The Four Major Rivers Restoration Project, which has been ongoing since 2008, has been called a Korean style New Deal Policy. The purpose of this project is to rebuild decrepit dikes and to restore the ecosystems of the four major rivers. The project was also conceived in order to build eco-friendly irrigation reservoirs and bike roads along the rivers. Recently this project has stepped up construction activity in order to have everything completed by December, 2011. However, many issues including the break of the Waegwan Iron Bridge and dikes, and erosion around the banks of the four major rivers have raised questions regarding whether or not the December, 2011 target date is attainable. Therefore, we visited construction sites around the Nakdong River with a German professor, Hans Helmut Bernhart, who is a river restoration expert, and a research team consisting of many civil groups such as KFEM (Korean Federation for Environmental Movement) of Daegu and Yeo-ju, Green Korea United, internet broadcasting Radio-in, and members of the National Assembly Jae-Hyun Baek and Won-Il Yu.
Area 33: Sangju irrigation reservoir
There were piles of sand over 10m high all around the construction site. However there were no visible safety systems. It looked as if these sand hills would collapse under the weight of a heavy rain. The dikes which had been restored also appeared inadequate. In fact, they looked like little more than stones in wire.
Dikes around the Sangju irrigation reservoir broke and allowed about 300m of river to overflow this past summer. The slopes of dikes and some parts of the road had also collapsed. These collapses seem to be caused by the location of the floodgates and heavy rain.
Area 32: Nakdan irrigation reservoir
When we entered the site we saw iron bars and a large structure, but it was difficult to guess their purpose at first glance. The structure was supposed to be a passage to help fish swim upriver. We could not guess its purpose because the concrete fixtures within the passage way looked too high for fish to pass. Professor Bernhart asked, “This road is for what?” and some members of the research team commented that “It is for a fish huddle race.”
These artificial passages present many problems. First, they are only usable when the reservoir is filled with water. Second, it is not suitable for fish. Each barrier is too high for fish to efficiently swim over. If water levels get too low while fish move toward the next level, there is a very real possibility that they could get caught between the walls and die. The height of each wall is about 80cm. Finally this structure decreases water quality by blocking the flow of water.
Mae-ri, Sangdong-myeon, Gimhae-si
Mae-ri is located around main branch of the Nakdong River. The main branch has become narrowest on the Mae-ri. Therefore, the government began another construction project to prevent flood damage and planned to make an ecological park. However, this project has also had problems. Residents argue there was no flood damage from the main branch of the Nakdong River in the last 200 years. This shows that the government’s justification for this project is not substantiated. A residents meeting against this project was held in a building near the river. Around this building, many other buildings have already been pulled down. Some children rode bicycles between the remains of the buildings.
One Mae-ri resident who participated in the meeting was enraged at the one sided progress of the construction and said “Where is the law in this country?”
The Yeongju dam
Pyeongeun-myeon, Yeongju-si, Gyeongbuk is a small and quiet village. On one side of this village construction is under way on the Yeongju dam. It is a part of the Four Major Rivers Restoration Project. The dam is a multipurpose dam which is intended to supply channel flow for the maintenance of the Nakdong River after construction is completed. If the flow of the Nakdong River slows and the water deepens, the dam will control the water level. The dam will be completed in May, 2013. As a side effect of the dam's construction, 564 households will have to vacate their homes and many old houses that are cultural assets will sink under water.
The Naesungcheon has a rare sand river bed. The beautiful sand-bed compares favorably to other famous rivers. However, the Yeongju dam will be built midstream on the Naesungcheon. The dam will block the flow of water, and the supply of water will be cut off upstream and downstream which will alter the wetlands. The Naesungcheon supplies sand to the Nakdong River and it boasts the best water quality, as well as a rare view. However, three meters of sand has already been washed away in the past few months due to retrogressive erosion. The stream will also disappear completley after the dam is completed.
Hans Helmut Bernhart(71)
Karlsruhe Institute of Technology Professor
Q) How did you become interested in the Four Rivers Project?
A) As a consultant it is intuitive to keep informed about ongoing activities in the field of your own research. Since river engineering is one of my special fields the report on Korean national strategy for green growth prepared by the UNEP(United Nations Environment Program) as part of its green economy initiative aroused my interest. I was even more intrigued because it was announced as a “Green New Deal” and a “Rivers Restoration Project.” The UNEP's high opinion made me take a closer look at the "Four Rivers Project".
Q) Are there any similar examples like the Four Rivers Project in other countries?
A) River canalization projects took place in Germany starting at the end of 19th century until the end of the 1970s (Rhine River) and the 1980s (Danube River). Such projects were stopped due to unforeseen consequences such as flooding problems downstream at reservoirs, sedimentation in the reservoirs, degradation of the water quality in the reservoirs, and losses of ecological and biological diversity, not to mention high follow-up costs.
These experiences led to new legal obligations on the European level such as the EU Water Framework Directive. The goal now is to restore our rivers in the proper sense of the word, which means to go back to natural or at least nature-orientated river systems wherever that is still possible.
Q) What is your opinion of the current situation?
A) I have never seen a project like this with such unbelievable dredging activities and demolition of invaluable wetlands. The "Four Rivers Project" should never be classified as a “river restoration,” not even as “river regulation.” It is a river canalization that deliberately neglects all ecological requirements of a running river system.
Q) Do you have any comment to Koreans about the Four Rivers Project?
A) I would like to ask you why you are on the way to repeat the mistakes we made so often in the past and why you are applying mid-20th century knowledge in maintaining your rivers. Please open a serious public debate on how to “restore” the rivers which have already been heavily damaged as a result of this project.
We tried to look at the realities of the Four Major Rivers Restoration Project by examining the progress that has been made on the Nakdong River. However, most of what we saw was not good. It must be noted that what we managed to see is only a small part of a much larger situation. We should not judge the entire Four Major Rivers Restoration Project based solely on what has taken place on the Nakdong River. We simply want our readers to be aware and concerned about some of the issues the project is facing. The Nakdong River is an indispensable natural resource and university students need to make sure it is preserved in the present and for our future.