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Culturalists oppose second dam on sacred Japanese river

The Japanese government says it will go ahead with a second dam on the Saru river in Hokkaido, Japan, in spite of opponents’ claims that the Nibutani dam, built four years ago on the same stretch of river, is an environmental and cultural disaster.

Opponents say that to dam the Saru river at all is to disregard the heritage of the indigenous Ainu minority who live in the surrounding area. They claim that the Nibutani dam submerged ancient burial grounds and other culturally significant landmarks, silted up salmon spawning grounds and is ineffective in controlling flood levels: all for a mere 3MW.

The government says that the new Biratori dam is needed to pick up the slack, and that the two dams were originally planned as a set. Masayoshi Kanzaki, an academic specialising in Ainu culture and language at Sapporo University, says that many Ainu actually favour the dams because they are likely to pick up work from their construction and the opportunity to sell some land.

The damming of the Saru river was originally conceived in the 1960s as a means to provide water for a proposed industrial park in nearby Tomakomai. The industrial park was scrapped, but planing for the dams went ahead as a form of flood control.