[OUTLOOK] Cross Purposes in Saemangeum Project
Imagine yourself caught in a heavy downpour on a mountain, unable to go either up or down. That is how I felt after visiting Saemangeum last weekend. I finally understood why no one has been able to find an answer despite the endless confrontations and disputes over the land-reclamation project. I arrived at the gigantic construction site near Byeonsan Beach in North Cholla Province after driving for about four hours from Seoul. The main construction is suspended for the moment, but about 19 kilometers (12 miles) of the planned 33-kilometer seawall is complete and four-lane roads are paved in some areas. The sight I saw from a helicopter was even more spectacular혀 mammoth concrete band cutting across the seas near Gogunsan archipelago.
Once the world's greatest seawall is completed, 27,800 hectares (68,600 acres) of tidal flats, 140 times the size of Yeoido in Seoul, will be reclaimed into farmland to grow rice, which will feed the two million residents of North Cholla Province for nine months of each year. A freshwater lake will be also built to resolve the region's water shortage. How wonderful if everything goes according to plan. I felt my prejudices weakening after witnessing the site. But my concerns also grew. What if such a challenge against nature goes wrong? What if we leave an environmental disaster to the posterity, failing to improve the water quality but destroying precious tidal flats? It didn't bear thinking about. What is the wise choice? Only time will show who is right, the opponents maintaining that the harms of environmental destruction will outweigh the benefits of reclamation, or the supporters pointing to economic and agricultural gains. But I confirmed one fact. The two pillars of the Saemangeum project, the Ministry of Agriculture and Forestry and the Korea Agricultural and Rural Infrastructure Corporation trying to continue the project at all costs, and North Cholla Province representatives who claim the project is a "long-cherished desire of the region," are aiming for different goals. The former stress that the reclaimed land will be used only for farming, and therefore there will be no problems with water quality if all goes according to plan. But the local residents hold a different position. Insisting that the project is their "dream and hope," they look forward to actively developing the reclaimed land with harbor facilities, an industrial complex and an adjoining city to propel the local economy. They are not interested in farming.
Although the two share the same goal of completing the construction regardless of the consequences, the future plans they envision are at cross-purposes. Will Saemangeum remain only as a farmland in the circumstances? Probably not. The Ministry of Environment believes it will be difficult to achieve the targeted water quality, even if all the reclaimed land is used only for farming and all the complementary measures are fully implemented. Then what will happen with the waste produced from an industrial complex and a newly developed city? There is no guarantee that it is not going to end up like the reclaimed Sihwa Reservoir near Seoul, which is toxic and cannot sustain any forms of marine life. The future course must be settled before deciding whether to continue the project. The government has to inform the residents of all the facts and if necessary, conduct an opinion survey.
But many people strongly argue that the construction cannot be stopped at this stage when 1.1 trillion won ($866 million) were spent to complete 66 percent of the seawall. It is not only difficult to demolish the completed portions, but also more expensive. I could understand that after seeing the tremendous construction work. But what if the freshwater lake rots and farming becomes impossible after we invest 2 or 4 trillion won over the next decade to finish the construction?
The government will soon decide whether to resume the construction, but it is actually determined to continue. But it should realize that it is not the sort of project to be enforced unreasonably, just for the sake of recovering the costs or to gratify regional sentiments. Look what happened after the government forcibly implemented the medical reforms against so much opposition. It should at least persuade its agencies like the Ministry of Environment and the Ministry of Maritime Affairs & Fisheries that now oppose the plan before making a decision.
It is also necessary to confirm what the public truly wants. The decision must not be based on political calculations, as it was when the previous administration began the construction 10 years ago, vaguely citing regional sentiments. The construction has been delayed for over a year already. What's the harm in waiting for a few more months?
And whatever decision it makes, the government must document the entire process for historical evaluation. I wish to ask the ministers calling for a speedy resumption of the project if they are prepared to give a written promise to give up half their personal assets in the event the project goes wrong. If not, do not rush.
The writer is an editorial writer of the JoongAng Ilbo.
by Kim Wang-ki