Constructive debate on rivers

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Constructive debate on rivers

While Korea’s foreign affairs are being dominated by the unprecedented security crisis following the torpedoing of a naval warship, on the domestic front a dispute is raging over the government’s ambitious project to remake our four major rivers. Opposition parties and religious and civilian groups joined to protest the government plan against the backdrop of the start of campaigning for the June 2 local elections.

The critics forged a so-called pan-national committee to stop the four rivers project, holding daily press conferences and rallies. On Monday, priests and thousands of Catholics gathered at Myeongdong Cathedral downtown to urge the government to end the project. It was the first time a large anti-government rally had been held at the symbolic heart of Korean Catholicism since the democratization movement in 1987.

Opponents condemn the Lee Myung-bak administration for railroading the four rivers project through without respect for public consensus. They plan to continue protesting until the planned construction is completed in 2012, regardless of the results of the June elections. The rift is likely to spill over into the next administration, as environmental fallout tends to surface years after development is completed.

The candlelight vigils against U.S. beef imports two years ago ended after just a few months. The dispute over Sejong City will also likely settle one way or the other via a National Assembly vote soon. But the conflict over the four rivers project could weigh on society for years. Argument before a major state project is launched is healthy, as it can guide the project in a better direction. But in this case, construction already began on all four rivers in November last year. The government has kept to its original blueprint and schedule in spite of the clamor.

Is there any hope for resolution? A public debate is a good start. The government proposed a hearing and the opposition agreed. Unlike the mad cow disease scare, the four rivers development project is a matter of science. If the two opposing sides confront one another, we may conclude which is right. All parties, including the experts supporting them, should take part in a televised debate with no time limit.

This would give the public answers to their questions, such as how severe Korea’s water crisis really is, why we need 16 reservoirs, whether the depth of the dredging work is adequate, the environmental costs, the risk of contamination, why the work must involve all four rivers and why construction must be done by 2012.

Both sides must come in with open minds. The government must be willing to accept reasonable criticism and offer changes. The opposition, for its part, should offer constructive arguments and provide alternatives.
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