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People in Fukushima line up for home heating fuel on March 20, 2011. (Wally Santana/AP)
People in Fukushima line up for home heating fuel on March 20, 2011. (Wally Santana/AP)

Fallout

Lack of fuel prolongs Japan's agony Add to ...

When Wayne Miles saw the devastation wreaked by the March 11 earthquake and tsunami on the northeast of the country he now calls home, he wanted to do something to help. He quickly established a small charity called Rescue Japan, and converted the Tokyo office he shares with friends into a donation point for water, food and other supplies that would then be sent north to those in need.

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At least that was the plan. Eleven days after the disaster that moved Mr. Miles to act, the American-born information technology professional's workspace remains stuffed with boxes of donated goods that he can't ship north because of a fuel shortage that has affected transportation across the country.

"The only way I can get boxes to the [tsunami-affected]region is when one of my buddies goes up there and I pop a couple of boxes in the trunk," Mr. Miles said. "Until the big transportation companies get clearance from the government, they won't even touch [the donations] The only people who can get in are the press, the military and certain relief groups."

The lack of available gasoline remains one of the most crippling - and poorly explained - issues facing Japan as it struggles to deal not only with tsunami relief, but with the unfolding crisis at the earthquake-damaged Fukushima nuclear plant.

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Analysts say there is sufficient fuel in Japan; it's just not getting to the right places. The damage caused by the earthquake and tsunami is only part of the explanation for the shortage. Petroleum production fell by a quarter after the disaster hit, as six refineries on the country's east coast were forced to close and tanker trucks and their drivers were swept away by the water. But four of those refineries have since reopened and output is on the rise.

Rumours of a fuel shortage, quickly proved to be self-fulfilling, however. As the crisis unfolded, many Japanese even in Tokyo drove from one gas station to the next, topping up tanks that were already three-quarters full in order to be as prepared as possible if the situation worsened.

The government has thus far refused to release its strategic reserves of fuel, which are typically held back for times of war. However, it has ordered refineries in western Japan and the northern island of Hokkaido to ship 38 million litres of fuel into the disaster area by sea, since many of the roads into the worst-affected areas are either blocked or too badly damaged for trucks.

The government has also indicated it will likely have to increase oil imports to compensate for the lost power production from the Fukushima plant.

Some see the fuel problems as demonstrative of the inability of Prime Minister Naoto Kan's government - which has been in office for 18 months after spending decades in opposition - to manage the multiple crises confronting the country.

"We have enough gasoline itself. In Nagoya, Hokkaido and other places we have huge stores of oil and gas, but there's no means to transport these resources to the required areas," said Takao Toshikawa, an independent political analyst. "The lack of gasoline is due to a lack of a crisis-management policy by the government, by the Prime Minister's office."

The shortage is preventing aid from getting where it needs to go and hampering the operation of the overburdened hospitals and makeshift shelters hosting tens of thousands of evacuees from the battered tsunami region. It's also keeping some of those living in Fukushima prefecture from fleeing the area, since they're not sure how far they can get before they run out of gas.

Gas lines stretching as far as the eye can see are common even in Tokyo, hundreds of kilometres south of the affected area, though they have grown somewhat shorter in recent days as panic buying has eased. In towns farther north, it has become the norm to spend five hours or more waiting for a limited ration of gasoline.

The country's main north-south highway, use of which is restricted to aid workers and the military, is often dishearteningly devoid of traffic as vehicle movements are minimized. The Japanese Red Cross says it has been able to get relief supplies and medical teams into the major cities of the affected area, but the lack of fuel has hampered movement in and around the smaller coastal towns that have been the hardest hit.

"The challenge is keeping up a constant and timely supply chain. Supplies are getting through, but [the problem is]getting enough to the right places," said Francis Markus, a spokesman for the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies. "There have been bottlenecks, and fuel has been the biggest issue."

Follow on Twitter: @markmackinnon

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