World’s biggest dike finished after 19 years of construction

[NEWS IN FOCUS] 서울 66% 넓이 간척 … 동북아 경제허브 꿈
Project to host industry, residences and resorts on 70,000 acres of reclaimed land

Apr 26,2010
The 33-km-long Saemangeum dike on the west coast some 280 km south of Seoul is viewed from a helicopter on April 20. The Saemangeum dike road, which will link Guansan city and Buan county in north Jeolla, is slated to open on April 27. [YONHAP]

SAEMANGEUM - Korea’s attempt to wrest 28,300-hectares of new land from the Yellow Sea has reached a major milestone 40 years after it was first proposed by former President Park Chung Hee. Four giant sea walls, 33 kilometers (20.1 miles) long, now surround the coastal areas of Gunsan City, Gimje City and Buan County in South Jeolla province, creating a massive sea water pool nearly two thirds of the size of Seoul. Over the next decade, the water will be gradually drained and filled in with sand, creating land for farming and development, and an 11,800 hectare fresh water reservoir.

“Samamgeum is one of the biggest state-led development projects in modern Korea,” Park Jae-keun, deputy public relations director at Korea Rural Community Corp., said while driving along a 33-kilometer causeway atop the largest dike in the world. Today, either side of the dike is blue sea. But within the next decade, one side will become land with windmills, fields, buildings, parks, and resort hotels.

The walls, which were completed this month, break the previous record for the world’s largest dike held by the Netherland’s Zuiderzee project, completed in 1933. The causeway will be fully open after tomorrow’s inauguration ceremony, attended by top government officials including President Lee Myung-bak. The much-delayed project has cost the government 2.9 trillion won ($2.6 billion) already, and it’s planning to spend a further 21 trillion from the state budget and private sector investments to reclaim land and build basic infrastructure.

This coastal area, 270 kilometers southwest of Seoul and known for its tidal sea, is home to several previous reclamation projects. A few areas at the mouth of the Yeongsan River, the lifeblood of the fertile southwestern region, were reclaimed since the 1970s, when the country went through rapid industrialization. With more and more paddy fields lost to urbanization, the government worried about a shortage of arable land for rice production and planned the ambitious Seamangeum, which is far bigger than the 11,730 hectares reclaimed at the Yeongsan River, previously Korea’s biggest reclamation.

Since basic investigation of the area began in 1971, the project endured a repeated pattern of big steps forward followed by project freezes, depending on the political priorities and vagaries of each passing administration. Bureaucratic haggling among various government agencies further slowed down the process. Finally in 1991, the dike construction kicked off, and the first dike, 4.7 kilometers long, was completed seven years later.

The project met an unexpected roadblock in 1999 when environmentalists took issue with the project’s impacts on the local environment and its mudflats, a valuable natural resource that helps filter pollutants from the mainland’s rivers. Environmentalists said the reclamation project would eventually wipe away the mudflats.

“The dike construction was going pretty much nowhere from 1999 to the early 2000s, with environmentalists rallying in front of our sites all the time,” said Oh Jin-hyu, a director of Saemangeum Project Office who has been on the job since 1991. Oh himself had to link arms with other Saemangeum workers to block environmentalists from invading the site. The clashes often turned violent with some people ending up in nearby hospitals. “Things were very ugly,” he said, “but the project eventually survived.”

In 2001, a committee of environmentalists, government officials and experts eventually gave the green light, after setting tougher environmental requirements. But lingering opposition from several environmental dragged on until 2005, although construction continued.

The dike construction was also a battle of men against nature, with the tides sometimes exceeding seven meters, compared to less than 3 meters in the Netherlands. Waves, which can be as high as 11 meters and travel at a speed of more than 7 meters per second, were strong enough to make two- or three-ton rocks “dance like crazy,” said Oh.

Final construction ended earlier this month. And the environmentalists’ input eventually improved the project, said Oh.

“Their oppositions prompted the government to invest more to ensure the environmental health of the upper river areas and other neighborhoods,” he said. “They eventually helped our projects a lot.”

Now comes chapter two of the Samamgeum project, which may be even more challenging: developing the area. Unlike in 1971, Korea is no longer a poor, hungry nation, and Korea’s rice production has long outstripped demand. So Samamgeum will not be used for rice paddies. The current administration wants 70 percent of the new land to be used for industrial-related facilities, renewable energy-related businesses, scientific research centers, hotels and resorts and residential properties. The remaining 30 percent will be home to various farming unions and agricultural, horticultural and food businesses. Efforts to convince investors to come to Samamgeum are expected to start this year. After four decades of starts and reversals, mirroring Korea’s own relentless, enduring spirit , Samamgeum has ten more years to make itself a success.

By Jung Ha-won [hawon@joongang.co.kr]
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