Public’s Pollution Awareness Linked to Lake Biwa’s Fate

By BRIAN COVERT
REGIONAL CORRESPONDENT

OTSU, Shiga Pref. — As red tide continues to rise at Lake Biwa, increasing public awareness of the environ-mental issue is more vital than ever.

So say members of the International Lake Environment Committee, a United Nations-sponsored organization here whose job is to promote public consciousness of natural and man-made lakes around the globe.

“Without governmental and citizen participation, we cannot solve any problems — even if we have strong regulations,” said Hisataka Kawaguchi, the group’s program coordinator.

While pollution levels of Lake Biwa are much lower than in the 1970s, when the discovery reportedly shocked local citizens, the lake is in such bad shape now that it may take another 20 to 30 years to stabilize its ecosystems, Kawaguchi said.

To help the process, the nine full- and part-time ILEC staffers help survey lake pollution around the world, publish various data and plan environmental conferences. The group also organizes training seminars for developing countries that seek to avoid their own versions of Lake Biwa.

“I’m sure (developing nations) will face the same problems in the near future,” Kawaguchi said, “so our experience will be useful for them.”

At the invitation of the Shiga Prefectural Government, Kawaguchi’s group recently participated in the seventh annual “Save the Earth, Save the Lake” concert festival here featuring British singer-songwriter Julia Fordham, a pro-environment advocate.

About 1,000 of the estimated 10,000 total attendants at the daylong event donated ¥700,000 to the group’s cause, Kawaguchi said.

The group was established in 1987, but it stems from a 1984 ecological conference here in which keynote speaker Mostafa Tolba of the United Nations Environment Program cited the need for an international organization to deal with the “traumatic increase in pollution and perilous slide in health” due to lake pollution worldwide.

The U.N. body provides ILEC with $100,000 annually, while Shiga Prefecture pays a yearly subsidy of about ¥20 million.

Financial support this year also was provided by shipbuilding magnate Ryoichi Sasakawa and his Japan Shipbuilding Industry Foundation, according to ILEC members.

“We regard ourselves as an international NGO (nongovernmental organization), but substantially speaking, we’re a semigovernmental organization,” said Motokazu Ando of the group’s secretariat.

Hiroya Kotani, a former Shiga governmental employee and now head of ILEC’s general affairs division, said pollution in Lake Biwa is “getting worse.” He called on his group and the prefecture to step up collaborative conservation efforts.

Kotani cited four continuing pollutants of the lake: untreated residential kitchen and bath water full of detergents; agricultural waste water from nearby rice paddies; unregulated small industries; and lakeshore development projects.

A yearly reminder since 1977 of the lake’s deterioration is the red tide phenomenon every spring, when an outbreak of offshore algae causes the lake’s color to assume a reddish-brown color and leaves a stench of rotting fish.

Swimming is prohibited in some cases of red-tide outbreak, according to Shiga officials.

Lake Biwa’s condition should be taken more seriously by all Kansai residents, said Kawaguchi, since the lake provides much of the region’s drinking water and eventually flows into Osaka Bay.

“In the case of people in Kyoto or Osaka, they are in rather big cities so they do not have (as much) sensitivity as the people in Shiga Prefecture,” Kawaguchi said.

Eliminating that ignorance through long-term environmental awareness in Japan is the key to saving the lake and overcoming problems like red tide, he said.

“We cannot (yet) say that we’ve succeeded in the stabilization” of Lake Biwa, he said.