Korea Must Make the Best of the 4-Rivers Project

      April 30, 2010 12:37

      President Lee Myung-bak's four-rivers project aims to restore Korea's major waterways covering 634 km of rivers and tributaries. Many here and abroad are keenly watching whether this unique project will succeed. The Han, Nakdong, Yeongsan and Geum rivers are certainly in need of restoration. The Nakdong and Yeongsan rivers suffered from flooding during typhoon Rusa in 2002 and Maemi in 2003, and flood damage can be reduced by dredging them. When Korea built dams on the Nakdong River in the mid 1980s, the structure was made to withstand 18,000 cubic m of water passing through per second, to be prepared against the worst flooding that can occur only once every 500 years.

      Dams being built for the project, however, are designed to withstand floods that can occur every 200 years, equivalent to 23,000 cubic m of waters per second. Torrential summer rains have become much more powerful and the increased amount of surfaces covered by asphalt and concrete in Korea have caused more water to flow directly into rivers and tributaries instead of being absorbed into the ground.

      The Nakdong River is so low that a person can walk across it in the dry season. The Yeongsan River has also virtually dried up because people in the upper tributaries siphon the water off as tap water and for irrigation. Creating dams and riverbed sills greatly helps the collection of water. Polluted silt that came from factories between the 1960s and 80s has been collecting on riverbeds, and it is time to clean it up. Farming on the sides of rivers also impedes efforts to boost the water quality.

      The four-rivers project is a massive national reform effort that will cost more than W22 trillion (US$1=W1,116) and be extremely difficult to halt once it has got underway. It would have been better if the government had been more meticulous in the way it has pursued the project so far. It should have planned the project more carefully, conducted simulations, experimented with it on a small scale, applied it to one river first, rectified problems and then moved on with the entire construction.

      Instead, the government is pursuing the project spanning 95 different sections simultaneously and with a 2012 deadline. The estimated cost has swelled from W13.9 trillion to W22.2 trillion, while the volume of silt to be dredged has increased from 220 million cubic m to 570 million. The original plan to create four riverbed sills measuring between 1 to 3 m in height, was revised to 16 large riverbed sills between 4 to 14 m high. These unnecessary and costly revisions could have been avoided with feasibility studies and evaluations.

      The government must be very open to criticism about any project unless it is politically motivated to undermine the whole plan. That is the only way debate will remain objective and free of political bias. If it is discovered that the riverbed sills could cause the water to submerge surrounding lowlands, then they need to be lowered. Quick changes are needed to address concerns that the digging would damage fragile ecosystems and hurt endangered species by muddying the waters.

      The planners must also avoid creating monotonous riverways plastered with concrete, so that they do not suffer serious flood damage. And care must be taken to retain the unique cultural and historical attributes of each region along the riverways.

      To ensure these conditions, the government should not be obsessed with the 2012 deadline. Even though construction begins simultaneously on the different sections, some parts could be finished by 2012 and others by 2014 depending on their geographical and ecological conditions. Even if the project is not finished by 2012 yet eventually succeeds in reviving the country's rivers, the credit will still go to the Lee Myung-bak administration.

      One academic who is opposed to the project also opposed the construction of Incheon International Airport on Yeongjong Island on land reclaimed from the ocean, warning that the ground beneath the airport could sink. But today, that airport is ranked as the best in the world and is the envy of other countries. Those who are against the four-rivers project, too, should bear in mind how their comments will be evaluated by future generations.

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