The specter of the Grand Korean Waterway

Here is a very good column which shows what are problems of the Four Rivers Project in South Korea. The project is building more than 18 new dams and dredging more than 520 million cubic meters of sand and gravel from the bottom of the four largest rivers in the country.

[Column] The specter of the Grand Korean Waterway

The Hankyoreh
Posted on : Aug. 20, 2010 14:24 KST

By Cho Hong-seop, Environmental Reporter

The previous allegations that the Four Major Rivers Restoration Project is in fact the preliminary stage for President Lee Myung-bak’s Grand Korean Waterway have been resurrected. Despite two assurances from President Lee that he is not executing the waterway project, suspicions have only deepened.

In particular, the decision to pull an episode of MBC’s “PD Notebook” entitled “The Six-Meter-Deep Secret of the Four Major Rivers” has a number of people asking what type of content could have sparked the move to shelve the program, adding to suspicions that the Grand Korean Waterway is under way.

The more than 2,000 viewer opinions that went up overnight Wednesday on the bulletin board of the “PD Notebook” web site were a clear indication of the anger and despondency citizens felt.

One viewer vented, “Look, the viewers aren’t so brainless that you have to tell them not to watch this.”

Others wrote things like “This is a scary country” and “It seems like we are returning to the 1980s. I have tears in my eyes.”

The Lee Myung-bak administration has been working overtime to clear away concerns, stating that “there was no secret team” and that “the zones with depths of six meters or more represent 26.5 percent of the entire project.”
However, their statements do not seem to be quelling the controversy, as they has yet to provide a single convincing answer to the fundamental question of why the rivers have to be dug so deeply and blocked off with weirs.

Large weirs and extensive dredging were not part of the project initially presented. The minister of Land, Transport and Maritime Affairs (MLTM) gave a report to President Lee during a Presidential Committee on Balanced National Development meeting on Dec. 15, 2008. The report contained a plan to install natural stone weirs at depths of one to two meters so that citizens could use the water for recreational purposes. Dredging was restricted to zones with severe sedimentation. The project centered on building small to mid-sized dams and reservoirs, and weirs and dredging were to be used merely as supplementary means.

However, in the master plan for the project that showed its face for the first time in April of the next year, the four natural stone weirs had transformed into 16 dam-sized weirs, and the dredging amounts ballooned by three times the initial plan. The Lee administration has stated that there were slight changes in the process of fleshing out the project, but the reality is that the substance of the project underwent a fundamental transformation. It stands to reason that people would begin to harbor suspicions about this metamorphosis that took place behind closed doors.

Why is the river being dredged so deeply? According to experts, nowhere in the world will you find flood prevention measures that involve digging up the riverbed. The Lee administration says that it is intended as a way of preparing for future climate change, that it has developed “water basins” for the eventuality of unanticipated flooding and drought. This explanation is an insult to the fellow public officials who toiled for the past decade to generate advanced flood control policies. The climate change issue was already been reflected in the government’s own water resource policies some ten years ago.

South Korea’s flood control policy hit a turning point in the late 1990s. Northern Gyeonggi Province suffered its worst-ever flooding in three different years, in 1996, 1998, and 1999. Once-in-500-years rainfall struck in three out of four years, resulting in the collapse of Yeoncheon Dam.

The government established the flood disaster prevention task force in the Cheong Wa Dae (the presidential office in South Korea or Blue House) in 1999 and embarked on a thorough reexamination of its flood control plans. At the heart of this was a shift from levees to basins, from lines to planes. Since it was impossible to prevent flooding simply with levees on the main course of a river, the idea was to build flood control dams and riverside reservoirs in the upper region to spread the flood control burden throughout the basin. A strategy of selective flood defense was adopted, one that involved not fighting the flood, but accepting strategic losses according to the location.

Based on this understanding, a variety of mid to long-term flood control plans have been formulated in the intervening years. The Four Major Rivers Project is now taking the new flood control system built over the past decade and reverting it overnight to the way it was before the 1990s.

The same goes for drought prevention measures. What do they expect to do with the water trapped in the main courses of the four rivers when dealing with a drought that strikes remote farming villages, coastal areas, or islands?

Speaking at a discussion last year held by the National Assembly Research Service, one of the drafters of the master plan hit the nail on the head, saying, “After we did the dredging, we found that some one billion cubic meters of water was secured” - not that the dredging had been done to match the water shortfall.

So why do they insist on building large weirs and dredging so extensively when this can address neither flooding nor drought issues? Therein lurks the specter of the Grand Korean Waterway.

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