban agriculture array.

Keystone Technology’s urban agriculture operation involves using LED lights and hydroponic systems to grow plants for food indoors. The project is part research and partially a commercial venture, with the research being financially supported by the city of Yokohama and the edibles they produce being sold to supermarkets and restaurants within walking distance. The system is unlike anything I had ever seen before, for example, the colour of the LED lights change to mimic the full spectrum of natural light. There are no pests because the operation we saw is carried out in a glass room in an office building with rows of shelves holding the plants and bug-deterrent light is used, just in case. However, there are also no pollinators, which limits the type of plants that can be grown. Plants are also harvested and not left to create seed or to decompose to leave nutrients for the next generation. Therefore, this system is not self-sustaining and requires multiple outside inputs, such as seeds, fertilizer (including chemical fertilizer dissolved in the plant’s water for nutrients), water, and energy. The energy input is a deterrent from implementing this type of array in other countries in Asia because the LED lights require a steady stream of electricity to function and not deteriorate quickly. From the perspective of seeing research into different ways of supporting food production as important during a time where more and more agricultural land becomes unusable, populations continue to climb concentrating in cities, and less and less young people go into farming, the research is certainly valuable. This method may be useful to augment traditional farming methods and increase food security by converting unused buildings in cities without farmable land, which can reduce the cost of transporting food from the countryside as well. It is also convenient for those with little time to invest in traditional farming, as the operation of these arrays can be learned in less than a week. Furthermore, the outside of these buildings could be used as more traditional urban agricultural space or to generate solar or small-scale wind-powered electricity. However, there is something off-putting and somewhat ironic about converting different sources of energy to electricity to then power lights to finally grow plants, when conventional farming lets the plants harness and convert the solar energy all on their own. So, while this is a bright idea, especially to expand farming in cities and indoors on small-scales in apartments, offices, or universities, it does not reduce the importance of supporting conventional, sustainable farming and gardening, or the need to preserve arable land to improve food security.

Taking notes on how different building structures react differently to earthquakes.

The third place we visited to learn about measures the city of Yokohama has in place to improve the quality of life for its residents was the Disaster Prevention Centre. This building is dedicated to teaching visitors about measures the city of Yokohama has in place to improve the quality of life for its resintial and past disasters and how to prepare and respond to them.  A retired firefighter was our tour guide for this visit. The tour showed us models of disasters, a video going through historical disasters in Japan’s recent history complete with the 4D effects of heat and wind, an earthquake simulation room, a chemical fire escape simulation, a blackout escape simulation, and how to tie knots in a rope for escaping tall buildings. This facility puts emphasis on giving its visitors memorable, hands-on experiences, rather than piling on details and information, in the hopes that participants will remember the experiences and the associated safety instructions to make the right choices in an emergency. Disaster risk reduction requires more than just infrastructure and equipment, it also relies on knowledge and mental preparedness among the general populace. This type of facility is quite useful for making a lasting impression that could help someone think their way through difficult and dangerous situations. The video shows actual historical images and footage of utter destruction along with death tolls associated with large-scale disasters, seeing the power of disasters to bring such misery really impressed on me the importance of Disaster Risk Reduction programs like CITYNET’s, especially in such a disaster prone region. During this visit, I was also surprised to learn that tornadoes have happened in Japan. I was also shocked to learn that the largest percentage of fires that the Yokohama fire department responds to are intentionally lit, in other words arson. This somewhat tainted my image of Japan as a place where for the most part people are quite safe from crime because everyone follows the rules.

Our tour guide explains to me the process of treating wastewater.

I also got the chance to visit the Yokohama Wastewater Treatment Facility to learn about how wastewater is collected and diverted to prevent flooding, treated, and recycled as clean water. I learned that the wastewater/sewage is collected from homes and other drainage systems into a series of pipes and brought to the treatment facility using gravity. Due to Yokohama’s history as one of the first ports of Japan to open up to international trade after Japan’s period as a closed country, known as Sakoku, it was the first city to develop modern underground sewage and plumbing. Although, the sewage pipes are much wider than their historical counterparts are, and they now double as conduits for internet cables. As an aside, While I was visiting Nikkou in Tochigi Prefecture, I also saw an example of Taisho Era (1912-1926) water systems that relied on gravity and natural water sources as well as hand pumps to convey water through residential areas.

Taisho Era water system in Nikkou.

Anyways, in Yokohama, before wastewater can become usable again it goes through the facility’s series of wastewater treatment tanks. The water generally flows through the tanks using gravity and the use of pumps is reserved for removing sludge or pumping large volumes of water during periods of heavy rain. Unfortunately when the rain is too heavy and the water exceeds the capacity of the facility, water may be dispelled into the ocean without being as thoroughly treated. As the wastewater flows through the first tank, the large debris is screened out, and then in the next tank the smaller particles are allowed to sink to the bottom while the water carries on for further treatment. Next, there is a tank with activated sludge containing microorganisms similar to those found in rivers that feed on the pollutants and impurities in the water. To keep the microorganisms actively feeding on impurities oxygen is pumped into this tank. This process also removes chemical components in the waste water that, if left to concentrate, cause eutrophication, which has negative environmental impacts including the creation of algal blooms such as red tide. Once the sludge is no longer usable, it is pumped out of the tanks, sent to sludge treatment facilities and then either used in landscaping materials or sent for incineration. At the end of the process, after the sludge has been separated from the water, small amounts of chemicals are used to sterilize the water. The process is monitored and the water is tested to ensure that chemical and biological composition of the water meets the cities standards. Although I must admit, compared to the water from our well back home, the chemical taste is quite noticeable, so I wonder if the chemicals used in the sterilization process could be further reduced and still guarantee the safety of the water for drinking and reintroduction into natural systems.

The series of treatment tanks at the Yokohama Wastewater Treament Facility.

The previously mentioned water pumps are not used constantly, only during heavy rain to process large volumes of waste and stormwater to avoid flooding. The power used by the generator during these periods is greater than that used to power a large ship and costs millions of yen to operate. The cost of operating the waterworks system is covered by tax money. I asked about the potential to harness the power of the moving water, but my tour guide informed me that the slope and speed of the water is not great enough to provide much energy. Perhaps in the future there will be initiatives to use renewable energy sources to at least offset the energy and monetary cost of running the pumps. Though the roofs of the water processing facilities are not used for producing solar energy, they are used as rooftop parks for the public, which is a great use of space.

Mascots for the Wastewater Treatment Centre help spread awareness about keeping water clean.

Seeing how the sewage system works in Yokohama made me reflect back on the contentious and drawn out debate over what to do about sewage in the Victoria region. I have read arguments that sending the sewage straight to the ocean after screening, which is done now in Victoria, provides a source of nutrients and that marine life is actually flourishing at the ends of sewage outflows. But undoubtedly the diluted, yet otherwise untreated waste has a number of negative impacts on not only marine systems but the interconnected environment at large, as well, an artificial source of nutrient inputs is likely not ideal for a natural systems’ functioning. For example, cat-litter flushed down a toilet and out to sea can transmit disease to marine mammals. In any case, I hope that Victoria chooses a wastewater management system that operates sustainably and reduces pollution as much as possible. The ocean may be vast but it is not infinite. We should not overestimate natural systems’ abilities to absorb and break down pollutants and other stresses coming not only from Victoria but cities the world over.

Sharing information about CITYNET Yokohama Office activities at Smart City Week Conference.

I am glad to have been able to visit all of these facilities to get an inside look at how a massive bustling city coordinates its infrastructure and services to meet the needs of its citizens. I was impressed to learn about the historical trend in Yokohama towards greater sustainability and resilience in its operations and citizens’ lives. I also attended a conference held in the same building as our office called, Smart Cities Week, where people from organizations, governments, and companies around the world met to discuss urbanization issues in Asia. I won’t go into detail about this event. But one thing that stuck with me from the conference was that although Yokohama and many Western cities have had decades to clean up their acts, as they became developed countries and slowly got wise to environmental degradation, countries in Asia have been developing and growing in a shorter time frame. These places will have to address these same issues that the world has wrestled with for years, for which we still do not have all the answers to, much quicker as well. I have hope that the initiatives of local level communities and governments, spurred on by networks and other organizations like CITYNET fostering city-to-city knowledge sharing, will give people in places the world over the impetus to be active in improving quality of life for everyone.

Marina and I at the CITYNET Yokohama Office booth for the Asia Smart City Week Conference, Yokohama Day.