Water Supply Shut Down at the Height of Summer

On August 7, 1997, a fifty-three year old woman was found dead in a temporary housing unit on Port-Island, Kobe city. She had been dead of asthenia and starvation for up to three days. Staff from Kobe Municipal Water Service Department had visited her five times, but never met her face to face. Water supply was shut down on July 30 due to the non payment of the water bill but this was not reported to the Life Rebuilding Headquarters under which jurisdiction of the temporary housing management was. It was a mechanical step without any consideration for the woman and caused her to die a kodokushi, a solitary death. This case pushed up the number of kodokushi in temporary housing in Hyogo prefecture to 168.

The dead woman was living alone, unable to work, suffering from diabetes. There was not a penny nor a bankbook to be found in her room. Electricity was available. There was only a half eaten piece of tofu, or bean curd, and an unfinished bottle of mineral water left in the refrigerator.

The news caused a surge of rage against administrative authority. Mr. UCHIHASHI Katsuto, a well-known commentator said, "I got into a rage towards those who are engaged in public service and have a responsibility to fulfill the necessary and minimum conditions of human existence. They not only failed to take any action knowing the woman's poverty but also professed in cold blood that they had destroyed the life supporting device."

Water Supply Bill in Arrears and Suspension of Water Supply

The Water Service Act, article 15, sets down the duty of the water service. Article 15, paragraph 1 regulates, "Water supply should not be stopped except in the cases where there are justifiable grounds." Accordingly, even when the bill is not paid, it must be judged whether the situation provides justifiable grounds to shut down the water supply service.

According to officials in Nishinomiya city, a quake-hit city as well, there was "no case of water supply suspension in temporary housing, even when the water bill remained continuously unpaid." Ashiya city showed the minimum consideration declaring, "the time limit for payment is 6 months, but actually it is extended by more than a year."

When this incident was made open, the then mayor of Kobe city, Sasayama, stated, "It is a matter of regret. I have been giving instructions to exchange information with each other but the instructions do not appear to have reached every one on staff." Such remarks implied that the administrative services were not always performed as they should be.

Reluctance in Information Disclosure

On August 11, just after the incident, Hyogo Research Center for Quake Restoration (Shinsai Kenkyu Senta) made a demand to the city government to disclose the information related to this incident. The aim was to make clear whether or not the measure to shut down the water supply was appropriate according to the legal standard and procedure, and to prevent such a case from occurring again. The demand was turned down, and it wasn't until 1 year and 2 months later, after many complicated proceedings, including the making of statements to the Kobe Municipal Open Screening Committee of Official Documents, that all of the related-information was disclosed.

The result revealed for the first time that water service was suspended after 3 non-payment notices were issued in Kobe city. It was not rare to see a case where water supply was stopped after only one or two warnings were given. The amount in arrears was 6,000 to 7,000 yen in most cases, with a recorded maximum amount of less than 60,000 yen and the minimum amount for which supply was cut only being 1,795 yen. It was no surprise that they met harsh criticism for stopping water supply in order to collect payment for the bills.

Responsibility to Take Care of Disaster-Affected People

In this incident the officials claimed that they had visited the dead woman five times between May 16 and July 16, 1997, only to find her not there. It was pointed out, however, that she might have been living as if trying to hide herself. If there had been the slightest consideration for her, such a mechanical and bureaucratic step would not have been taken. The doubt that this procedure might have been a violation of article 15, paragraph 1, of the Water Service Act cannot be alleviated.

Since then, until January 2001, when the last of the temporary housing had been removed, no similar incident had occurred.

(DEGUCHI Toshikazu)