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Korea: Environmental Problems & Solutions

Monday, February 1st, 2010

During the 1970s, under the reign of dictator Park Chunhee, South Korea developed rapidly. Industrial output and infrastructure were major areas of concern, and great strides were made, along with great sacrifices. Heavy industry became a major source of income as exports grew quickly in the late 1970s until the financial crisis in 1998.

Along with the meteoric rise in industry and development came hidden costs. Safety standards were not enforced, leading to tragedies like the collapse of the Seongsu Bridge in 1994, which left 32 dead, and the collapse of Sampoong Department Store in 1995, which left more than 500 people dead and more than 1,000 injured. Likewise, protection of the environment was a distant second to economic development. Air quality in the Seoul capital region and the surrounding Gyeonggi-do province worsened during the period of rapid industrialization. Other forms of pollution – overuse of water resources, loss of animal habitat, and all manner of modern environmental damage – were commonplace as Korea emerged as a leading Asian Tiger economy.

More recently, as South Korea shifts from a developing to a developed economy, priorities are shifting as well. Local grassroots organizations have formed over the past decade to raise awareness of environmental problems. Recent administrations have proposed major initiatives to offer cleaner energy and improve air quality and encourage a green economy. Korea has shown a serious commitment to combating environmental problems and to slowing climate change. As just one example, though not required to reduce emissions under the Kyoto Protocols due to their developing economy status at the time of the negotiations, efforts to lower greenhouse gas emissions were undertaken voluntarily. According to the United Nations Environmental Planning Executive Director Achim Steiner, “The Republic of Korea’s [economic stimulus] strategy cuts across a wide swathe of sustainability challenges from renewable energy and waste to transport, freshwater and forestry; fostering a green recovery and transforming it into a vision of green economic growth and underlining a new and dynamic strategic direction and journey that we are delighted and excited to share.”

The Case of Saemangeum

Sleepy farming towns and fishing villages dot the northwestern coastline of Jeollanam province. Buan, Gimje and Gunsan districts overlook Gunsan harbor, where two large rivers, the Dongjin and Mangyeong, empty into the Yellow Sea. For thousands of years, along the banks, people have pulled shellfish and crabs from the rich, muddy tidal flats.

The mixing of fresh and saltwater, the nutrient rich soil washed down by the river and the shallow waters are all factors that make estuaries places that teem with life. Crabs scuttle along the muddy banks looking for a meal. Shellfish burrow into the silty soil during low tide. Thousands of kinds of animals and plants live in these complex ecosystems. For migrating birds, estuaries are ideal places to stop and rest during their long journeys. These areas are rich in foods and safe places to sleep for the exhausted birds. Of the estuaries that birds migrating through Asia use as stopover points, Saemangeum was, arguably, one of the most important.

This place is unique, not just to Korea, but to all of Asia. During the spring and fall, more than 25 different bird species stop at Saemangeum, in groups of more than 150,000, in a single day. However, in 1991, a project began that would destroy the estuary and alter the shape of Korea for generations to come.

Spanning 33 kilometers, The Saemangeum Seawall is one of the world’s longest. It extends out into the Gunsan harbor, enclosing an area of about 400 square kilometers. The government’s plan was to use the water flowing down from the Dongjin and Mangyeong rivers to create new farmland and a water supply for the area. By damming the area, river sediment would slowly fill the area behind the seawall and create a stable landfill. Once filled, the river mud would be ideal for planting a variety of food crops.

The importance of the Saemangeum estuary for migrating birds was something that the Korean government was either unconcerned with or chose to ignore. The government chose to consider only the economic benefits the area would bring to the region. Indeed, Jeollabuk province is one of the poorest in Korea, and anything that might spur economic development is considered seriously.

Several environmental groups went to court to stop the project from being completed. The groups were concerned that not enough planning had been done to provide the birds that stop off at the estuary with areas nearby to land. Also, most of the environmental impact studies that were done by developers were then made very difficult to access. The government countered, publicly, that environmental concerns were groundless and that the birds would simply move to the nearby Geum estuary. Recently, a new government initiative has also proposed damming the Geum estuary, as well.

The Saemangeum seawall was completed in 2006 and the estuary began to fill up with soil brought down by the river. Unfortunately, the water coming down from the rivers was so polluted from farms upstream that the idea of using the water as a local water supply is unlikely. The toxins from chemicals and animal waste also saturate the soil filling up the estuary, making rice farming impossible. In a document that models runoff projections from the two rivers, it is estimated that no fewer than 28 wastewater treatment plants as well as entirely new sewage systems for the three districts will be needed to sufficiently clean the water. The Korean government has recently been looking to private contractors for alternative ways to use the newly created land. Everything from a racetrack to a spaceport has been suggested.

None of this makes environmentalists happy. Birds that once came to this food-rich estuary are now starving to death on the muddy plains. Some birds, on journeys of over 20,000 kilometers from Asia to Alaska and Russia, including two critically endangered birds, stop at Saemangeum estuary. Without food on the now-toxic wasteland of polluted sediment their chances for survival are reduced dramatically.

The Four Rivers Restoration Project

There are many environmental projects proposed or underway in South Korea. The most prominent currently is the Four Rivers Project. This massive initiative was put forward by President Lee Myung-bak in 2009. It is billed as a major economic and environmental measure to boost tourism and restore the rivers. Lee had campaigned with a pledge to construct an ambitious series of canals across the peninsula. The original plan was widely unpopular and led to considerable fighting in the National Assembly. In December 2009, Lee vowed to abandon the project in the face of widespread opposition and technical infeasibility. Much of the technology for moving ships up and down from the varying elevations in the mountainous peninsula does not currently exist, and the environmental impact of cutting through mountains was seen as too devastating by many conservationists and scientists.

Lee was quoted as saying that the UN Environment Program “regards the four-rivers project as a model for responding to climate change and seeking green growth at the same time. Korea is now a powerful country that exports nuclear power plants, the world’s largest semiconductor maker, an advanced automobile producer, and a country that prepares to launch satellites. Dredging rivers is not nearly as difficult as those things.”

The project, which officially broke ground in November, is slated to cost US$19.2 billion and take three years. Lee says the project will spur job creation as well as reduce flooding concerns and increase water supply. Among the components of the project are reservoirs and hydroelectric stations and over 1,000 miles of bike paths. The four rivers involved, the Han, Nakdong, Kum and Youngsan, are among the most polluted in Korea, and those who live near them are some of the strongest supporters of the project.

Many environmentalists have lodged complaints against the project. “You can’t improve water quality by building more dams,” environmentalist Park Mik-yong told the New York Times. “It’s best to let the river flow its natural course.”

As mayor of Seoul, Lee’s most enduring legacy was the restoration of an urban stream. The Cheonggyecheon project raised considerable opposition at the time of its proposal, as it cut a wide swath of shops and gritty industrial facilities out of the city’s center. Today, however, the urban stream is one of Seoul’s most important landmarks and a major tourist attraction. Cheonggyecheon’s success propelled Lee into the president’s office. Only time will tell whether or not the Four Rivers Restoration Project will be seen so favorably.

Focus on Nuclear Power

In recent years, South Korea has emerged as an innovative nuclear energy producer. This status was greatly enhanced with the announcement in December that a consortium of South Korean firms won a US$20 billion contract to build civil nuclear power plants in the United Arab Emirates. The consortium, led by Korea Electric Power Company (KEP CO), will be responsible for the design and production of several power stations throughout the UAE at sites to be determined in the coming months. The first reactor will go online in 2017, with the remaining units slated to go live by 2020.

The reactors for the UAE deal are based in part on American- designed Westinghouse reactors first constructed in South Korea in the 1970s. At that time, agreements between Korea and Westinghouse allowed the Asian nation to develop their own models of the original Pressurized Water Reactors. Since the initial development of a civil nuclear industry three decades ago, Korea has matured their domestic capabilities considerably.

The Korean government has taken many steps to bolster the domestic nuclear energy market. Knowledge Economy Minister Choi Kyung-hwan announced plans for a “Nuclear Day” and a graduate school focused on nuclear energy studies. By 2020, the nation hopes to be drawing more than 50 percent of its energy needs from nuclear power, and a smaller percentage from renewable sources like wind and hydroelectricity

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