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What is the four-rivers restoration project?

A massive plan to ease flooding and droughts, add bike trails, restore the ecosystem and create jobs.
June 18,2009
The groundbreaking ceremony in Busan’s Daejeo District, held on March 6, to revive the district’s river area. The project is part of the government’s plan to refurbish the nation’s four major rivers. By Song Bong-geun
If you’ve picked up a local paper, turned on the radio or watched the nightly news lately, chances are you’ve at least heard mention of the four-rivers restoration project.

The massive government plan has grabbed the media spotlight, as much for what it is supposed to accomplish as for the controversy surrounding it.

But simply hearing about it and understanding it are two different matters entirely.

The project, scheduled to wrap up by 2012, is literally focused on restoring, maintaining and upgrading the nation’s four major waterways.

At first glance, that seems about as boring as your history class and as yawn-inducing as many other government-sponsored initiatives.

But upon closer inspection you’ll find that there’s a lot at stake, especially if, say, you like showering, want to ensure that your PlayStation 3 isn’t destroyed in a flood or plan to look for a job in a few years.

Dealing with drought, floods

The four-rivers project is meant, among other things, to provide fundamental solutions to water-related problems such as drought and flooding. But it also aims to improve water quality, restore the ecosystem, generate thousands of jobs and create bike lanes and recreational spaces.

Not bad for a dull government project, right?

The waterways involved are the Han River in Seoul; the Nakdong River, which runs through the Gyeongsang provinces; the Geum River, which snakes through the Chungcheong and North Jeolla regions; and the Yeongsan River in South Jeolla.

Some describe the four rivers as the arteries of the nation’s major economic activities, as they flow through the country’s major industrial and farming areas. The total length of the four rivers, including their smaller waterways, is around 20,000 kilometers (12,428 miles), which is about 45 times the distance between Seoul and Busan, according to ministry data.

By building dams and reservoirs in the four major rivers, the government aims to secure around 1.3 billion cubic meters of water. Translation: It wants to ensure that there’s enough water for drinking, cooking, operating businesses and, yes, showering, among other uses.

Numerous areas of Korea suffer through drought, and the government has enacted emergency measures to make sure there is enough water to go around. This project can help ease that problem - and make sure it doesn’t get worse - in the future.

The government estimates the country will come up short about 800 million cubic meters of water by 2011 and 1 billion cubic meters by 2016, highlighting the need for new water sources.

At the same time, though, some areas of the country are grappling with flooding, which is estimated to cause several trillion won worth of damage every year to riverbanks, homes, businesses and other property.

To tackle that problem, the government says the project will allow it to control another 920 million cubic meters of water, helping it prevent floods well into the future.

Numerous benefits

But the project focuses on much more than containing floods and easing droughts.

The government says the plan will improve water quality and help restore the ecosystem.

As of 2008, roughly 76 percent of the four rivers had at least second-class water, or water where biological oxygen demand is less than 3 particles per cubic meter.

Second-class water is capable of sustaining most aquatic life and can be used for recreational purposes. Higher levels of biological oxygen demand mean less oxygen is available for aquatic life.

Under the project, the government hopes to raise the portion of second-class and first-class water in the rivers to 86 percent by 2012.

At the same time, the government is planning ecological restoration along the rivers by developing wetlands and readjusting farmlands. Construction of a 695-kilometer ecological lake, for instance, is included in the plan.

Furthermore, the government intends to create new recreational spaces, including 1,728 kilometers of bicycle lanes stretching along riversides.

There’s a large estimated economic impact, too. The government expects that the project will create about 340,000 jobs, pumping some 40 trillion won ($31.8 billion) into the economy and helping lower the unemployment rate in Korea.

Hefty price for ambitious plan

Sounds great, but what’s the price tag?

A lot.

The government, in confirming details of the project earlier this month, said it will cost 22.2 trillion won.

Those costs will be distributed over the course of several years. But given that Korea’s national budget for 2008 was 284 trillion won, it truly is an enormously expensive effort.

The project initially was drawn up with a 13.9 trillion won budget, but it has grown in size and scope and another 8.3 trillion won was added to the estimated cost. Of that additional 8.3 trillion won figure, 3 trillion won will be funneled to projects on the four rivers.

The other 5.3 trillion won is dedicated to renovating the Seomjin River and 13 other smaller rivers that are tributaries to the four main waterways. Although it’s actually longer than the Yeongsan River, the Seomjin River is given less priority under the plan because it has seen less environmental damage. Another reason: there are fewer economic activities occurring on its banks, according to the government.

Given the sheer size of the project, it’s safe to say that this could be a hallmark of, or potentially a black mark on, the Lee Myung-bak administration, depending how it all turns out.

The Ministry of Land, Transport and Maritime Affairs - the main government arm spearheading the plan - is already calling it the country’s largest-ever aqua-engineering project.

The plan also is a centerpiece of the Lee administration’s “Green New Deal” efforts, a 50 trillion won policy package focused on environmentally sustainable development projects.

Not everyone’s buying it

It’s easy to hype up a plan by making grandiose statements about what it will accomplish, but the key is figuring out how exactly you’re going to reach those goals. The government has laid out several initial specific action plans for the project.

It plans to build two multi-purpose dams and 16 reservoirs and enhance the country’s flood-control capacity by dredging 540 million tons of sand from the river bottoms and replacing old embankments with new ones.

Although the government has done its best to sway public opinion in its favor, though, some groups oppose the project for various reasons.

Some critics say they believe it’ll actually do more harm than good to the environment, while others say it’s simply too expensive and not a good use of taxpayer money.

It also conjures up memories of the water engineering project that Lee previously tried to push through but backed away from in the face of public resistance.

In the run-up to the presidential election in late 2007, Lee had said he would build an enormous canal stretching across the country.

But it fizzled out amid a growing chorus of opposition, which argued that the canal scheme would bring catastrophic damage to the environment. They also questioned the project’s alleged transportation benefits.

By Moon Gwang-lip [joe@joongang.co.kr]