When South Korea thinks, it thinks big. A massive project under way to tame the nation’s four main rivers and change the face of the landscape is one of the most ambitious engineering jobs on earth.
The Four Rivers Project will remake Korea’s four major waterways, the Han, Geum, Naktong and Yeongsan rivers. By building numerous dams and 16 reservoirs, the scheme aims to halt the seasonal floods and droughts that have blighted the peninsula for millennia. Meanwhile dredging will de-silt the rivers and upgrade water quality.
River residents are catered to with “fish ways” traversing weirs and dams. Riverbank residents will get 1,700km of access to roads and cycle paths; marinas will be constructed to kick-start an inland water-sports industry.
This being South Korea, technology is central. Underwater robots will monitor the cleanliness of the riverbeds and photovoltaic power plants – clusters of cells generating electricity from sunlight – will be erected on riverbanks. There are economic benefits, too. The project hopes to drench moribund rural economies in liquidity while providing firms with a giant test-bed for Green Growth technologies.
If Koreans think big, they also move fast. The project kicked off at the end of 2009 and should be complete by 2012. Price tag? A cool $18bn (€14.3bn).
Naturally, environmentalists are outraged. Dredging will change their appearance radically and alter their ecosystems forever. Rare flora and fauna is being relocated and expanding reservoirs will force the removal of cultural artefacts. Given that the project is keeping the construction sector ticking over nicely, it has not escaped opponents that the man dishing out pork by the truckload is President Lee Myung-bak, a former CEO of Hyundai Construction.
Moreover, Lee’s 2007 election pledge was to carve a gigantic canal 330km from Seoul (in the northwest of South Korea) to Pusan (on the southeast coast). That bright idea faded after opposition rallied when Lee took office in 2008; opponents insist that the Four Rivers Project is the discredited Grand Canal reincarnated.
While the government disseminates PR pictures of the president, sleeves rolled up, gamely shovelling away at river banks, opponents release shots of rural rivers that look like industrial construction sites. Opposition – environmental and religious groups and left-leaning, anti-government organisations – is mobilising.
On 10 May, 10,000 demonstrators gathered to denounce the project at Seoul’s Myeong Dong Cathedral, a historical axis of demonstrations (it was the focal point for the pro-democracy protests that overturned authoritarian rule in 1987). The cathedral now bans protests on its grounds but permitted this one to proceed as Catholic bishops – along with Buddhist and Protestant leaders – have declared against the project.
The government response was to promise public discussions with the groups. That would address one criticism, which is that the project has not been transparently debated. But meanwhile, construction continues.