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Japan: New Water Circulation Basic Act

(May 20, 2014) The Water Circulation Basic Act was promulgated in Japan on April 2, 2014. (Act No. 16 of 2014 [in Japanese], Japanese House of Representatives website (last visited May 16, 2014).) Before the adoption of the Act, Japan did not have a comprehensive law on water.

Several government agencies in Japan have jurisdiction over water. For example, the Ministry of Land, Infrastructure and Transportation (MLIT) has jurisdiction over rivers; the Ministry of Economy, Trade, and Industry has jurisdiction over water for industrial use; and the Ministry of Agriculture, Forestry, and Fisheries has jurisdiction over water for agricultural use. There was previously no nation- or area-wide system responsible for managing water resources. (Shoko Yoshihara, Mizu junkan kihon ho_ o yomi toku [Understanding the Water Circulation Basic Act], Tokyo Foundation website (Apr. 8, 2014).)

“Water circulation,” as referred to in the Act, means the cycle of water evaporation and of rain falling, running down over the ground surface, sinking into the ground, and reaching the sea. Rivers are the centers of the circulation. (Water Circulation Basic Act, art. 2.) The Act recognizes that proper water circulation is important for the environment, people’s daily life, and industrial production, and that water is valuable property of the nation. Therefore, maintaining proper water circulation is important and water circulation through rivers must be managed comprehensively. (Id. art. 3.)

According to the Act, the national government will establish a Water Circulation Basic Plan. (Id. art. 13.) National and local governments are to take measures to improve the ability of land to retain water by, for example, proper retention of forests and management of farm lands. (Id. art. 14.) The national and relevant local governments will coordinate to manage river systems that cross local boundaries. (Id. art. 16.)

The adoption of the new Act was partially prompted by the reported rapidly increasing suspicious purchases of remote lands by foreigners, mainly Chinese. Chinese firms are said to be highly interested in buying water rights attached to certain lands. (Yuriy Humber, Katsuyo Kuwako, & Tsuyoshi Inajima, China Buys Japan Water Rights on Two-Decade Land Price Slump, BLOOMBERG (Nov. 6, 2012).) “Japan has relatively high precipitation and plenty of water resources per square meter of its territory, compared to the global standard.” (Current State of Water Resources in Japan, MLIT website (last visited May 15, 2014).) In contrast, China is expected to have water shortages from 2030. (Humber, Kuwako, & Inajima, supra.)

However, the new Act fell short of restricting the use of water rights that may have adverse effects on water circulation, water resources, the environment, or the economy. Some local governments have enacted ordinances that obligate buyers of lands with water rights attached to make reports to the local authorities prior to the purchases or that obligate land owners to make efforts to properly maintain water resources. Experts say that the next step to be taken is to provide stronger regulation of land and water rights owners. (Yoshihara, supra.)