January 31, 2004


The Asaza Project

Keywords: Newsletter 

JFS Newsletter No.17 (January 2004)
"Unique NGOs in Japan" Article Series No.4


Lake Kasumigaura ranks second in size in Japan, after Lake Biwa, with a surface area of 219.9 square kilometers and a catchment basin more than ten times the lake's surface area. Located not far from the metropolis of Tokyo, Lake Kasumigaura was developed on a large scale during Japan's period of rapid economic growth from 1950s to 1970s, to provide water for industrial and drinking. In the process, much of the lakeside was encased in revetments (concrete facing to sustain an embankment), with a devastating effect on the natural environment. The lake suffered. People stopped visiting the lakeside, and the migratory birds and other living creatures that once visited the reed beds disappeared.

Seeing the situation deteriorate, the government tried various measures and projects, in the attempt to restore the local nature. These efforts, however, did not drastically improve the environment of the Lake Kasumigaura catchment area. The top-down, government-led approach of pouring money and equipment onto the problem, failed to produce any community-based activities. Moreover, each ministry and agency implemented its own projects independently, resulting in needless duplication.

Amid this background, the Asaza Project was started in 1995. Its innovative approach is called a "community-based public works project," and is quite different from the traditional government-led ones.

The Asaza Project started with restoring lakeside vegetation. First, the project focused on reed beds as an effective means of water purification. The reed beds absorb nitrogen and phosphorus that cause water pollution. They also provide spawning and feeding grounds for fish.

Vertical concrete revetments, however, prevented the reeds from taking root, because the waves beating against them bounced off the wall, digging deeper into the lake bottom. With no room to take root, the reeds gradually declined and were on the verge of disappearing.

But then Hiroshi Iijima, director general of the Asaza Fund, an NPO, turned his attention to a native water plant called "asaza," or "floating heart" (Nymphoides peltata). They form into large plant communities and have a natural wave-dampening effect, thus contributing to the revival of vegetation, including the reeds.

Floating heart seedlings were replanted in Lake Kasumigaura by local elementary school students and residents, but the waves washed the seedlings away. Such was the impact of the concrete revetment.K

The Asaza Fund proposed building brushwood breakwaters made of wood from the thinning of forests in the management of tree plantations, to help the floating hearts take root on the lake bottom.

The brushwood breakwaters were made of wood supplied by a local forestry cooperative using traditional Japanese craftsmanship. The forests around Lake Kasumigaura had been left to deteriorate due to prolonged slump in wood prices and labor shortage. By utilizing local wood from the thinning of plantation forests, however, the project has created new jobs and restored healthy forests at the same time. It was also approved as one of the government's public works projects.

Lake Kasumigaura, once a fertile fishing ground, experienced a sharp decline in catches during the past 20 years, giving the local fishing industry bleak prospects for the future. The brushwood breakwater, which has also become a fish shelter, is now protecting and nurturing aquatic resources. There are other ongoing government public works projects in the lake area, in conjunction with idle farmland and rivers flowing in from catchment basin.

To restore nature, it is essential to know the original conditions. That is why the Asaza Fund has launched activities in which local elementary school students are encouraged to ask their grandparents and elderly neighbors about the past conditions of the lakefront. At present, a total of 170 elementary and junior high schools in the Kasumigaura catchment basin are participating in the Asaza Project, which provides a valuable opportunity for local residents to learn about the environment first-hand.

Thus the non-governmental organization has streamlined public work operations, previously implemented by the government separately, by offering a new approach linking public works projects of the lakes, rivers, rice fields, and forests that are inherently linked to one another. By networking citizens, agriculture, forestry, fisheries, schools, business organizations, research institutes and public administrations that are involved with the nature revitalization of Lake Kasumigaura, the Asaza Fund linked the separate efforts and established a networking culture that is mutually beneficial.

As the network matured, more and more citizens participated in planting the floating hearts and forest management activities. Since 1995, a total of 86,000 people have participated in the program.

The main feature of this undertaking is that no core organization exists to manage the project. It may seem as if the Asaza Fund is managing the citizen's participatory public works project. But it just serves as a forum for collaboration to restore nature around Lake Kasumigaura. The entire system works on account of cooperation among persons with different views and standpoints, goals and interests. But they share a common challenge: the revival of nature.

Participants of such broad-based networks actively engage in environmental conservation because doing so invigorates their own projects, not because it is obligatory or regulated. Mr. Iijima explains the success of the approach, saying this project is based on "natural linkages and networking, with an non-profit organization as the catalyst, while conventional public works projects are territorial and control-oriented."

The Asaza Project takes a citizen-participation approach, a network created only because of the mobility of an NPO that acts as a go-between for the different sectors. This kind of project is especially suited for NPOs that have a broad view of the entire picture.

Mr. Iijima's approach is evident in his words:

"In the twentieth century, humanity, in its attempt to control nature and society by force, created countless cases of nature destruction and pollution, poverty and conflict. As society became more complex and organizational functions specialized, the connections between relevant factors were lost, which meant that problems in the real world could no longer be addressed by any single technology or measure. Today's environmental pollution is the epitome of this situation."

The Asaza Project does not take forceful approaches to restore nature and reform society, but creates a networked community by integrating environmental conservation functions into the local social systems, such as education and business. This enables compatibility with nature restoration and revitalization of the local community.

The broad network that has taken root around Lake Kasumigaura, nurtured by the Asaza Project, is a focus of national attention today as one sustainable model of how to do things.

(Staff Writer Keiko Hoshino)