South Korean Wetlands Under Threat after the Ramsar COP10

South Korean Wetlands Under Threat After the Ramsar COP10

November 19th
Korea Federation for Environmental Movements (KFEM) / Friends of the Earth Korea

1. Riparian Wetlands

‘The Changwon Declaration On Human Well-being and Wetlands (Ramsar COP10 Resolution X.3)’ proposed by the South Korean government and adopted at the Ramsar COP10 resolves to urge decision makers of the world to demonstrate preservation and wise use of wetlands, stop destroying and damaging wetlands, and to preserve the natural ecological characters of wetlands. The Ramsar COP10 Resolution X.3 Annex clearly states that “many climate change policy responses for more water storage and transfers, as well as energy generation, if poorly implemented, may deleteriously impact wetlands” and “restoring wetlands and maintaining hydrological cycles is of utmost importance in responses for addressing climate change, flood mitigation, water supply, food provision and biodiversity conservation.”

COP10 Resolution X.19, ‘Wetlands and River Basin Management: Consolidated Scientific and Technical Guidance’ urges the “incorporation of wetland conservation and wise use to river basin management” and COP 10 Resolution X.24, ‘Climate Change and Wetlands’ also urges “maintaining the ecological characters of wetlands in national climate change mitigation and adaptation policies.”

Additionally, COP10 Resolution X.13, ‘The Status of Sites in the Ramsar Convention of International Importance’ requests that the South Korean government “advise the Ramsar Secretariat of any significant change in the ecological character of those Wetland Protection Areas and Ecosystem Landscape Conservation Areas that are wetlands.”
1) Four Major Rivers Restoration Project and its Impacts on Rivers’ Ecosystem

The South Korean government has started the ‘Four Major Rivers Restoration Project’ on November 10, 2009 constructing more than 20 new dams along the main streams of the four largest rivers in Korea (Han, Nakdong, Geum, and Yeongsan Rivers), dredging 570 million ㎥ of sediments, and reinforcing 377 km of riverbanks under the stated purpose of preparing for water shortage and floods due to climate change. If through this project the rivers’ depths are maintained at 4-6 meters the natural ecological characters of the 4 major rivers and surrounding riparian wetlands will be severely damaged; river shallows, sand bars and riparian wetlands may completely disappear.

Many diverse forms of inland wetlands of South Korea are formed along the four largest rivers of Korea which are subjected to the 4 Rivers Project. Upo Wetland, a Ramsar Wetland of International Importance, and Junam Reservoir, a very important wetland in the City of Changwon, the venue of the Ramsar COP10 in 2008, are representative wetlands formed in floodplains of the Nakdong River.

There are many riparian wetlands such as sand bars all the way along the rivers from the upstream to downstream, which were formed by doposition of sands by the rivers. Such riparian wetlands are important stop-over sites for migratory waterbird species including endangered White-naped Cranes Grus vipio, and Hooded Cranes Grus monacha.

Estuaries of the four rivers have very large esturine wetlands such as the Han River Estuary, Geum River Estuary, Nakdong River Estuary all of which are internationally important for migratory waterbird species. Such important inland wetlands of Korea are formed by free flowing river’s dynamic activities of erosion, transportation and deposition. Thus damages to the natural flow of the four rivers will result in loss and degradation of inland wetlands of the country.

As much as 68 wildlife species protected by Korean domestic laws including freshwater fish species such as Nakdong Gudgeon Gobibotia naktongenis and Nakdong Nose Loach Koreocobitis naktongensis, plant species such as Fox Nut Euryale ferox and Aster altaicus var. uchiyamae Kitam, and Cockscomb Pearl Mussel Cristaria plicata are living and/or using in the project sites of 634 kilometres along the rivers. There are around 60 endemic freshwater fish species in Korea and most of them inhabit in shallows that massive dredging and construction of dams will affect negative impacts on freshwater fish diversity.

The Dalseong wetland, Damyang wetland and Nakdong River Estuary are three Wetland Protection Areas, which are included within the 4 Rivers Project area. Should dams be constructed up and downstream, massive dredging occurs and water depth changes in these areas the ecological characters of said protected areas will undergo significant changes.
South Korean government just finished the Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA) in only four months including ecosystem survey, EIA report writing, collection collecting public opinions which is the one of the most important in a project development process. The government just finished the EIA, though it didn’t make a full study of ecosystems of the four rivers and could not provide an estimate for the impact from the project.

Though the 4 Rivers Project has started, around 70% of the South Korean people still do not support it. And, legal experts in colllaboration with civil society organizations are preparing to raise a lawsuit against the project as it violated River Act and National Finance Act. So far around 10,000 people joined as plaintiffs for the lawsuit.

2) Han River Estuary Wetland Protection Area

The government of Korea maintaining that we need to introduce more vessels as means of transport under the name of so-called Low Carbon Green Growth initiated construction of the Gyeong-In Canal, 18 kilometer long artificial canal which connects Seoul and Incheon. Local governments along the canal are putting forward many related projects to develop inland navigation. In order for large vessels to sail on the lower Han River, Sin-gok submerged weir is to be moved about 14km lower on the river in conjunction with Gyeongin Canal, Han River Renaissance of Seoul City and 6 Projects Linking the Han River of Gyeonggi Province. When the submerged dam is moved about downstream of the river and massive dredging take place for vessels to navigate, many parts of the brakish zone of the Han River Estuary Wetland Protection Area will be changed into freshwater ecosystem and important wetlands in the Wetland Protection Area such as Janghang Wetland and Sannam Wetland which are used as important wintering grounds for waterbirds including internationally endangered bird species such as White-naped Crane Grus vipio, Swan Goose Anser cygnoides, and Bean Geese Anser fabalis will be flooded and ecological character of the estuary will be greatly degraded.

The proposed Gimpo Cargo Terminal will replace large rice paddy fields which are usde as feeding grounds for White-naped Cranes, and wild ducks and geese and there is a plan to build a ferry and cargo terminal at Isanpo in the Han River Estuary Wetland Protection Area.

Rice paddy fields along the estuary which are important feeding grounds for wintering migratory waterbirds are disappearing due to large urban development project such as the Han River New Town development in Gimpo City which is a large new apartment project and is one of the 6 Projects Linking the Han River of Gyeonggi Province.
3) Bamseom (Bam Islet) Ecosystem Landscape Conservation Area

The Han River Canal currently being promoted by Seoul City also threatens wetland conservation along the lower areas of the Han River. The Han River Canal is being promoted as a part of the “Han River Renaissance” Project and plans to dredge 15 km of the Han River from Gimpo, Gyeunggi Province to Yongsan, Seoul at a depth of 6.3m and construct an international terminal at Yeoyido in Seoul to operate 5000 ton class vessels from Seoul to Incheon.

This project threatens to damange the ecological characters of the Bamseom (Bam Islet) Ecosystem Landscape Conservation Area which is in the middle of the Han River in Seoul and serves as an important urban wetland and wintering ground for thousands of migrating birds in the winter.

4) Bawineupgubi Wetland

The Bawineupgubbi Wetland is a riparian developed in a floodplain in the lower midstream part of the South Han River as sediments from upstreams has been deposited where the flow of the river is slow.

It is the only place in the world where an endangered endemic plant species Aster altaicus var. uchiyamae Kitam can be found. A rare plant species Sparganium stoloniferum and an endangered freshwater fish species Short-barbel Gudgeon Gobiobotia brevibarba are also found here. There also are various plant and bird species in the riparian wetland which deserves to be protected. However, the wetland is under a big threat from massive dredging in the area and flooding by dam construction in the downstream from it.

5) Geum River Estuary

The 400 kilometre long Geum River has formed a big estuarine wetland where it meets the Yellow Sea. There are large tidal flats and rice paddy fields at the stuary area which attracts large numbers of waterbird species including Baikal Teals Anas formosa, Oyestercatchers Haematopus ostralegus osculans and swans. It supports 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., which deserves protection. However the extensive dredging in the upstream of the river will affect the estuary’s natural ecosystem and its ecological character.

6) Hapgangni Wetland

The Hapgangni Wetland is a riparian wetland with large sand bars developed in the area where the Geum River and Miho River which is the largest tributary of the Geum River meet. Around 19,000 birds of 103 bird species were recorded at a study including 4,600 Bean Geese Anser fabalis, 3,500 Spot-billed Ducks Anas poecilorhyncha, 2,700 Mallards Anas platyrhynchos, 1,300 Common Teals Anas crecca. It supports 15 protected bird species including Steller’s Sea Eagle Haliaeetus pelagicus, White-tailed Sea Eagle Haliaeetus albicilla, Long-billed Plover Charadrius placidus, Baikal Teals Anas formosa, and Bean Geese Anser fabalis and 2 protected mammal species; Leopard Cat Felis bengalensis and Eurasian Otter Lutra lutra. The wetland is affected by dredging in the area and a dam construction in the downstream from the Four Rivers Project.

7) Nakdong River Estuary Wetland Protection Area

The Nakdong River estuary is one of South Korea’s most important wetlands; it supports the most winter migratory birds in both as its species diversity and abundance of species. The area is being protected such as a Wetland protection Area and a Natural Monuments, but the waterbird habitats are continuously deteriorating due to rapid urbanization and industrialization of surrounding areas. Furthermore, the Nakdong River estuary’s protected area are being lifted little by little as development occurs.

Additionally, we believe that the negative impacts on Nakdong River estuary’s Wetland Protection Areas due to large dredging projects upstream related to the 4 Rivers Project will be quite significant. Specifically, there is the currently planned construction of a second estuary dam gates west of Eulsukdo (Eulsuk Island) within Nakdong River estuary’s Wetland Protection Area which plans to undertake massive dredging and shore maintenance which will greatly damage the ecological character of the Nakdong River estuary.
8) Dalseong Wetland Protection Area

The Dalseong Wetland is located where the Nakadong River meets the Geumho River, a tributiary of the Nakdong River. It has well conserved riparian vegetation and is a stop-over and wintering site for Black Vuntures Aegypius monachus, Hooded Cranes Grus monacha, White-naped Cranes Grus vipio and Barn Swallows Hirundo rustica. The wetland will be impacted by dredging and dam construction due to the Four Rivers Project.

9) Haepyeong Wetland

The Haepyeong Wetland in Gumi is a riparian wetland with vast sand bars and reed beds along the midstream Nakdong River. 1,500ha of farm lands around the wetland are important feeding grounds for many migratory waterbirds, especially in winter. It was designated as an Wildlife Protection Area in 1998 and its area was expanded in 2001, but it was unlisted from the protection site list in April, 2008 due to big pressure for development in the surrounding area. It is regularly used as a stop-over site during the annual migration of approximately 2,000-4,000 Hooded Cranes Grus monacha and 400-800 White-naped Cranes Grus vipio. It also is an important wintering ground for thousands of White-fronted Geese Anser albifrons, Whooper Swans Cygnus cygnus and ducks. Such an important wetland will be severely impacted by the dredging and dam construction due to the Four Rivers Project.
10) Damyang Wetland Protection Area

The Damyang Wetland which was designated as a Wetland Protection Area in 2004 is a riparian in the upper midstream of the Yeongsan River with diverse forms of vegetations. It has a large willow forest and a bamboo forest along the river. It also has diverse forms of river habitats with shallows, deep pools and sand bars. Freshwater fish species including a protected fish species Fareastern Brook Lamprey Entosphenus reissneri and many endemic fish species such as Microphysogobio yaluensis can be found here. It also support bird species such as Little Egret Egretta garzetta, Black-crowned Night Heron Nycticorax nycticorax, Green-backed Heron Butorides striatus and Cattle Egrets Bubulcus ibis. There is a large breeding sites for herons and egrets in the wetland. The Damyang Wetland Protection Area will be impacted from dredging and dam construction around it.

2. Coastal Wetlands

Ramsar COP10 Resolution X.22, ‘Promoting International Cooperation for the Conservation of Waterbird Flyways’ urges in its Annex that “the Yellow Sea is facing a multitude of threats, from pollution, siltation, and particularly past and ongoing large-scale conversion of mudflats for agricultural and urban and industrial development……Conservation of the Yellow Sea intertidal wetlands and associated habitats should be advanced at an ecosystem scale through integrated coastal zone management and international cooperation……Conservation measures should include the designation of the highest priority sites as Marine Protected Areas, and/or their listing as Ramsar sites.”

The Resolution X.22 states that the Conference of Contracting Parties “WELCOMES the statement by the Republic of Korea to the 35th meeting of Ramsar’s Standing Committee that intertidal mudflats should be preserved and that no large-scale reclamation projects are now being approved in the Republic of Korea, and ENCOURAGES all Contracting Parties in their efforts to protect such habitats in future and to monitor them and mitigate any past development impacts on or losses to them.”

But the Korean government has approved 11 new reclamation projects totaling 8.1㎢ of coastal wetlands including the Songdo tidal flat in Incheon which meets the criteria for the wetland of international importance, in March of 2009, just four months after the Ramsar COP10, and 11 additional reclamation projects totaling 1.06㎢ were approved as well on November 9th, 2009. Not only is this the case, but many additional damages to coastal wetlands are being carried out throughout the nation including the Saemangeum reclamation project which is the single largest tidal flat destruction going-on in the world.

1) Songdo Tidal Flat

Over 140㎢ of tidal flats in Incheon have fallen victim to or are being destroyed by reclamation projects to provide lands for Seoul metropolitan area’s landfill site, Incheon International Airport, Songdo New Town development and other projects. And the 7.16㎢ large Songdo 11th Zone tidal flat, which is the last inland tidal flat at Incheon, was aproved for reclamation last March with plans to develop the Incheon Free Economic Zone on the area. The Songdo tidal flat is an internationally important wetland that is visited by approximately 40,000 shorebirds each year and used by 178 species of birds including the Black-faced Spoonbill Platalea minor, the Saunder’s gull Larus saundersi, the Relict Gull Larus relictus, the Eurasian Oystercatcher Haematopus ostralegus, and the Little Tern Sterna albifrons. 17 endangered species designated by the Korean Ministry of Environment inhabit the area, and 9 pairs of Black-faced Spoonbills bred at nearby Namdong water detention pond and sought food at the Songdo tidal flat.
2) Ganghwado (Ganghwa Island) Tidal Flat and Black-faced Spoonbill Breeding Site

One of the world’s largest tidal power plant is being planned in Korea. The Ganghwa tidal power project will take place by constructing a 6.5 km long artificial sea wall that connects the four islands of Ganghwado, Gyodongdo, Seogumdo and Sukmodo islands. This area is the only wholly preserved estuary tidal flat in Korea and is one of the most productive river estuary zones, providing habitat to countless migratory birds and fish species.

If the Ganghwa tidal power plant is constructed this will cut off the tidal flow and environmental damage such as change in ocean currents and underwater environment, seawater quality degradation, loss of tidal flats, destruction of breeding grounds for migratory fish and food web destruction for marine ecosystems will be inevitable. This region is particularly special as it is designated as the Korea’s Natural Monument No. 419 under the title of ‘Ganghwa tidal flat and Black-faced Spoonbill Breeding Sites’ Including Yudo and Yodo, the largest breeding grounds for the Black-faced Spoonbill, 200~300 Black-faced Spoonbills breed in the area around the proposed project site and should the Ganghwa tidal power plant be constructed the negative impact on Black-faced Spoonbill breeding will be inevitable.

3) Tidal Flat at the Southern End of Ganghwado (Ganghwa Island) and the Jangbongdo (Jangbong Island) Tidal Flat Wetland Protection Area

The tidal flat at the Southern end of Ganghwa Island is located on the East Asian—Australian flyway for various waterbirds and is an important tidal flat that approximately 30,000 shorebirds use as staging sites during their annual migration. Important waterbirds such as the Chinese Egret Eugretta eulophotes, Black-faced Spoonbill Platalea minor, Eurasian Spoonbill Platalea leucorodia, Red-crowned Crane Grus japonensis, White-naped Crane Grus vipio, Eurasian Oystercatcher Haematopus ostralegus, Spoon-billed Sandpiper Eurynorhynchus pygmeus, Spotted Greenshank Tringa guttifer, Far Eastern Curlew Numenius madagascariensis, and the Saunder’s Gull Larus saundersi are observed here. 10 to 20 Red-crowned Cranes spend the winter here every year and it was identified that 322 Black-faced Spoonbills inhabit the tidal flat at the Southern end of Ganghwa Island in 2009.

But the Incheon Bay Tidal Power Project involving the construction of 15.09km of artificial sea wall that connects Ganghwa Island and Yeongjong Island is currently under planning and this partially includes the Jangbongdo Tidal Flat Wetland Protection Area. The construction of sea walls and tidal power plants around the tidal flat will negatively impact the natural tidal flow which is critical to maintaining the tidal flat’s ecological character, and the water level within the sea walls will increase by approximately 2 meters greatly impacting the tidal flat ecosystem.

4) Garorim Bay Tidal Flat

The Garorim Bay tidal flat was identified as the best preserved tidal flat in Korea according to a 2005 research by the Ministry of Maritime Affairs & Fisheries (MOMAF), and once again evaluated as having the most environmental value in the nation in a 2007 MOMAF Environmental Value Analysis contract research. The Bay is one of only two habitats in Korea for the Spotted Seal Phoca largha, classified as an Endangered Species Category Ⅱ by the Ministry of Environment but the area is also under serious threat; 80㎢ of tidal flats is under danger of having its ecological character damaged by the Garorim Bay Tidal Power Project.
Tidal power projects in Korea were already concluded in the past as having no economical benefit when including the environmental costs but are being pursued once again as part of the renewable energy development project in reaction to climate change conventions under the name of “green growth.”

Such projects not only do not match the definition of “renewable energy” or the objectives of the climate change conventions but the seawalls and other artificial constructs also go against government policies to restore damaged tidal flats.

5) Gangjeong Coastal and Marine Area in Jejudo (Jeju Island)

Rare soft coral communities have developed in the ocean adjacent to Jeju’s Gangjeong coast and is registered and protected as a Natural Monument, and is in the Buffer Zone of the UNESCO Biosphere Reserve. But a new naval base is scheduled to be constructed in an approximate 5 ㎢ wide area in this region, and approximately 40% of the base site will be constructed on reclaimed land. The construction of such a new naval base on Jeju Island, which boasts itself as the Island of Peace, and the operations of naval warships in the region are expected to negatively impact surrounding coastal wetlands and marine ecosystem conservation.
6) Saemangeum Tidal Flat

Saemangeum tidal flat used to be the nation’s largest tidal flat and the single most important stop-over sites for migratory shorebirds in the country but the reclamation project that started in 1991 has significantly changed the tidal flat’s ecological character and the number of regularly visiting migratory shorebirds has dramatically decreased. Furthermore the water quality of the artificial lake within the seawall is severely deteriorating. The reclamation project originally proposed to create farmlands but the government is now only utilizing 30% of the reclaimed land as farmlands and the rest are being planned to be used for various purposes including industrial and metropolitan area development.

Resolution X.13 ‘The Status of Sites in the Ramsar List of Wetlands of International Importance’ recommended that the government of the Republic of Korea continue to provide the Secretary General with updated reports of monitoring concerning the ecological impact, especially in relation to population declines in internationally important migratory waterbird populations of the Saemangeum land-claim. As seen, the ecological value that the Saemangeum tidal flat holds is most significant but maintaining the ecological character of the Saemangeum tidal flat in accordance to the mitigation measures concerning ecological impacts presented by the Republic of Korean government will prove to be difficult to achieve its goals.

※ For more information please contact Mr. Ma Yong-un at KFEM/FoE Korea at ma@kfem.or.kr

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