4 rivers project becomes key local election issue

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4 rivers project becomes key local election issue

The four rivers restoration project has unexpectedly surfaced as a key campaign issue in the approaching local elections as the opposition parties and religious groups launch an offensive against the program.

At a cabinet meeting yesterday, President Lee Myung-bak stressed his determination to complete the project despite growing political resistance, ordering his ministers to persuade the nation that it is the right course.

“Some may oppose the four major rivers restoration project for political reasons,” Lee was quoted as saying by his spokeswoman, Kim Eun-hye. “Don’t assume that it is useless trying to persuade them. They are all precious members of this nation. Whether they change their beliefs or not, it is our responsibility to sincerely provide explanations and speak the truth, although they may be political opponents.”

Lee also said political offensives will be launched against major policies of the government in time for the June local elections, but his administration should try to clear up any public misunderstandings.

Lee urged officials to listen to the positions of the religious community and try to explain the government’s point of view.

“Restoring the four major rivers has been my conviction since I first spoke about it at the National Assembly in 1995,” Lee was quoted as saying by Kim. The president added that the country will be able to secure 1.3 billion tons of water annually through the program.

As a part of its green growth campaign, the Lee administration has advanced a plan to restore and develop South Korea’s major rivers - the Han, Yeongsan, Geum and Nakdong - by 2012 at a cost estimated to be 22.2 trillion won ($19.1 billion).

While environmentalists and opposition parties have resisted the program, the Ministry of Land, Transport and Maritime Affairs hosted groundbreaking ceremonies last November.

Lee’s remarks came after the Catholic Bishops’ Conference of Korea issued a statement earlier this month demanding the project be scrapped.

“We, all the bishops gathered at the 2010 Spring General Assembly of the Catholic Bishops’ Conference of Korea, are concerned that the ‘Four Major Rivers Project’ which is nowadays being carried out in many places across the country simultaneously will cause serious damage to our natural environment,” the Catholic leaders’ group said in a March 12 statement.

“We have listened to an explanation for the project by a government working-level task force. Still we cannot understand why the government, mobilizing much heavy equipment and evading legal procedures without a national consensus, has to push forward in such a hasty manner this large-scale construction project which may cause irrevocable damage to our land.”

The Buddhist community has also protested the project. A Buddhist activist group said it will hold a religious service at the Jogye Temple in central Seoul and invite 10,000 believers and environmental activists to protest the project on April 17.

Opposition parties have also begun offensives against the administration, demanding the project be stopped. Tensions between the opposition and ruling politicians reached a peak on Monday when World Water Day was observed.

“The clear waters of this nation’s beautiful scenery are becoming tainted by the project,” said Democratic Party Chairman Chung Sye-kyun. “To stop this project, the Democrats must win the local elections.”

The ruling Grand National Party has fiercely defended the project. “The project will revive the dead rivers and increase Korea’s water resources,” said Chung Mong-joon, GNP chairman.

By Ser Myo-ja [myoja@joongang.co.kr]
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