The Board of Audit and Inspection on Thursday revealed that President Lee Myung-bak's four-rivers mega project is riddled with shoddy construction.
Among other things, the audit found that the flooring of 15 out of 16 reservoirs built to prevent erosion from currents was damaged or had subsided. The BAI said taxpayer's money was wasted by building the reservoirs at a uniform depth of 4-6 m when they should have been built at varying depths according to the heights of the embankments.
One reservoir in the Yeongsan River was built at a depth of 5 m to allow 1,000-ton ferry boats to pass through, but a floodgate downstream was only built big enough to accommodate 100-ton vessels.
The BAI estimated that it would cost W280 billion (US$1=W,1057) to maintain the four-rivers system, which is more than 10 times the budget allocated by the Ministry for Land, Transport and Maritime Affairs.
It is unprecedented for a country to try and repair and dredge all its major rivers at a cost of W22 trillion during the five-year term of a single president. The project stirred up controversy from the start, with proponents claiming it would improve the quality of the four rivers by increasing the volume of water once the reservoirs are built, while critics said it would halt the flow of water and damage the quality of water.
The reservoirs also feature for the first time in Korea moveable weirs that open and close to control the flow of water. The proper procedure would therefore have been to choose one of the four rivers for trial operations of the weirs and expand it once weaknesses have been pinpointed and rectified.
But the Lee Myung-bak administration turned a blind eye to the concerns raised by critics and rushed through feasibility and environmental impact studies as if it was conducting some sort of military assault operation. The total cost of the project swelled from W14 trillion to W22 trillion after concerns over water quality were raised early on, prompting the government to scramble for extra funds.
As a result, the state-run Korea Water Resources Corporation had to issue W8 trillion in bonds in order to help finance the project, and construction companies were forced to fix prices because they shouldered heavier burden since the tender was put out on a turn-key basis.
The four-rivers project was a holy cow for the government because the president staked so much on it. Nobody in the government dared criticize or oppose it. Now the BAI has issued warnings to ministries and officials responsible for the faulty construction and ordered 12 officials found guilty of corruption to face punishment. But the fundamental responsibility for rushing the project through rests with the president, who wanted to finish the massive project within his term so that it could serve as a monument to his tenure.