[Viewpoin]Return of the grand canal?

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[Viewpoin]Return of the grand canal?

The government recently announced a plan to redevelop four major rivers by investing 14 trillion won ($10.7 billion) over the next four years. In June, President Lee Myung-bak said he would not push the canal project if the citizens oppose it, so we thought the discussion was over. But this new plan has reignited the controversy.

The government claims that the river redevelopment project is a Korean version of the United States’ New Deal, aimed at boosting the local economy, girding against floods and droughts and improving the environment and the quality of the water.

The opposition and some civil groups suspect that the Lee administration’s obsession with the grand canal has resurfaced, and that the four river project is a stepping stone to construction of the canal. A Blue House official fueled the controversy by saying, “When the water quality has been improved and the citizens demand the construction of the grand canal, the government cannot refuse it.”

I do not oppose the fundamental basis of the four river project, which is ostensibly helping local economies and preventing natural disasters. However, the dispute continues and the people remain unconvinced. According to the plan, a total of 14 trillion won is to be invested, including 650 billion won next year alone. But no specific details have been offered.

The core projects are dredging the riverbeds, constructing reservoirs and dams in preparation for floods, and reinforcing levees. Of course, a more advanced river and basin management systems will be included.

However, critics of the project claim that these plans just so happen to be the same as the preparatory works for the construction of the grand canal. While smaller, local rivers are prone to flooding, so the government’s plan focuses on building “super levees” on the main portions of the four major rivers, which do not pose a serious flood risk.

If over 5 trillion won is to be invested in dredging and the water quality is to be improved, identifying and managing the source of the pollution is the priority. However, the administration is more eager to build reservoirs and dams. Moreover, it is said to be considering riverbank infiltration in the Han River, which does not need to be reviewed unless the water supply of 10 million Seoul residents will be navigated by ships.

The Yeongwol Dam construction project has already been rescinded once by the last administration, but it has been included in the four river plan. But the government’s official stance is that the rivers project and the grand canal project are separate.

If the government wants to avoid being misunderstood to be pushing for the grand canal, it should listen to critical opinions and gain public confidence by implementing the plan transparently. Recently, a researcher at a national research institute was reprimanded for saying publicly that the four river redevelopment project is actually the grand canal program. The disciplinary action invites misunderstanding.

If the four river redevelopment plan is really not a preparatory step for creating the grand canal, but indeed aims to revive the four rivers, the president can easily clear all doubt with a public statement.

Those people who are critical of the grand canal are positive about investment in the economy. Local governments are suffering due to the economic slump, the Lee administration is reducing taxes and lifting regulations in the capital region, and they are in favor of the river redevelopment plan, hoping to benefit from assistance from the central government.

Therefore, we need to take a look at U.S. president-elect Barack Obama’s green economy proposal. He put forward a plan to invest $150 billion over the next 10 years to create 5 million jobs in the clean energy field, which will be the basis of an environmentally friendly economy.

We need to get creative instead of being obsessed with the grand canal or the four river project. We can consider expanding and accelerating plans that are in progress. We should seek ways to efficiently allocate our limited resources.

Instead of vague policy ideas such as river redevelopment, more specific, creative and localized measures need to be implemented. The government can come up with tailored programs for urban rivers, build rainwater reservoirs to prevent floods, restore damaged and abandoned rivers and streams and repair ditches in the countryside.

It should draw up projects that can create jobs in the education and service fields and improve long-term growth potential. There must be plans that are not on so large a scale that boost the economy and improve our quality of life at the same time, such as libraries, playgrounds and gyms or renovation of schools.

By clearing up doubts, we can save ourselves from any more unnecessary debates and misunderstandings.

The writer is a professor in the School of Chemical and Biological Engineering of Seoul National University. Translation by the JoongAng Daily staff.

by Yoon Je-yong

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