[Viewpoint] Hasty conclusion over river project

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[Viewpoint] Hasty conclusion over river project

On the eve of the government’s deadline on Friday, North Chungcheong Governor Lee Si-jong and South Chungcheong Governor An Hee-jung made public their positions on the four major rivers project. They said their provinces would continue to implement the planned construction. They, however, attached a string: They asked the administration to not rule out the provincial governments when pushing the project in the future.

They also asked the central government to slow down construction. Governor Kim Du-kwan of South Gyeongsang, where the Nakdong River is located, however, continued to oppose the project, although the most progress has been made in his region.

Residents and other politicians, though, received the positions of the newly elected mayors and governors positions with mixed reactions. The Grand National Party jumped to the conclusion that the opposing politicians have reversed their positions and accepted the four rivers project.

The opposing politicians, however, did not completely agree with the project. They said their acceptance was conditional, believing there are problems associated with the dredging and reservoir construction going on.

The opposition party attached that string, because it worries about the political aftermath. Still, the newly elected governors of South and North Chungcheong provinces, both Democrats, created a turning point by their conditional acceptance. To assess the situation, it is important to understand the background of why they reversed their positions.

The main reason for their change was related to the interests of cities and counties in their regions. The survival of the small business owners, who supply material and equipment, rely on the four major river project. Leaders of the city and county governments also worry that the central government will immediately cut off the funding for the project, which will cost more than 190 billion won ($163 million) in state money. The cities and counties argue that the project must continue. As newly elected governors, it is hard to reject such requests.

More importantly, the specific construction plans and the progress of the work along the four rivers influenced the governors’ positions. In South Chungcheong, the development to restore the Geum River is ongoing at nine sites. Of the nine, the provincial government is commissioned to work on four sites. The Land Ministry asked An if he wants to continue construction at those four sites. The central government also made clear that it will take over the project and complete it at the four sites, even if An gives up.

An has opposed reservoir construction and dredging operation, but such activities were not planned for the four sites. The programs planned at those sites focused on water quality improvement, thus An had little ground to continue his opposition. And the work only progressed less than 20 percent at those sites, so he had much room to negotiate.

Considering these circumstances, the GNP has jumped to its conclusion hastily. The opposition governors will likely accept the projects that are linked to the regions’ interests, while rejecting others. The critical confrontation will likely arise when the reservoir construction and dredging work begins. The environmentalists also protest those programs.

Because of the complicated interests of the regions, the governors backed down a bit, and it is important for the administration to use this opportunity as a turning point to consult with the local governments and push forward the four rivers project. The central government must never interpret the conditional acceptance as a complete concession.

If the central government just pushes the project forward and sticks to the initial development programs, conflicts are destined to reappear.

To resolve environmental concerns and maximize the effectiveness in the four rivers project, consultation between the government and civic groups are crucial. It is important to highlight and promote the environmental values of the project through the so-called four major rivers restoration governance.

The governors’ conditional agreement can be a great opportunity to build the governance. Running endlessly on a parallel line without reaching a consensus due to political interests will never help the government during the second half of its term.

What’s necessary at this point is creating the mechanism of consultation to continue the project. The government must respond with a conviction to discuss the project with local governments to make it a success, rather than being satisfied with the governors’ conditional acceptance and neglecting them in the future.

The mechanism of consultation should also be operated with an aim to effectively resolve the environmental issues that were not sufficiently reflected in the initial plan. The true effects of the project will be seen through the changes in quality, not through the speed of construction. Remembering these points, the government and the civic community must actively engage in consultations.

*The writer is a professor of public administration at the Appenzeller School of Public Administration at Pai Chai University. Translation by the JoongAng Daily staff.

by Chung Youn-chung
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