Korea’s Rivers Feeling Impacts from 4-Rivers Project

Randy Hester, Jong Ho Hong and Marcia McNally
Wednesday, September 8, 2010

Activists Step Up Campaign to Stop River-Killing Project

Activists protest the 4-Rivers Project at the South Han River
Activists protest the 4-Rivers Project at the South Han River
Park Jong-hak/KFEM
Since we last reported on South Korea's massive 4-Rivers diversion project (WRR, Sept. 2009), a great deal has happened and the battle to stop the project has intensified. The project continues to be severely criticized by well-qualified scientists, environmentalists, and citizens in Korea and abroad. A lawsuit was filed in November 2009 by academics, 10,000 citizens, and 420 citizen's groups, reflecting the depth of opposition. In 2010, Science published a damning article on 4-Rivers, and major research papers detailing the project's anticipated impacts were issued by Birds Korea and Korean Federation for Environmental Movements (KFEM). Nonetheless, the environmental review was pushed through and construction has begun.

4-Rivers construction underway on the Nakdong River
4-Rivers construction underway on the Nakdong River
Lauren Stahl
Two months ago, members of SAVE International, an environmental group which began at the University of California, Berkeley, did field research on 4-Rivers with members of the Professors' Organization for Movement Against Grand Korean Canal (POMAC). The trip began with a visit to a still-pristine branch of the Nakdong River. We were fortunate to visit a beautiful stretch called the Dragon's Home, named for its dramatic meanders. The river has wide floodplains, sandy beaches, richly vegetated edges, and a great diversity of wildlife indicating a healthy, sustaining riverine system and a portrait of unparalleled natural beauty.

Our next stops graphically demonstrated what is in store for Korea's rivers. The group visited the construction sites of the Sangju Dam on the Nakdong River and Kangcheon Dam on the Han River. The delegation observed first-hand the removal of millions of cubic feet of sand to create deep shipping channels and the loss of thousands of acres of rich wetlands known to support critically endangered species of birds.

Local action against the 4-Rivers has escalated in recent months. In June, the day before mayoral elections in Korea, a Buddhist monk burned himself to death in protest. For the past month, three environmental activists have been protesting at the top of 27-meter-high Ipo Dam on the Han River, another of the 16 dams under construction in this huge scheme. The activists are enduring heavy rain, summer heat, typhoon conditions, and police threats in order to raise their voice to stop what they call the "River Killing Project." 

Protesters have turned the Ipo Dam into a protest site against the 4-Rivers project
Protesters have turned the Ipo Dam into a protest site against the 4-Rivers project
Legal battles to stop the construction are currently heating up at each of the 4-Rivers sites. POMAC is pressuring National Assembly members to cancel or reduce the national budget for 4-Rivers in 2011. POMAC predicts that once the 2011 budget is approved, the government will have enough financial resources to complete most of the core construction and the project will become irreversible. Working in their favor, the June 2 election was considered a progressive victory and vote of no confidence for President Lee's agenda. Most important, it yielded two new mayors actively working to block 4-Rivers locally.

More information: 

Randy Hester is an emeritus professor at the University of California, Berkeley Department of Landscape Architecture and Environmental Planning, and a member of SAVE International.

Jong Ho Hong is Associate Professor of Economics in the Graduate School of Environmental Studies, Seoul National University, and founding member of POMAC.

Marcia McNally is the co-chair of the International Rivers' Board of Directors and co-founder of the Center for Ecological Democracy.