Environmental and Social Impacts of the 'Four Rivers Project' in Korea

Environmental and Social Impacts of the 'Four Major Rivers Restoration Project' in Korea

31 July 2009
Korea Federation for Environmental Movements (KFEM)/Friennds of the Earth Korea

The proposed 'Four Major Rivers Restoration Project' is one of the largest development projects in South Korea, which will cause very big impacts on environment and people living along the 4 largest rivers of South Korea.

According to the master plan of the project which was made public on 8 June 2009, it was proposed to store water to be prepared for drought and water shortage; to prevent flooding; to improve water quality and restore ecosystems; and to promote local tourism.

Most of the total budget of 22.2 trillion Korean Won(USD 17.8 billion) will be spent by 2012 to build more than 16 new dams on the mainstreams of the 4 rivers and 5 new dams on their tributaries, to raise 87 existing irrigation dams, to strengthen 377km of river bank and to dredge 570 million cubic meters of sand and gravel from 691km long sections of the rivers to keep the water 4-6m deep of the 4 rivers and to strengthen 243km of river bank and to raise 9 existing irrigation dams in other tributaries and river basins.

KFEM is worried about the negative impacts the project will bring on to environment and society of Korea and would like to point out a few major concerns it has and to propose a few policy suggestions for the real restoration of the rivers.

Water Supply

The Korean government argues that we need to build new dams and to raise existing irrigation dams to secure 1.25 billion cubic meters of additional water as water shortage of 1 billion cubic meters is expected by 2016 due to climate change. Especially, it plans to secure 1 billion cubic meters of water in the Nakdong River basin by building more than 8 new dams on the mainstream of the Nakdong River to secure 650 million cubic meters of water and 3 new large dams on its tributaries to secure 250 million cubic meters of water and raising 31 existing irrigation dams in the basin to secure 100 million cubic meters of water.

However, according to the 「National Water Resources Plan(2006-2020)」, the top level water resources management plan produced every 10 years, which was drawn up in July 2006 by then Ministry of Construction and Transportation in consultation with experts and civil society organizations, only 21 million cubic meters of water will be in short by 2016 in the Nakdong River basin.

There is no solid ground for the government to predict water shortage in the river basin and to build such a many new dams in the basin.

Korean water supply system is already so much developed, especially in most populated area, that droughts and water shortages in recent years happen only in remote areas such as mountainous areas and islands. Therefore there is no need to build many new dams on the mainstream of the 4 rivers.

Flood Control

The government argues that we need to reduce the waste of annual tax money of 7 trillion Korean Won(US$ 5.5 billion) spending on flood damage and recovery. However this amount of money include all the damages far from the mainstream of the 4 rivers. Most parts of the 4 largest rivers are embanked that there has been few flood damages along the mainstream of them. Most of flood damages in recent years have occurred in mountainous and urban areas which can not be prevented by construction of new dams on the mainstream of the rivers.

Water Quality Improvement

About two thirds of all the S. Korean people depend on the two largest rivers, the Han river and the Nakdong River for their sources of drinking water. And, it is expected that the water quality of the rivers will deteriorate rather than improve when about 20 dams are built on the mainstream of the rivers as dams will block free flow of river water. When the free flow of river water is blocked by dams depletion of dissolved oxygen in the water, eutrophication and algal bloom will be induced.

According to an independent research of a professor in environmental engineering, more than 10 dams on the mainstream of the Nakdong River will degrade water quality as retention time of the river water will be increased from the current 18.3 days up to 191 days. It will also induce blooms of green algae and brown algae in the water.

Dredging also bring about water quality deterioration as it will remove river shallows and riparian wetlands which facilitate aeration into river water and absorption of excessive nutrients from the river water.

The government plan to finish all the necessary works within only three years by 2012. Massive construction works to build dams and to dredge 570 million cubic meters of sand and gravel from the 4 rivers will dramatically increase suspended particles in the river water which is normally clean and clear. The suspended particles will be another concern especially during the project period.

Impact on Environment

The project will cause negative impacts on the conservation of many important wetlands along the 4 rivers which support diverse forms of wild animals and plants as it include a lot of dams construction and dredging. Most of riparian wetlands, vegetations and sand bars along the rivers will lose their natural integrity and habitat diversity due to dam constructions and extensive dredging of 570 million cubic meters of sand and gravel from the 4 rivers.

The Nakdong River will be affected the most from the heavy dredging of collecting 440 million cubic meters of sand and gravel from the 330 km long section of the river from its mouth by 2011. There are plans to build more than 8 dams of 10 to 13 meters high on its mainstream and a couple more on its tributaries. As a result of the project, depth of the mainstream of the Nakdong River will be maintained more than 6 meters deep.

There are many important wetlands developed in the floodplain of the Nakdong River including Upo Wetland, Haepyeong Wetland, Hwapo Wetland, and Gudam Wetland as well as many along the Han River, Geum River and Yeongsan River.

The Nakdong Estuary Ecosystem and Landscape Conservation Area is a protected wetland with 5 different domestic laws and regulations. The project will impair the integrity of the wetland including which meet the criteria to be listed as a Ramsar Wetland of International Importance. Many endangered bird species use the estuary for their wintering, breeding and/or staging sites including Black-faced Spoonbill Platalea minor, Spoon-billed Sandpiper Eurynorhynchus pygmeus, Steller's Sea Eagle Haliaeetus pelagicus, and Saunders's Gull Larus saundersi.

The Upo Wetland, one of the Ramsar Wetladns of International Importance in the country will get negative impact from the project. As the Upo Wetland has developed in the floodplain of the Nakdong River, change in the hydrology of the river due to dam construction and dredging will be expected to change the hydrology of the wetland in a negative way.

The Haepyeong Wetland is a riparian wetland along the Nakdong River and is protected as a Wildlife Protection Area. It is an important staging sites for 20-70% of the global population of Hooded Crane Grus monacha and 10% of White-naped Crane Grus vipio.

The Junam Reservoir in the lower stretch of the Nakdong River is an important wintering sites for White-naped Crane Grus vipio supporting more than 10% of the global population of them in winter. White-naped Cranes of the Junam Reservoir find their roosting sites in nearby riparian wetlands of the Nakdong River which is under threat from the dredging.

The Geum Estuary also is an important wetland supporting 300,000 to 500,000 Baikal Teals Anas formosa, 60-70% of Northeast Asian population of Oyestercatchers Haematopus ostralegus osculans, and more than 10% of the global population of Saunders's Gull Larus saundersi. It is also under threat due to the extensive dredging along the river.

Dozens of Freshwater fish species will also be threatened by the project as dam construction and dredging will result in the loss of rivers' natural habitat diversity. About 40 fish species among 60 endemic freshwater fish species of the country tend to spawn and find foods in river shallows which are expected to be eliminated due to dam building and dredging. Most of the diverse freshwater habitats of the 4 rivers will be changed into that of artificial lakes with more depth and less turbulence. And, such changes in characteristics of freshwater habitats, especially in turbidity and turbulence which is crucial for survival and diversity of freshwater fish species will result in the loss of freshwater fish species diversity.

Endangered endemic freshwater fish species, Gobiobotia nakdongensis is dependent upon sandy shallows of the Nakdong River and Koreocobitis naktongensis is dependent upon gravelled shallows of the river. Another endangered endemic freshwater fish species, Iksookimia choii is living in shallows of the upstream Geum River. Their survival is critical when the shallows are disappeared by dams and dredging.

Extensive dredging will also impact on many freshwater fish species as dramatically increase suspended particles in the river water will impair breathing of fishes as well as other organisms which are food sources of fishes. Photosynthesis and survival of algae will be impaired by dredging which will result in decrease of important food sources for fish.

Dams are also expected to prevent migratory freshwater fishes, such as Plecoglossus altivelis and Anguilla japonica, from moving freely up and down the rivers for spawning and feeding.

Environmental Impact Assessment

The project was made public for the first time on 15 December 2008 and its master plan was announced in 8 June 2009. And the government wants to start the project from October 2009 and finish it by 2012.

When the government announced its interim plan on 27 April 2009, the total budget of the project was about 14 trillion Korean Won and it just increased to 22.2 trillion Korean Won when the master plan was announced on 8 June 2009. The total budget increased by 59% in just one and a half months, which implies that the planning of the project might be made with poor consultation among government bodies, let alone consultation with concerned local people and civil society organizations.

Though it is the one of the largest development projects of the country costing more than 22.2 trillion Korean Won(US$17.8 billion) by 2012, there is no proper Environmental Impact Assessment(EIA) carried out. Though 5.2 trillion Korean Won(USD 4.2 billion) will be spent on dredging and 2.7 trillion Korean Won(USD 1.7 billion) on building new dams which will have tremendous impacts on rivers’ environment, there was no Feasibility Study about the project, either.

The government wants to finish the EIA in just a couple of months and start the project from October, this year. It is not a proper process for such a large development project which will cause big impact on riverine environment of the country.

Social Impact

The government also plans to relocate thousands of farms along the rivers to restore them. It is estimated that there are about 17,000ha of farmland in floodplains along the rivers.

In the case of Paldang area which is one the oldest and largest organic farming clusters in the country, about 100 farms of 81ha will have to be relocated that local farmers are very much concerned. Actually their farming in organic way was promoted by local governments as it was considered the best way to lead sustainable livelihoods for local farmers and to protect the water quality of the Paldang lake which is the source of water for almost 25 million people in Seoul and its vicinity. Farmers were informed of the situation that their farms will have to just a couple of months ago.


It is very important to restore rivers, to supply water and to prevent flooding in a sustainable way. Many international bodies including the UNEP, other UN agencies and Ramsar Convention have tried to implement the Integrated Water Resources Management (IWRM).

The Fifth Conference of the Parties to the Convention on Biological Diversity defined the Ecosystem Approach as ‘a strategy for the integrated management of land, water and living resources that promotes conservation and sustainable use in an equitable way’. It requires the taking into consideration of the effects of actions on every element of an ecosystem, based on the recognition that all elements of an ecosystem are linked.

If the South Korean government really want to restore its 4 major rivers, it should make restoration plans for the Integrated Water Resources Management with ecosystem approach to restore full functions and interactions among living organisms and their environment.

It is known that natural riverine wetlands provide diverse ecosystem services including water supply, flood control, water quality improvement and tourism promotion when they are managed in sustainable way. If we manage rivers and riverine wetlands wisely based on the ecosystem approach, we can solve almost all the challenges related to river and water resources management.

A recent poll conducted by an independent research institute in late June 2009 showed that 67.4% of Korean people wanted that the budget for the 4 Rivers Restoration Project should be used in other areas such as public welfare.

Korean government must change its traditional water manager’s view which can provide limited jobs and boost local economy for during the project period, only three years to come. Instead, the government should try to look for a real approach for reviving rivers and their ecosystems based on participatory approach, involving all the stakeholders of the country.

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