Relocation of US base in Okinawa threatens marine life and now costs double its initial budget

The base relocation onto a coral reef threatens the less than ten Okinawa dugong left on the planet.
The base relocation onto a coral reef threatens the less than ten Okinawa dugong left on the planet.
Image: Getty Images
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Okinawa’s governor, Denny Tamaki, demanded on Thursday that the United States halt plans to relocated one of its controversial bases to another part of the island, citing the will of the people, out-of-control costs and environmental damage.

The US military has retained a presence on Okinawa since allied forces defeated the Japanese army there in World War II. The Americans never left, and have maintained dozens of bases—despite protests from the indigenous population—on the island ever since.

In a local referendum in early February, voters rejected the relocation of the base, which the US military plans to move from the densely populated city of Ginowan to the less populated town of Henoko. Japan’s central government, however—which is essentially another occupying power—ignored the indigenous referendum, allowing the base to remain and move to its new location.

The relocation efforts, meanwhile, are proving more costly than anticipated. The Japanese defense ministry says the cost could end up being more than twice the original estimate, or about $8.5 billion.

The rising costs are mostly due to the quality of the land in the area. The United States wants to build landing strips along the sea floor, but experts say the sea bed is “as soft as mayonnaise,” requiring reinforcement.

The solution could be devastating to local marine life. The defense ministry has proposed using 77,000 pilings along the coast, in a region where only 1% of the coral remains alive. Damage to the area also threatens the feeding grounds of the dugong, the manatee’s saltwater cousin. The International Union for Conservation of Nature says the Okinawa dugong is a critically endangered species.

A hand-painted sign of children asking to protect the Henoko bay habitat to protect the Okinawa dugong.
Look what you’ve dugong.
Image: REUTERS/Nathan Layne

The last remaining dugong live in the very bay where the United States is developing its new base. Living on average for 70 years, these herbivore rely on a steady diet of sea grass. The soft seabeds on Okinawa’s eastern shore provide a suitable habitat for such sea grass to grow.

In 2004, Okinawans successfully halted construction of the airbase in the bay. Okinawans, along with 889 scientists, petitioned then US president George W. Bush and then Japanese prime minister Junichiro Koizumi to stop building in the dugong’s habitat.

But the Japanese government resurrected the project after a US marine killed a 61-year-old Japanese man in a drunk driving accident, setting off island-wide protests, hoping that relocating the base away from the densely populated area would alleviate tension.

Despite the existence of 48 uninhabited Okinawan islands, the Japanese chief cabinet secretary, Yoshihide Suga, defends the plans as “the only solution,” for allies’ deterrence in the region. So although Japanese voters rejected plans to use Henoko for the new base, construction in the area has continued.

The governor, however, has not given up. He says he plans to further impede construction efforts by rejecting the governments forthcoming permit request for installing pilings. At this rate, the project might not be finished until the early 2030s.