ProjectsPast and current JFS projects


May 19, 2009


Working with Local Citizens, Companies and the Government to Protect Watershed

iijimasan.jpg Copyright JFS

Lecturer: Hiroshi Iijima, Administrative Director of the Nonprofit Organization Asaza Fund and Executive Director of the Citizens Association for Kasumigaura and Kitaura

The basin area of Kasumigaura straddles Ibaraki, Tochigi and Chiba Prefectures, and at about 2,200 km2, makes up Japan's second-largest lake after Biwako in Shiga Prefecture. The Asaza Project aims to protect biodiversity across this massive area. For such a project that covers such a broad area, it is necessary to create a system that does not allow businesses to be completely autonomous, as this could lead to unrestricted expansion. Because the traditional idea of the nature conservation focuses on the small scale, it cannot be applied to the whole basin area.

Foster Care of Asaza

The local government has implemented a variety of measures to prevent the deterioration of water quality and the environment, which began in the 1970s; however, we have not seen any improvement in water quality. Since around 1990, people have been saying that the current system is limited and that the government needs to implement more comprehensive measures, but no one is certain of what needs to be done. I too was not certain, but I decided to walk along the lake. Kasumigaura is 250 km around, giving it the longest lakeside in Japan, and I have walked around it once in each of the four seasons.

While I was walking, I saw waterweed, called "floating heart (asaza in Japanese)." This encouraged me to change my thinking. Floating heart helps with the conservation of reeds. At that time, large amounts of reed were cut by the waves and large areas of reed were lost; however, large numbers of floating hearts weakened the strength of the waves. Thus, the Asaza Project was started. I realized that if we can use natural processes, we might be able to gradually restore this huge lake, instead of initiating large-scale bank protection projects. It was 1995.

I first went to a community of floating hearts and collected seeds. I then advertised in local magazines and newspapers to ask people to grow the seeds, thereby becoming a sort of foster parent. About 200 people, including elementary and junior high school students, volunteered in the first year and these students convinced the teachers at schools to participate, which resulted in expanding the foster parent scheme at the school level. Office-based participants also appeared, and the number of participants increased rapidly to several tens of thousands.

When it was the time for the children to go to the lake to plant the seedlings grown at the schools, local residents could not simply sit by. At the time, the lake had notices saying "Good Children Do Not Play Here" or "Danger! Do Not Enter." The efforts became more widespread, as fisheries and local residents worked together to plant other waterweeds around the floating heart seedlings, and they placed wooden posts in the lake to protect waterweed from being swept away by waves before it took root.

At many sites around the lake, these activities spread, and they now represent projects in which 170,000 people participate.

'Melting' the Barriers

I believe that to conserve the biodiversity, networks of people are most important, as the factor that results in the loss of the natural environment is within society. As the network within society is lost, and organizations and governmental departments become divided and specialized, it becomes impossible to consider the entire local ecosystem or to recognize links between the river system and the watershed area.

Current measures and technology for environmental protection aim toward partial optimization, such as to efficiently improve individual technologies. Different ministries manage individual areas, such as restrictions for gas emissions or effluent regulation, and this is the same idea of zoning. If we create more social systems in this way, the further we move from the contiguity of the natural environment. Even environmentalists have not apparently noticed this paradox.

Our approach is to build new social and personal networks that are more aware of the conservation of natural cycles and biodiversity, and we aim at recovering the interrelationships between wildlife species.

The watershed of Kasumigaura, which straddles three prefectures including over 20 cities, towns and villages, is actually covered with a vertically split society. As most researchers and nonprofit organizations, as well as the government, are divided vertically, there were few large-scale businesses that operated within the watershed area. Trying to counter this system can also result in further barriers being created, and this has been seen in the past.

Thus, we use the word "melt" instead; we aim to "melt the system" instead of "destroy the system", and people tend to be more receptive. If there are no partitions, systems cannot function, and so we maintain some barriers. However, we suggest that the idea of a membrane is better than a firm wall. With membranes, people can see and communicate with the other side.

Specifically, the Asaza Project has a network that does not have any systems in the middle. We are trying to cover the watershed area with wide-reaching projects instead of specialized systems. This network is dynamic, and involves various individuals working together, as well as projects in the watershed area. We consider the lake to be a place where these projects can co-operate. We need to try to get away from the idea of zoning.

It is also vital that the government, which is always central as a public project, become less centralized. If specialized systems are centralized, comprehensive businesses cannot be expanded.

We often hear the term "citizen participation"; however, this is not the ultimate change in paradigm yet. The key to getting along with the government is that local NPOs or local residents freely create their own networks, as well as create a situation in which the government needs to participate. Then, we let the government participate in a less central role.

Use of Elementary Schools in Conservation Networks

Cooperation between children and adults is also a feature of the Asaza Project. The focus is not only teaching children, but rather to bring children and adults together for their mutual education.

Children tend not to look at things separately, but they are good at finding connections. Thus, we are trying to change the whole watershed area into a space based on this concept.

This is why we have focused attention on elementary schools. We carefully marked the locations of elementary schools onto a map of the watershed area, and we found that there were schools located throughout the area. If we utilize them as a network for the conservation of the natural environment and biodiversity, a network for revitalization of the entire lake is established at a stroke.

We developed an environmental study program for this purpose, and over 170 elementary schools have now participated. If kindergartens, junior high schools and high schools are included, the number is over two hundred.

Biotopes are now often created at schools as part of environmental studies. Unfortunately, these are not always used efficiently. We created biotopes that are not self-contained in our program, and have used them for the revitalization of Kasumigaura.

First, we create biotopes at schools in the watershed area using grass that grows wild in the lake, killifish and Viviparidae, paying attention to the conservation of biodiversity, learning from local elderly people or specialists. After two or three months, frogs, aquatic insects and dragonflies move into these areas.

For example, when specific types of dragonfly are seen, we can learn about the local environment, such as the presence of a nearby pond or forest. While staying at school, we can learn about the surrounding environment from the living organisms.

We then encourage the children to become interested in the area outside of the school based on questions on where the new creatures came from. For example, as frogs cannot move far, they must live within 500 meters of the school, and as damselflies fly very low over the ground, they must live within 1.5 kilometers. In addition, as "1.5 kilometers" is within the range of the school district, children often find that there are waterfronts where damselflies live around their schools. Moreover, as species like the Lesser Emperor Dragonfly can fly over four kilometers, elementary schools in the city can create a network to find the local habitats of the Lesser Emperor.

Furthermore, because the Japanese crested ibis, which we are now hoping will move back to Kasumigaura, has an extremely wide range, we cannot find their habitats unless we search within the watershed area. Every elementary school in the watershed area needs to be connected on a daily basis, which is now possible thanks to advances in IT.

For larger birds, such as white storks, we have to look throughout the Kanto Plain. In other words, if the elementary schools in the area create a good network, they can act as a receiver for enquiries on local habitats. If all elementary schools in East Asia are connected, the conservation of effective biodiversity, including migrant birds such as cranes, can proceed. We thus developed a learning program to foster such viewpoints based on biotopes.

The main feature of this program is that children are able to learn from the local flora and fauna, particularly those with low mobility. It is difficult for children who are uninterested in local frogs to understand the gravity of climate change or the extinction of foreign species. Environmental education should first focus on the local area, creating towns where humans can live in harmony with the local environment, and this will lead to increased interest in issues such as the plight of the polar bear.

One-Hundred-Year Vision of Revitalization

The environment of Kasumigaura has not fully-recovered yet; however, the natural environment will spread from the lake upstream by establishing the social systems I've described here. We are aiming to create a 100-year-vision, and we will continue trying to revitalize the lake to the point where we can see white storks in 40 years, cranes in 50 years and ibises in 100 years.

Animals cannot live without contiguity between various environments; some animals need groves and waterfront, while others need shaded waterfront, deep waterfront and large rice paddies. When it comes to the ibis, an extremely high-quality habitat is needed, and forest areas near the watershed, small reservoirs, rice paddies, canals and lakefront all need to be connected.

To realize this, creating a protected region is not effective, but entire social systems need to be able to accept the ibis, and this means that personal and social networks that can support these interconnections are necessary. Wildlife evaluates these social systems, and our approach is the ultimate method for conservation of biodiversity.


Hiroshi Iijima, Administrative Director of the Nonprofit Organization Asaza Fund and Executive Director of the Citizens Association for Kasumigaura and Kitaura

He learned about pollution incidents such as Minamata disease while attending junior high school, and began thinking of coexistence between nature and humans. Since 1995, he has promoted the "Asaza Project," a revitalization project for Kasumigaura, with the aim of connecting the lake, forest and humans. Working on citizen-involved businesses with local residents, schools, companies and the government, such as restoration businesses in the lakefront vegetation zone, extermination of foreign fish, and the conservation of Yatsuda, which is a basin-like rice paddy surrounded by slope-faced groves, in the watershed, he hopes to see the ibis return to Kasumigaura within 100 years. He has written numerous of books, including Revitalization of Waterfront with Asaza.