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Column: The Four Rivers Project and Conflicting Korean Opinions on "Environment"
[ Issue 103 Page 6 ] Sunday, December 05, 2010, 17:58:09 Geunhong Park geunhongpiuspark@kaist.ac.kr

As is oft-publicized (particularly around the time of the G20 Seoul Summit), the Republic of Korea has come a long way in terms of economic development. Much of what has been achieved in this aspect has been done so by extensive industrialization during the 1970s and 80s. Yet this attitude of aggressive modernization has precipitated, it seems, a certain disregard for conservation and preservation of the environment, as can still be evinced from the concrete embankments on the Han River to the eponymous Seawall damming the Saemangeum estuary. This reporter would thus like to draw attention away from self-pleasing comments about the expected success of the G20 Summit and towards something that is currently ongoing: the grandiose “Four Rivers Project.”

This is a 2.2 trillion won (US$ 1.8 billion) plan that calls for the renovation of Korea’s four major rivers: the Han, Nakdong, Geum, and Youngsan. It involves dredging an estimated 570 million cubic meters of sediment from the river bottoms, constructing 16 new dams, repairing 87 old dams, and reinforcing more than 150 miles of riverbanks with concrete. The Four Rivers “Restoration” is the most ambitious scheme in the Lee administration’s so-called “Green New Deal” project which calls for low-carbon, environmentally friendly economic growth and labor creation through extensive development of solar, wind and tidal power, a nationwide tree planting program, and further research into hybrid vehicle technologies among others.

In fact, the government presents the scheme as not just expedient, but indeed a necessary part of water resource management, economic development, and even environmental conservation. Stated aims put forth from government institutions include: securing scarce water sources in a time when world water reserves are scarce, implementing effective flood control measures, improving water quality, restoring ecosystems, creating multipurpose spaces for local residents, and encouraging regional development and investment. One can notice that the economic aims of the project have been pushed back to enable an overwhelmingly “utilitarian” presentation. It can be said that if one follows the government’s lines of reasoning, the project can be seen as a utilitarian environmental scheme encompassing practical resource management and environmental protection.

All this, of course, may be seen as contrary to a more widespread environmental consciousness among Korean citizens. The more environmentally oriented populace has produced opposition against the Four Rivers Project that has been quite strong. A poll suggested as much as 48% of the populace may be against the plan as of December 2009, compared to the 43% who support it. In addition, some of the opposition has proven especially vocal in voicing its concerns. Religious organizations from Buddhist, Catholic and Protestant backgrounds as well as environmental organizations and university professors (both Korean and foreign) have voiced their disapproval openly.

Critics also have pointed out that the environmental implications of these proposed policies have not yet been worked out thoroughly, and that the administration seems to be rushing ahead with trying to get the project “done and over with” quickly. They also note that the construction of dykes and embankments readily results in stagnation of the water, as affirmed by a mass die-off of fish near Yeoju earlier this year. Skeptics go so far as to claim that the plan is a “grand [ecological] disaster that any expert can clearly foresee with common sense.”

Some, if not all of the opponents of the Four Rivers Project hold that the aims of the government lie beyond “resource management” and “ecological restoration.” President Lee has been particularly accused of cronyism in his eagerness to hire construction companies that have supported him in the general election to do the work. Development will in addition mean a boon for the real estate sector, and benefit high income property owners who are often Lee’s supporters. Also, Lee has been responsible for similar large-scale development projects such as the Cheongye Stream Restoration Scheme. The government’s success with the Four Rivers Scheme will mean tangible achievements for maximum “propaganda” effect.

Whatever the reason for the government’s enthusiasm for the Four Rivers Project, the controversy, as stated above, embodies the dilemma that Korea, as a relatively recently industrialized economy, faces: further development versus environmental protection. However, in this case, the issue has proven much more complicated than that: as citizens have become more environmentally aware, the government has increasingly tended to present its projects as “eco-friendly.” This sometimes has resulted in truly environmentally friendly policies that have seen widespread support by and collaboration with environmental groups. Yet for the time being, the Four Rivers Project does not seem to constitute as such, with environmental groups disavowing it, and different interest groups at loggerheads with each other. In a sense, this is the essence of Korea’s environmental dilemma: a modern understanding of “conservation” coming into heated conflict with industrial values of development and economic betterment.

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