[VIEWPOINT]Focus on prevention, not restoration

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[VIEWPOINT]Focus on prevention, not restoration

In Korea, people suffer damage from downpours and floods almost every year and the government repeatedly takes the same measures. Droughts and floods are natural disasters beyond human control, but they are manmade disasters if they occur repeatedly every year. Damage from floods can be reduced to a minimum level if the proper measures are taken. We must establish fundamental prevention measures, not just measures for the reconstruction or relief from damage.
The largescale droughts and floods that occur frequently nowadays are caused by unusual changes in the weather, including global warming, El Nino and La Nina, which affect more than just Korea.
In the case of South Korea especially, the rainfall gap among seasons and regions is big and sudden downpours have become more frequent recently. Moreover, with the concentration of population in urban areas and highly developed land, the scale of damage from natural disasters keeps getting bigger.
In the past 10 years, we have experienced damages from drought and flood alternately. In August 2002, we suffered the loss of 270 lives due to a concentrated downpour in the southern region and Typhoon Rusa.
In that year, a historically heavy downpour, 870 mm (34.2 inches) in a day, was recorded in the Gangneung area. It was about 70 percent of a typical year’s rainfall in one day. The next year, a loss of 131 lives and 4.2 trillion won ($4.4 billion) in property damage were caused by heavy downpours. In the past 10 years, the average property damage from water-related disasters amounted to 1.6 trillion won annually. This figure not only exceeds the average amount of damage caused by traffic accidents and fire every year, 670 billion won, but also shows a continuous increase.
With only the Chungju Dam preventing flood damage from the area along the South Han River, where the biggest damage occurred this time, it is difficult to prevent flood damage.
The scale of the dam is smaller than the Soyanggang Dam in the upper stream of the North Han River, although the size of the river valley is 2.5 times bigger than the Soyanggang Dam. Moreover, as the geographical features of the lower stream are flat, it was anticipated that the scale of damage would be big. If the construction of the Yeongwol Dam along the Dong River, which stopped in 2000 due to fierce resistance from environmental groups, had been completed, the damage could have been reduced.
With the passage of time, we will probably forget the bitterness of the floods that we suffered.
And then we may repeat the routine of agonizing over the establishment of disaster relief measures that contradict each other ― one for coping with floods in summer and another for securing water resources the rest of the reason.
Although the role and function of water-utilization and flood control may differ, we cannot separate them as we cope with seasonally concentrated downpours. The basic principle is to save water when it overflows so we can use it when there is no rain.
The construction of hydraulic dams has created a lot of controversy. Although there are positive aspects to the construction of multi-purpose dams, such as flood control and securing water resources, the voices of opposition citing environmental and ecological changes and social problems are strong. If the lives of the people depend on the construction of a dam, we have to ask ourselves whether we should oppose it for environmental reasons. After the Yeongwol Dam construction was stopped, the Dong River turned into a tourist resort, which didn’t help the cause of saving the environment. We pursue improvements in the quality of life by maintaining a better environment. It is questionable, therefore, whether turning the Dong River into a tourist resort is a better way to preserve the natural environment. The construction of a dam should be promoted after establishing a comprehensive plan, based on a multi-dimensional study of the dam’s effect on the ecological environment and consideration of the harmony with nature in the region.
I would like to make a few suggestions for future government plans for flood control and disaster relief.
First, the budget for disaster relief should be increased, and the government must invest money for prevention projects, not just damage restoration.
I hear that the budget for investment in social infrastructure has gradually decreased. According to a recent government report, investment in disaster prevention has been only 4.1 percent of the budget in the past five years.
Second, projects related to flood control should be decided considering whether they are directly related to national economy and security, which guarantee the lives and fortunes of the people. Although civic societies in the region and environmental organizations may produce various views and alternative proposals, they should leave the final decision to the experts in that field.
Third, the government must implement its policy with conviction. Recently, the government has tended to get indecisive, causing a loss of independent decision making.
If national projects that have been decided are canceled or postponed due to the opposition of an interested party, it only depletes the national coffers and ends up in a loss of the confidence of the people.

* The writer is a professor of civil engineering at Inha University. Translation by the JoongAng Daily staff.

by Shim Myung-pil
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