President Lee Myung-bak said on Monday, "My belief that the Grand Canal is necessary for the future of Korea remains unchanged. Nevertheless, this issue has the potential of becoming a political point of contention and could end up splitting public opinion, and I had said I would not pursue the Grand Canal Project unless the public supported it. The core aim of the Grand Canal Project is to connect the Han and Nakdong rivers, but the government has no plans for such a project and will not pursue such a project during my presidential term."
After the government formally announced the four-rivers restoration project in December, opposition parties and environmental groups attacked the plan, accusing it of being the Grand Canal project in a new guise. A plan to make the Nakdong River 300 m to 500 m wide and between 4 m and 11 m deep raised suspicions that it was being prepared as a shipping route. The public began to wonder about the true intentions of the government. With Lee's comments, the controversy must come to an end. We need to engage in discussion about how to proceed with the restoration plan if we are to prevent draughts and flooding and save our rivers and tributaries.
What the public is worried about the most is that the government will be too zealous in its pursuit of the mega project. According to the master plan, the restoration project is to start this October and be completed by 2012 at a cost of W22 trillion (US$1=W1,286). Construction of the Seoul-Busan high-speed rail began in 1992 and is scheduled to be completed in 2011 at a total cost of W19.9 trillion. The four-rivers project will take less than a sixth of the time to complete yet requires more money.
The budget was just W14 trillion when the government announced its interim projection on April 27. This swelled to W22 trillion in the master plan on June 8. In particular, the government set aside W3.9 trillion in additional spending to prevent pollution from the construction of dams. The decision was the result of a simulation by the National Institute of Environmental Research in April that showed the construction of dams could cause water quality to deteriorate by halting water flow. As it witnessed the addition of huge chunks of work to the projects costing trillions of won each over the past month and a half, the public has been unable to shake off suspicions that it may be proceeding too quickly and without proper scrutiny.
The president's desire to complete the four-rivers project within his term is understandable. Just as he did with the Chonggye Stream, the latest plan aims to demonstrate to the public how a leader can change the lives of people during his term in office. But the government has not convinced the public of the urgency of a project that would require W22 trillion in taxpayers' money to be spent over the next three years. As it saw the mad cow hysteria unfold last year, the government must have realized how important it is to gain the trust of the public.
It is important to push ahead with state projects boldly. But what is more important is to convince the public of the need for the project and proceed step by step, with input from experts at each stage to see if there are better ways to handle things, and with caution about unexpected side effects. This process may seem longer, but it could end up getting faster results.