TOKYO The Japanese Red Cross said on Wednesday an entire year has been lost in rebuilding tsunami-ravaged areas of the country because the central government and local authorities had failed to agree on a "master plan."
It also said that the slow pace of reconstruction was deepening mental suffering and called for intensified efforts to bring the region back to life.
A year after the magnitude 9.0 earthquake on March 11 unleashed a tsunami that killed about 16,000 and triggered the world's worst nuclear crisis since Chernobyl, about 326,000 people are still homeless. Nearly 3,300 remain unaccounted for.
"The central government has proposed different scenarios, but they were met with strong opposition from local governments and also people affected directly by the earthquake and tsunami," Japanese Red Cross President Tadateru Konoe told Reuters alongside a press event marking the anniversary.
"Without reaching any agreement on a master plan for rehabilitation and reconstruction, it's very difficult to even start a reconstruction process. I think the first thing is to hasten this process, then they can mobilize...
"I think that should be the very start of everything. So one year has been wasted in that sense because they haven't been able to reach any consensus."
Hopes that the triple disaster would jolt Japan out of longstanding economic and political torpor have so far proved unfounded.
Government debt accumulates, while key decisions keep being postponed and politicians have reverted to skirmishing in a deadlocked parliament. Public mistrust of officials and politicians has risen.
The Red Cross has raised 400 billion yen ($4.95 billion) over the past year in donations from Japan and abroad, providing 290 billion yen in cash payouts to affected residents.
It said Red Cross activities had shifted over the year from attending to the urgent medical needs of survivors, many of them elderly, to long-term support - including help in building temporary and permanent health facilities.
Uncertainty, it said, was deepening a sense of isolation felt by many survivors, adding to huge psychological burdens.
"The slow pace of reconstruction along Japan's devastated northeastern coastline is contributing to survivors' stress, as there is little clarity on how long they will have to remain in cramped temporary housing," it said in a statement.
Patrick Fuller, communications manager at the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies, said people in affected areas were isolated -- they had lost their homes and were separated from relatives forced to earn a living elsewhere.
"Just bringing a sense of well-being to people is really important. Even a year on, there's a lot of emotional scars the people are still dealing with," he told Reuters. "How do the people view their future? Is it sustainable to remain in some of these towns where life is coming back very slowly?"
Communities close to the Fukushima nuclear plant, crippled by the disaster, have to cope with additional stress and anxiety over long-term effects of radiation released after reactor meltdowns at the station, the Red Cross said.
"Mothers won't let their children outside to play. They are living in an information vacuum," Konoe said in the statement.
The Japanese Red Cross plans to hold a conference in Tokyo in May to help set guidelines on helping people cope.
"The legacy of such disasters has taught us to do more to help people prepare for such eventualities," Konoe said in the statement.
($1 = 80.7350 Japanese yen)
(Editing by Ron Popeski)