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Leading innovation in marine-based disaster prevention

Interview - December 4, 2023

A construction consultant company specializing in harbor and waterside projects, AHEC is at the leading edge of innovation in marine-based disaster prevention.

AKIRA KAWAMORI & TAKEHITO HORIE CHAIRMAN; GROUP CEO & PRESIDENT OF ALPHA HYDRAULIC ENGINEERING CONSULTANTS CO., LTD.
AKIRA KAWAMORI & TAKEHITO HORIE CHAIRMAN | GROUP CEO & PRESIDENT OF ALPHA HYDRAULIC ENGINEERING CONSULTANTS CO., LTD.

Today, the Japanese construction infrastructure market can be defined as complete. On the one hand, Japan's aging infrastructure is increasing the demand for maintenance and repair work. On the other hand, Japan's decreasing demographic line together with its already advanced connectivity is lowering the amount of construction projects. What is your analysis of the Japanese construction sector and how do you foresee these evolutions in the years to come?

The current economic conditions in Japan pose challenges for further investment in our industry. Japan is particularly susceptible to natural disasters such as typhoons, storm surge, and torrential rains, and with the escalating effects of global warming and climate change we anticipate an increase in such events. Given this reality, Construction consultants and other companies involved in public infrastructure development must reorganize their businesses. We recognized early on that specialization would be key to our success. Our focus has been on becoming specialists in the field of fisheries, ports, and coastal and marine infrastructure within the realm of engineering consulting.

We firmly believe that Japan has amassed a wealth of wisdom, know-how, and technology in engineering public infrastructure projects, especially in water environments and marine sectors. Japan can compete with other countries in this field. However, a significant challenge we face is the aging workforce in this sector. The pressing issue is how we can effectively pass down and preserve this invaluable knowledge, especially in a world increasingly vulnerable to disasters.

Japan has experienced natural disasters so often that we have a unique reservoir of knowledge that we can share with the rest of the world. This knowledge is particularly crucial in our specialized area of business. As our population ages rapidly, there will be a shortage of engineers equipped to handle and respond to the growing frequency of natural disasters. Japan must accelerate efforts to introduce digitalization and automation into our work environment and also consider recruiting and training foreign workers.

Since our establishment, we have consistently prioritized the recruitment of foreign staff, including individuals from France and China. About five years ago, we intensified our efforts to hire more employees from Myanmar, and we now have ten individuals from Myanmar working within our company. This recruitment strategy aligns with our commitment to bolstering our contributions to infrastructure development within the water and coastal environments.

We acknowledge that alongside the declining population, there will be a decrease in investments in new public facility development. This is a reality we must address. However, it's important to note that the increasing number of public facilities in need of investments and repairs still signifies a significant allocation of resources to this field. Consequently, we must ensure that we can maintain cost-effectiveness while considering the heightened risk of water-related natural disasters such as tsunamis, flooding, heavy rainfall, and landslides. We must explore ways to enhance our technologies in providing disaster prevention measures.

 

Japan's main island, Honshu, is located at the intersection of three tectonic plates, making it subject to frequent natural disasters, including earthquakes and tsunamis. As a construction consultant company, specializing in harbor and waterside projects, what disaster prevention technologies are you providing?

We possess simulation technologies capable of accurately predicting the height and time between generation and arrival of tsunamis and storm surge. Drawing from the lessons learned from the Great East Japan Earthquake and Tsunami, we have been actively exploring how to develop tsunami-resistant structures and facilities, and the establishment of a BCP (Business Continuity Plan) for the early resumption of fisheries and port operations. We also address littoral drift issues such as beach erosion and port siltation. We use sediment transport simulation technology to support fishing port planning and sand drift countermeasure facilities that take coastal erosion into consideration (Wineglass Fishing Port photo).

Our services extend beyond providing predictive technologies for integration into resilient infrastructure designs. We are committed to creating comprehensive measures aimed at minimizing damage and safeguarding people in the event of disasters. This technology has the potential to save lives. We also provide consulting services that take into consideration the impact on the water environment, beaches, and other natural features.

Our approach involves strategically applying technologies to maintain and repair aging structures while considering a scrap-and-build approach where applicable. Looking around the world, container vessels and bulk carriers are getting larger every year, but the quays of Japanese ports and harbors are not keeping pace with this trend. In addition, many quays have low water depths and are aging. In such cases, we meticulously assess where reinforcement is required, whether additional functions should be integrated, or if a complete scrap-and-build approach is more appropriate.

In response to the challenges posed by climate change and Japan's declining and aging population, we offer a range of consultations and proposals. As a result of these challenges and decline in traditional usage, fishing harbors must evolve in order to be utilized efficiently and effectively. Our focus extends beyond structural maintenance; we aim to create a more adaptable environment that aligns with current needs. We endeavor to provide proposals that maximize the use of these spaces, such as reallocating areas for fisheries. This approach involves fostering innovation and embracing changing dynamics, which is becoming increasingly vital.For example, in one project, we are promoting the cultivation of sea urchins, oysters, kelp, and salmon in a fishing port where the number of fishing vessels has decreased.

As another example, increasing water temperatures have led to catching of fish that could not previously be caught, such as the recent increases in yellowtail catches in Hokkaido amid decreasing squid catches. In response to this, we are considering development of fishing port facilities to maintain the freshness of landed yellowtail.

 

Tsunamis have no boundaries nor follow international rules. They occur out at sea and hit countries like Japan or Thailand. In the current case of your business, to what extent are you offering your services to overseas-based companies, given your great success in Japan? How are you extending these technologies to other partnering countries in Asia?

We strongly believe in the importance of increasing the reach of our predictive and simulation technologies for tsunami forecasting to other countries, especially those in the Asian region such as Thailand, Vietnam, and Indonesia, which are prone to tsunamis. Some 20 years ago, I (Group CEO Kawamori) witnessed the utter devastation left in the wake of the Indian Ocean Tsunami of 2004. Many of these Asian countries lack foreign engineers who can offer the necessary training and support during such catastrophic events.

Therefore, it is crucial to expand the implementation of our cutting-edge forecasting and predictive technologies for disaster mitigation in these regions. Japan, with its extensive community of marine environmental researchers and leadership in research in this field, has a vital role to play in sharing its specialized knowledge in marine environmental research with Southeast Asian countries.



Are you looking to establish technological partnerships within Asia or other countries in the world that are affected by tsunamis and other natural disasters? 

Recently, we have initiated collaboration to become the official importer and sales agent in Japan for the Spotter Buoy, which integrates smart technology for real-time measurement and analysis of wave height and other marine conditions. Vietnam, a rapidly developing country with an underdeveloped coastal infrastructure, holds immense growth potential, particularly in the need for comprehensive surveys, wave measurements, and extensive research. We are exploring ways to provide services such as our spotter buoy to bridge this gap and contribute to their development.

Indeed, we are actively pursuing additional technological partnerships, much like our current collaboration with Sofar Ocean. These partnerships hold great promise, particularly because of our in-house expertise in meteorological and wave-forecasting technologies. If we can identify a partner who specializes in marine observation, we have the potential to broaden the capabilities of the Spotter Buoy as well as the scope of services we can offer to our clients.

I firmly believe that our business itself will increasingly demand similar technical collaborations and tie-ups to meet our client's needs.

 

Your company’s business can be divided into four main areas: infrastructure development, water environment, fishery resources, and offshore wind power generation. What synergies are you able to develop in these four distinct yet related business divisions?     

While we aren't directly engaged in the construction of offshore wind power generation facilities, we play a crucial role in supporting these projects by conducting comprehensive surveys and research regarding their impact. This includes assessing how the development of offshore wind farms may affect the local environment and economy, including factors such as the impact on fishing businesses, sediment transport (e.g. impact on sandy beaches), and ocean currents. Our surveys include both the positive and negative environmental consequences, such as noise pollution and vibrations, associated with the building of such facilities.

The data and insights we gather are then shared with all nearby businesses and stakeholders that could potentially be affected by the construction of these facilities. In some cases, the establishment of such wind farms can have positive impacts, such as benefiting fisheries. Our goal is to provide a comprehensive overview of both the positive and negative impacts as part of our consulting services.

Our objective is to manage and preserve the best state of fisheries and aquatic ecosystems, ultimately promoting a thriving fishing industry capable of delivering high-quality, fresh seafood to consumers. This mission leverages our specialized knowledge and expertise. Our analyses concerning offshore wind power generation and similar environments play a key role in achieving this goal.

While our business initially focused on surveying, planning, analysis, design, architecture, construction, and structural maintenance within our engineering and consulting services, we have since expanded our scope to explore ways to support and enhance the fishing industry. One example is the development of sanitation and hygiene management facilities to maintain the freshness of fish landed from fishing vessels and the study of abattoir facilities. We aim to contribute to the development of robust fisheries by not only building infrastructure to support fishery resources but also by ensuring a consistent and sustainable supply of fish. 

 

Do you have a favorite international project that you are currently working on or will carry on in the future? 

When it comes to the impact and scale of our contributions, one of the most significant instances that stands out is our involvement in supporting the response to the Great East Japan Earthquake and Tsunami in 2011. Additionally, we have played crucial roles in addressing other major earthquakes, including the Hanshin earthquake, the Kobe earthquake in 1995, the Okushiri earthquake or southwest-off Hokkaido (Hokkaido-Nansei-Oki) in 1993, and the subsequent Kushiro–Oki earthquake. We were involved in these huge seismic events.

In particular, we vividly recall the devastation caused by the Okushiri earthquake and the Great East Japan Earthquake, including the oil spills and the scenes reminiscent of a warzone with explosions occurring all around.

Our most memorable international projects have been those conducted in Vietnam and Africa in collaboration with JICA. We take immense pride in the successful outcomes achieved by applying our investigative technologies and providing essential research, forecasting, and observational data to support these projects.

Furthermore, we are implementing technology such as the Spotter Buoy in various ways, including the use of real-time data to create and enhance marine forecasting systems. Through these advancements, we hope to make substantial contributions to international projects.

 

Your business was founded in 1984. Do you have a personal goal or ambition to achieve with the company by your 50th anniversary in 2034?

Our dream is to become a specialized international consulting firm equipped with a diverse team of engineers from around the world.

This year marks our 40th year of operations in Japan. We've steadily garnered recognition for our expertise in various fields, such as aquatic systems, fisheries and seafood production, distribution, disaster prevention, environmental management, and decarbonization. We are committed to propelling our company onto the global stage by gathering engineers from around the world and aiming to be the go-to experts not only in aquatic environments, but also in disaster related issues.

Furthermore, we must explore opportunities to synergize our technologies, such as our spotter buoys, with those of overseas companies. In today's fast-paced technological landscape, aiming for excellence solely through a unilateral approach is no longer sufficient. We must actively seek partnerships and collaborations with organizations possessing advanced technologies and diverse expertise to provide the best possible services to clients worldwide.       

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