"Green" New Deal Projects Threaten Korea's Rivers and Tidal Flats

Yekang Ko and Derek K. Schubert

The newly completed levee near Sangju Dam, part of the Four Rivers project, collapsed on June 25, 2011. Water flows throughout the river have changed due to flaws in dam design. Environmental experts expect problems like these to continue.
The newly completed levee near Sangju Dam, part of the Four Rivers project, collapsed on June 25, 2011. Water flows throughout the river have changed due to flaws in dam design. Environmental experts expect problems like these to continue.
© Kim/GR

Although South Korea adopted “Green Growth” as a national slogan in 2008, battles between environmental activists and the government have, ironically, become fiercer than ever. While the government rushes forward with its highly publicized “Green New Deal,” environmental groups say that nominally “green” national-scale construction projects are threatening Korea’s valuable ecosystems, especially riparian and tidal wetlands. The most controversial projects are the huge river-engineering scheme known as the Four Major Rivers Restoration Project (see WRR, Sept. 2009 and Sept. 2010) and tidal power plants along South Korea’s western coast.

Countless problems with Four Rivers

The Four  Rivers Project, which includes 16 dams, is nearly 80% complete just two years after massive dredging began in 2009.  The government argues that the dredging reduced the damage from flooding earlier this summer. But environmental groups and the media are continually discovering and reporting disastrous events caused by this “restoration.” Bridges and embankments have broken, water supplies have been cut off, freshly completed waterfront parks and farmlands have flooded, and rivers have tried to recover their original shape. These side effects have environmental costs that must be weighed against the flood-related savings claimed by the government.

Environmental experts and academics  in and outside the country note that they predicted many of these effects, but the government acted in haste and failed to heed their warnings. Last May, Dr. Hans H. Bernhart, a German hydrologist from the Karlsruhe Institute of Technology, sent an open letter to UNEP, accusing the organization of wrongfully endorsing the “irresponsible” Four Rivers Project based on information provided by the Korean government. Many experts, including Dr. Bernhart, now say that stopping the project entirely and removing the nearly completed dams would be the best way to prevent further damage and to avoid huge maintenance costs. Otherwise, the only option to avoid sediment input would be subjecting the tributaries to “refurbishment”: that is, dredging and other operations being performed on the four main rivers. Sure enough, the government recently proposed the Four Rivers Tributaries Refurbishment project, which would affect a total of 5,500 km of rivers and cost another US$19 billion. (The Four Rivers Project itself has affected roughly 900 km and cost US$21 billion.)

Korean tidal power plans threaten protected areas. © Ko, Schubert, and Hester
Korean tidal power plans threaten protected areas. © Ko, Schubert, and Hester
Not-so-green tidal energy

The other controversial “green” project is the construction of six tidal power plants, one recently finished and five more planned, along South Korea’s western coast. As a “clean” source of power not derived from fossil fuels, tidal power may seem beyond reproach (just like “river restoration”), but these projects would require the destruction of tidal flats that host tens of thousands of migratory birds and are officially protected under Korean environmental laws. The Ganghwa Tidal Power Plant is proposed right next to Ganghwa Tidal Flat and the Black-Faced Spoonbill Habitat, a 370-square-kilometre area protected since 2000 as a Natural Heritage Site. Black-faced Spoonbills, a Natural Heritage Species and classified as “Endangered” by IUCN, nest and breed in the small, rocky islands here. A second plant, Incheon Bay Tidal Power Plant, is proposed south of Ganghwa Island and would cut through the largest of Korea’s “wetland preservation areas”: the Jangbongdo wetland preservation area, designated in 2003. Jangbongdo’s tidal wetlands are renowned for their valuable marine habitat and unique landscape. Jangbongdo has some of the nation’s few remaining well-preserved tidal flats. According to a report prepared for a 2008 Ramsar meeting by Korea NGO Network, 2,907 km2 of tidal flats in South Korea had been drained or filled from 1910 to 2007, and only 2,550 km2 remained.

The unprecedented scale of tidal-power development in South Korea is especially significant. The newly completed Sihwa Tidal Power Plant (254 MW) replaced the Rance Tidal Power Station in France (240 MW) as the world's largest, and the additional five proposed for Korea would be even bigger – in one case, more than five times the capacity of Sihwa. As the map shows, two others in Gyeonggi Bay would lie within 60 km of Sihwa. Utility companies are swarming over Gyeonggi Bay to help meet South Korea’s Renewable Portfolio Standard (RPS), which set goals on renewable energy. Environmental NGOs and local fishermen anticipate that tidal power plants at this scale would increase flooding of Ganghwa Island and bring about deep and lasting harm to the tidal ecosystems, fisheries, cultures, and landscape. Nevertheless, no environmental impact assessment has investigated the cumulative impact of these three plants, and the government’s original cost-benefit analyses did not thoroughly incorporate the values of tidal flats.

Recent studies, though, are causing the South Korean government to reconsider tidal power. In June 2011, Incheon Development Institute reported that the current cost-benefit analysis for the Incheon Bay plant was skewed; rather than returning $2.10 in benefits for every dollar spent on the plant, this study showed only 80 cents in benefits for every dollar spent, meaning that building the plant would be a waste of money. In addition, Korea’s Ministry of Environment pointed out considerable flaws in the preliminary Environmental Impact Assessment, so the Ministry of Land, Transport, and Maritime Affairs has had to defer their plans for the Ganghwa and Incheon Bay projects until more studies are done. Although these tidal projects are temporarily blocked, as long as the government pursues a narrowly defined “segmented green” approach instead of a holistic “systematic green,” this battle over misguided development projects will continue.

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Yekang Ko is a Ph.D. candidate in Landscape Architecture & Environmental Planning, UC Berkeley, and is on the Executive Committee of SAVE International.

Derek K. Schubert is a landscape architect in Berkeley, California, and President of SAVE International.