Ambitious Rivers Project Meets a Sea of Opposition
By CHOE SANG-HUN
New York Times
Published: December 13, 2009
NAJU, South Korea — Last month, on a gravelly embankment of the Youngsan River here, President Lee Myung-bak broke ground on a $19.2 billion public works project to remake the country’s four longest rivers, an ambitious and controversial undertaking that has spurred a national debate over what constitutes green development.
Mr. Lee says the project will generate thousands of jobs, improve water supply and quality, and prevent flooding, while providing a model for environmentally sound development.
But critics call it a political boondoggle, say it will be an environmental disaster and have sued to stop it. More South Koreans oppose the project than support it. And opponents charge that it is simply a repackaging of Mr. Lee’s earlier dream of linking the Han and Nakdong Rivers to create a “Grand Korean Waterway” across the nation, a proposal he abandoned in the face of widespread opposition.
Meanwhile engineers have already begun work to rebuild the Han, Nakdong, Kum and Youngsan Rivers, work that is likely to make Mr. Lee famous or infamous long after his five-year term ends in 2013 and could even determine who succeeds him.
“If they build a weir here, I fear it will trap the water and make the river more polluted than it is now,” said Choi Han-gon, 55, a farmer here who admits to conflicted feelings about the project. Gazing at a government billboard depicting the futuristic waterfront town promised to rise here within two years, he added, “I can also see why everyone will love it once it’s done.”
Mr. Lee, a former chief executive of the Hyundai construction company who is nicknamed the Bulldozer for his penchant for colossal engineering schemes, aims at nothing less than rethinking the ecology and economy of the rivers, some of which were heavily polluted during the country’s rapid industrialization. For three years, workers will dredge river bottoms and build dikes, reservoirs and hydroelectric power stations.
When the work is done, the government says, the rivers will “come alive” with tourists, sailboats and water sports enthusiasts. Sixteen futuristic-looking weirs will straddle the rivers, creating pristine lakes bordered by wetland parks. A 1,050-mile network of bike trails will run along the rivers.
Mr. Lee has engaged in this sort of development before, overcoming similar opposition and ultimately reaping a political fortune. As mayor of Seoul, in 2005, he silenced protests from urban shop owners and peeled back asphalt to reveal a long-forgotten, sewage-filled stream. He cleaned it and let it run again through downtown Seoul by pumping in water from the Han River.
Today, the four-mile Cheonggyecheon River is the capital’s most visible landmark. Its popularity helped win him the presidency in 2007.
Now, with an eye to his legacy, Mr. Lee is determined to repeat that success, this time on a national scale.
He wants the work done fast, in time for the 2012 parliamentary and presidential elections. Although he is constitutionally barred from seeking re-election, his governing Grand National Party bills the river project as the centerpiece of a Green New Deal, a strategy of economic growth through eco-friendly projects.
“As with the restoration of Cheonggyecheon, our efforts to save the four major rivers will generate greater benefits than we can even imagine now,” Mr. Lee told 2,000 guests at the groundbreaking ceremony on the Youngsan River.
The political opposition, however, calls it “quick-fix window-dressing” ahead of the 2012 elections. More than 400 environmental and other civic groups filed a joint lawsuit last month to stop the project. They argue that dredging river bottoms will disrupt the ecosystem and the new dams will create catch basins, worsening pollution and flooding.
“He just broke ground for an environmental catastrophe,” said Woo Sang-ho, spokesman of the main opposition Democratic Party. In Parliament, the opposition is trying to block further financing for the project, while Mr. Lee’s party, the majority, is determined to push it through.
After his decision to allow American beef imports last year was met with huge street protests, Mr. Lee’s approval ratings have begun to bounce back amid signs of economic recovery. Now he is courting a new generation of affluent Koreans who want a greener environment in their neighborhoods, a bet that paid off handsomely in Seoul.
That he chose this southwestern town for the official start of the four rivers project was no accident. The Youngsan River is one of the country’s most polluted, and many in the province support Mr. Lee’s efforts.
But the surrounding Cholla region is a traditional stronghold of the opposition, posing a dilemma for local politicians. At the groundbreaking event, the provincial governor and the mayor of Kwangju, the region’s main city — both members of the Democratic Party — praised the project.
Some of the project’s most avid supporters are those who live near the rivers.
“I have great expectations,” said Choi Hyun-ho, 61, a farmer in Yeoju, a Han River town south of Seoul. “Land prices here have risen 40 percent in the past two years.”
But some locals fear the loss of their traditional way of life.
“Those trucks and bulldozers are slashing the rivers around the country to build a personal monument for an engineering president and his friends: greedy developers and construction companies,” said Kim Jae-sun, 46, a farmer on the Youngsan River. “I don’t foresee any tourists coming here, just garbage from upstream piling up at the new dam, right in front of my village.”
Mr. Kim joined dozens of environmental activists who protested at Mr. Lee’s ceremony.
“You can’t improve water quality by building more dams,” said Park Mi-kyong, a local environmental activist who led the demonstration. “It’s best to let the river flow its natural course.”
Lee Yong-soo, 77, who lives in Mokpo, a town farther downstream, expressed nostalgia for 30 years ago when the water was so clean that children dived for clams and fishing boats sailed up the Youngsan to sell anchovies and skate fish to inland villages. But then the riverbed rose with layers of toxic silt. So he was willing to give the president the benefit of the doubt.
“He cleaned up that ditch in Seoul, didn’t he?” he said. “If he can clean up this river, everyone will applaud him.”
A version of this article appeared in print on December 14, 2009, on page A6 of the New York edition.