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Rebuilding Japan to take years

It took only minutes for the earthquake and tsunami to devastate Japan’s north-east. Rebuilding will take years − if it can be afforded.

The relentless wall of water which the quake unleashed killed thousands of people, swept away whole towns, inundated roads and knocked ports, oil refineries, steel plants and factories out of action.

Experts say the cost of the destruction is likely to exceed that of the catastrophic 1995 Kobe earthquake − estimated by Standard & Poor’s to have totalled $159bn (£98.8bn).

The four most severely affected prefectures (states) − Iwate, Miyagi, Fukushima and Ibaraki − are home to industries from farming to car parts to electronics and make up some 6% of Japan’s economy.

Hundreds of thousands of people have spent five nights with little food, water or heating in near-freezing temperatures as they dealt with the loss of homes and loved ones.

The biggest port on the north-east coast, Sendai, has been destroyed. It handled mainly container shipments of exports including rubber and marine products, office machinery, paper goods and auto parts.

Three others − Hachinohe, Ishinomaki and Onahama − were severely damaged and are expected to be out of commission for months.

Six oil refineries which can turn 1.4M barrels of oil a day into fuel − a third of Japan’s refining capacity − have been shut down, two due to fires. An out-of-control blaze at one refinery is raging for a sixth day.

Steel plants have also been hit.

Nippon Steel’s factory in Kamaishi, Iwate prefecture, was shut after the tsunami flooded part of the plant. The facility makes steel and wire rods for vehicle powertrains and chassis. Sumitomo Metal Industries’ plant in Kashima, Ibaraki prefecture, also went dark after the earthquake.

Elsewhere, widespread power shortages from damage to four nuclear plants − an unfolding crisis in itself − have forced many companies to halt production.

Sony has halted output at several factories, including one which makes Blu-Ray discs. Toshiba has done the same. All car makers including Toyota, the world’s biggest, have stopped producing vehicles nationwide.

Companies are also facing problems shipping components, receiving raw materials and getting workers to facilities which are working, said Dale Ford, an analyst at technology market research firm IHS iSuppli.

The components made by Japan’s hi-tech industry are destined for final assembly in China and other countries.

Analysts said there is enough inventory in the global supply chain to tide customers over for up to four weeks and companies such as Apple, Dell and Lenovo will have to switch to back-up sources by then to avoid shortages of parts for iPads and computers.

Initial estimates of insurance losses from the disaster range as high as £37.3bn.

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