[Viewpoint] A balanced approach to water

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[Viewpoint] A balanced approach to water

Climate change affects us all. The city of Taebaek, for instance, had to call for emergency water supplies because it had no drinking water. But the government’s plan to revive the four major rivers has so far focused mostly on flood control.

The recent drought has made us realize the importance of drought control, and especially the importance of securing drinking water.

Amazingly, 46 percent of Taebaek’s running water leaks from the system because of antiquated pipes. There are around 28,000 kilometers of water pipes that are over 21 years old nationwide, excluding Taebaek. This is around 20 percent of all water pipes in the country.

At a time of drought when every drop of water counts, the reality is that even purified water is leaking through pipes.

The leakage rate in places like Uiseong County, North Gyeongsang Province, is 50 percent. There are 17 cities or districts with a leakage rate of over 40 percent. They are all rural districts with a population of less than 100,000.

Although water pipelines in such rural districts are worn out and thus threaten the quality of water supplies, local governments cannot afford to improve the water system because of the steep cost of borrowing.

Drought is a big concern for sewage systems, too. Apparently the government project to revive the four major rivers does not include measures for turning water discharged from sewage treatment plants into a resource. When Korean rivers suffer from drought, the natural water supply diminishes and water discharged from sewage plants increases.

These days, some 68 percent of the water flowing in the Geumho River and around 11.5 percent of the main stream of Nakdong River near Goryeong, North Gyeongsang, is actually water from sewage treatment plants in the Daegu area.

The percentage of water discharged from sewage disposal plants cannot but increase when drought grows more severe.

We cannot but worry about eutrophication if there is no change in the current sewage disposal standards and facilities. If the undercurrent flow increases as a result of the plan to revive the four major rivers, the problem will clearly grow more serious.

In order to revive the water quality of the four major rivers during drought, an emergency treatment facility using the latest technology that includes sedimentation, filtration and absorption processes must be created in advance.

It would be a major problem if large quantities of aquatic weeds appear after the four major river revival projects are completed.

We would face an emergency situation where we could not supply safe tap water to residents in areas along the river.

The success of the four major river revival projects depends on balancing three jobs: producing an adequate flow of water, maintaining water quality and improving the areas along the rivers.

However, one gets the strong impression that the water supply and drainage solution issues have been put on the back burner after the Ministry of Land, Transport and Maritime Affairs started to lead the project and won a tug of war among government ministries.

Of the total budget of 14 trillion won allotted to the revival of the four major rivers, 2.5 trillion won has been allocated to the riverside reservoir plan which is a flood control measure promoted by the ministry.

However, it is reported that hardly any money has been allocated to improve the water supply and drainage system in preparation for severe droughts - items promoted by the Ministry of Environment.

The government plan focuses almost entirely on improving the outward appearances of the four major rivers and flood control.

Measures for reviving the quality of mainstream water in case of drought depend on using agricultural reservoirs to improve the flow of water. Such a physical method can only be a solution in the early stages of drought.

If the drought gets more severe, it will be difficult to find any source of water other than water eutrophication from sewage treatment plants.

This is why financial support from national coffers for the maintenance of old water pipelines in rural areas and installation of sewage treatment plants with the latest technology is important. We must include plans for improving water supply and drainage systems in preparation for drought in the project for the revival of the four major rivers before it’s too late.


The writer is a professor at Hongik University and president of the Korean Society of Water and Wastewater. Translation by the JoongAng Daily staff.

by Kim Eung-ho
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