Fighting for South Korea's Rivers

by Ma Yong-Un
Tuesday, March 25, 2008

Korea Federation for Environmental Movements (KFEM) has launched a letter-writing campaign to protest the proposed "Great Korea Canal Project," a huge river engineering scheme that would devastate wetlands in South Korea.

According to KFEM, "This set of proposed canals would pave over every wetland, mountain, and riverbed in its path. Korea and the world have already lost too many precious wetlands and rivers."

Newly elected President Lee Myung-bak is pushing for construction of the $16.8 billion canal project as a way to boost economic growth. Lee previously ran Hyundai Engineering & Construction. The company is among those that have met to plan the project, according to Bloomberg news agency.

Although final plans have not been drafted and there is not yet a project Environmental Impact Assessment as required by law, President Lee pledges to complete the Canal during his 5 year term.

The proposed canal project would connect the four largest rivers in South Korea with three canals. The largest canal would cut the length of South Korea, connecting Seoul to Busan - covering a distance of about 540 km. The canal would be one of the largest infrastructure projects in Korea's history, and would connect the Han and Nakdong River systems. This project would require constant dredging for maintenance of the canals, and would widen the rivers to as much as 300 meters to accommodate large cargo ships.

One major complication is a major mountain range that runs down the peninsula, separating the two river systems. The project calls for building an underground tunnel to link the rives under the mountains. Linking two major river ecosystems separated by mountain ranges would cause irreparable damage to these ecosystems and the biodiversity they support. The Ministry of Environment reports that these rivers support 58 wildlife species specifically protected by Korea's environmental legislation. The Han River estuary, the Nakdong River estuary and Upo Wetland, a protected Ramsar Site, would be especially affected. Rare species that would lose habitat to the scheme include the black-faced spoonbill, white-naped crane, swan goose, Saunders' gulls, Eurasian spoonbills and white-tailed sea eagles.

Korean environmental groups are banding together to fight this enormously destructive project. "We learned from the successful campaign to stop the Dong River dam that if we work together to expose the unnecessary destructiveness of a large infrastructure project we can win," says KFEM's Ma Yong-Un. "But we have also witnessed the destruction of the largest tidal wetland in the world - the Saemangeum Tidal Flat Reclamation Project has already destroyed some of the world's vital biodiversity because we did not mobilize until after the bulldozers had started destroying globally important wetlands. We are fighting for the Han and Nakdong River estuaries before construction companies meet with President Lee to get rich at the expense of Korean citizens and the world's wildlife."

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