Tuesday, January 22, 2013

Four-rivers project a terrible boondoggle

Well, I'm leaving the country soon and one place I regret not visiting is Taebaek in Gangwondo, the start of two of South Korea's four major rivers.  While in Gangwondo and somewhat afterward, I was a keen observer of the Four Rivers project started by past president Lee Myungbak.  Now the project is mostly finished and considered a mess.  I still want to visit Taebaek, but perhaps the sights will not be as wondrous and natural as they could have.

People became suspicious of the project immediately, not due to evidence of poor planning but due to the connection to a previous proposal.  The first plan was to build a series of locks on the Han and Nakdong Rivers so that goods could travel by ship from Seoul to Busan via Daegu on an inland route.  When there was too much opposition, he proposed similar work for a different purpose.

In his 2007 presidential campaign, President Lee had pledged to build a cross-country canal in Korea, but strong resistance from the opposition and a faction in the ruling Grand National Party prompted him to give up the project to prevent dividing public opinion. He then suggested the restoration of the country’s four major rivers.

To me, this was definitely suspicious, but being ignorant of the details I had to accept that there could be some truth or idealism to President Lee's plan.  This statement of his contains both a reasonable rationale and remarkable naivete:
Some civic groups say that the four-rivers projects will hurt water quality, but it makes little sense to leave already polluted rivers alone without even trying to improve them. As the president remarked, would a head of state carry out a project to deliberately pollute the environment?
And so, at the start of the project, I was suspicious but unable to form a conclusion.  I used the 'foreigner card': "I can't vote here and can't read the relevant technical information; it is not really my country, I guess I'll wait."

One other possible defense of the project was flood control, including maliciously released water from North Korea.  It is not really on point, but here is a link to a post on the subject from 2009.

Before I get to the bad news about the four rivers project, let's look at what Arirang TV had to say.  Follow the link to the video.  Here is the 'About' info:
Published on Apr 29, 2012We take a look at Korea's multi-purpose green growth project, the Four Major Rivers Restoration Project, along with a group of special guests.

Well, Arirang is the national cheerleader station and nothing in the video is wrong.  I'm sure there are beautiful parts of the river and had personally enjoyed the riverside biking trails.  I guess I just feel they left a lot out.

Okay, enough suspense.  What are people saying now that a new report has been released.  Briefly, "Effed-up", "a train wreck" and a "Scathing study".

"Due to faulty designs, 11 out of 16 dams lack sturdiness, water quality is feared to deteriorate... and excessive maintenance costs will be required," the report said.
Silting would require another round of dredging at an estimated cost of 289 billion won, it said.
Driven by tight timetables, work was pushed through without proper inspection and the river bed protection of 15 dams has partially subsided or been washed away.

A common though minor complaint about the work was the algae outbreaks seen after construction.
However, mass algae-outbreaks have been reported in several rivers in 2012, which many believe somehow correlate to the construction.
Note the cautious language used.  The best phrase in this regard is "many believe somehow".

The Minister of the Environment rebutted the claim:
The Ministry of Land and Maritime Affairs and the Ministry of Environment convened a joint press conference yesterday. 
They said the reservoirs are strong enough to bear an influx of waters and the algae was not related to the project. 
“The appearance of algae occurred before the construction,” Yoo Young-sook, Minister of Environment, said. “We need to take a long-term perspective in evaluating water because it’s been only a year since the construction was completed. Water quality can be affected by many factors, such as weather conditions.”

While I don't know what the cause of the algal blooms is, they are reported world wide these days so I am willing to accept the minister's defense, for now.

At this point, January 22, it seems President-elect Park Geun-hye is taking a wait-and-see approach. it is probably wiser than leaping in.

As my in-laws farm on a floodplain, I hope the expectations of increased flooding prove exaggerated.
Background at Gangwon Notes.