Speaking at a North Gyeongsang Regional Development Committee prior to a ground-breaking ceremony for the four rivers project on Wednesday, President Lee Myung-bak said it was "preposterous" to allege that mega project was harmful to the environment. He pledged to stop answering questions on the issue and "proceed with the projects without listening to further criticism."
At the ground-breaking ceremony, he declared that no future can be opened with "old ways of thinking" and parties' regional interests, and that the projects will be conducted in a "future-oriented" manner with best efficiency, environment-friendly and state-of-the-art technology combined. "Some people allege that water quality will deteriorate in the course of the projects," he said. "But how could the government possibly conduct a project that hurts water quality?"
Some civic groups say that the four rivers project will hurt water quality, but it makes little sense to leave already polluted rivers alone without even trying to improve them. As the president remarked, would a head of state carry out a project to deliberately pollute the environment? Korea's public works equipment and technology are said to be the world class. In this respect, the presidential arguments may be reasonable.
But sulking is not only discourteous to the people but also bad for the project. According to polls, the numbers of supporters and opponents are nearly even, and about 40 percent of respondents want the scale of the projects reduced. They acknowledge the need for the work, but hesitate to support the project because of various problems that emerged in the long battles over the project.
The government raised the estimated cost of the four rivers project from W14 trillion (US$1=W1,155) to W22 trillion, skipped preliminary feasibility studies and just conducted a quick environmental impact study. What's more, rumor has it that contracts have been given largely to firms owned by graduates from one particular university. Even citizens who think the four rivers cannot be left as they are feel that the government has at best been sloppy and has problems handling a project of this scale.
Unless people can be persuaded otherwise, the project has a choppy ride ahead. The best and most certain way to change public perception is for the president himself to step forward and explain, persuade and appeal to the public. If one attempt proves futile, he should do it twice, 10 times and 100 times.