[VIEWPOINT]Koreas must bridge water crisis

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[VIEWPOINT]Koreas must bridge water crisis

The government finally is drawing up measures to resolve the problems associated with the Geumgangsan Dam in North Korea. Past administrations paid scant attention to the huge loss of of water resources that developed after the North built the Geumgangsan Dam, which changed the course of the Bukhan River. Instead, they were more concerned about the possibility of the collapse of the North Korean dam. The South built the Peace Dam 15 years ago in preparation for such a disaster.

In this administration, the problems associated with the Geumgangsan Dam have been a taboo subject, based on what the government says is the need to improve inter-Korean relations. Seoul recently came up with a plan for the Geumgangsan Dam after a sudden surge of public criticism; the plan, however, again focuses only on the possible collapse of the North Korean dam, missing what is critical in this situation.

The government's measures are only for the rainy seasons, neglecting the problems during the dry season. Seoul has been saying it will reinforce the Peace Dam, but the hasty construction will cause further problems when the dam becomes a multipurpose dam at a later date. The government said it will empty the reservoir of the Hwacheon Dam as a precaution against a flood caused by the collapse of the Geumgangsan Dam. The plan would drain away precious water resources from the South, exacerbating its serious water shortage.

If the five dams built downstream from the Hwacheon Dam were to no longer function, the residents along the river would suffer from a lack of water. The government has suggested building dams at Donggang and Bamseonggol, but such options are inappropriate. The Han River provides 23 percent of our country's water resources; the North's dam deprives us of 12 percent of the Han River's water, or 1.8 billion tons.

Despite the fact that conditions are growing worse, the government is keeping quiet about the danger posed by the Geumgangsan Dam. Completion of the final stage of the Geumgangsan Dam would give the North as much as 2.6 billion tons of water in potential reserves. Adding to this reserves at other dams in nearby areas would give the North more than 4 billion tons of potential water resources.

Satellite photos show that the Geumgangsan Dam is five times as long as the Peace Dam and two times as long as the Soyanggang Dam, also in the South. The Geumgangsan Dam created a reservoir with a surface area just a little smaller than the combined surface areas of the reservoirs of the Soyanggang and Hwacheon dams in the South. When the Geumgangsan Dam is completed, the surface area of its reservoir will be overwhelming.

Problems associated with the Geumgangsan Dam cannot be resolved with stopgap measures. Until now, the government has neglected the shortage of water resources in the South because it was concentrating too much on engaging the North. Last winter, the Bukhan River, the northern reach of the Han River, flooded, but the Korea Water Resources Corporation in the South had no clue as to what caused the natural (or possibly man-made) disaster.

Despite vested rights for the water resources, the South has lost a major part of its water. Twenty million residents in the capital region will have to drink contaminated water as the Bukhan River loses its self-cleansing function due to a lower water level.

The two Koreas should resolve the problems associated with the Bukhan River based on international precedents and law. To settle the matter through international law, Seoul should inform the North about the damages the South has suffered and then negotiate a solution. In the negotiations on water resources, vested water rights -- the common principle of international law -- should be the objective standard.

When India and Bangladesh fought over the Ganges River, the two countries agreed to acknowledge 75 percent of the vested water rights and share the river during the dry season. There is another precedent: the World Bank's mediation of the dispute between India and Pakistan over the Indus River.

The North's Geumgangsan Dam created a water shortage and poses potential damage from a possible collapse; the two Koreas must work together to resolve the problems. Such cooperation complies with the spirit of the inter-Korean agreement. The South still has time to resolve the problem through talks giving focus to water shortages.

Even if the two Koreas fail to reach an agreement, international organs, such as the World Bank, will be able to mediate negotiations by providing technology and economic aid to the North.


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The writer is a professor of international law at Seoul National University.

by Rhee Sang-myon

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