Korea's Grand Plan: Dams and Canals to Restore Ecosystems

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In June, the South Korean government released the final plan for its 4-River Restoration Project. According to the government, the plan will secure a reliable water supply, solve flooding problems, and repair the country’s ecosystem by improving water quality.

Many people have their doubts about this grand plan. In May, the Professors’ Organization for Movement Against Grand Korean Canal (Professors’ Organization) held a one-day symposium in Seoul to discuss effective river restoration, and if the 4-River plan is on the right track. Experts from Japan, Germany, the UK, and the US presented river restoration principles, methods, and case studies from abroad. The academic organizers provided a critical assessment of the 4-Rivers Project.

Concerns over the 4-Rivers plan range from the cost, which increases with every governmental release; to its extensive dam building component (20 at last count), to the planned dredging, that is expected to wreak havoc on the riverine ecosystems. According to recent polls, 70% of the Korean public is against this project, which is seen as a thinly veiled reconstitution of President Lee Myung-bak’s “Grand Korea Canal Project,” a plan that was abandoned in 2008 under considerable public pressure. For example, one proposal under the plan is to raise the water level of the Nakong River by six meters to allow navigation by huge cargo ships; this was also the goal of the Grand Canal project.

I was one of the speakers at the symposium, and am worried about the likely environmental consequences of 4-Rivers if it is built. Very little objective information on the project is getting out; the Korean government has held engineering details close to the vest. President Lee and his various ministries have done a fabulous job with greenwashing, managing to convince the United Nations Environmental Program, among others, that 4-Rivers is exemplary. Further, the South Korean government has been effective in silencing the local environmental community. One of the first actions of Lee’s administration was to arrest leaders of high profile advocacy organizations with charges of financial impropriety (which ultimately were dropped).

The 2,500-member Professors’ Organization, an all-volunteer, self-financed group, has pieced together enough of the project’s details to call into question the underlying engineering assumptions and the disregard of public due process procedures. But they need help as time is running out and the bulldozers are at the ready. The organization believes that with support from outside Korea they have a chance. They may be right. Since the May conference, a union of Japanese academics organized a campaign and an international network of river restoration experts (called the Hydromorphology Workshop), and set up a website to call 4-Rivers into question. A letter released by International Rivers in August was big enough news that the local advocates were able to hold a press conference to draw attention to growing international concern – the first time the Professors’ Organization has been able to attract substantive interest from the media. Look for action alerts and updates in the months to come.

The author is co-chair of International Rivers’ Board of Directors, and Associate Professor of Landscape Architecture and Environmental Planning at the University of California, Berkeley.