A man-made disaster

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A man-made disaster

One of the heaviest rainfalls on record in the capital and central Korea, which led to landslides and flash floods, left disaster in its wake: more than 59 dead, 10 missing and 11,193 homeless as of Wednesday.

The epicenter of the tragedy was Mount Umyeon in southern Seoul, where mudslides inundated cars, houses and apartments at the mountain base, killing at least 16. The scenic mountain, which was one of the prides of wealthy southern Seoul, transformed into a lethal monster of mud.

The killer rains caused the Umyeon disaster. But careless development of the mountain worsened the crisis. Residents and engineers blame the landslides on renovation work on the mountain to turn it into an accessible park. Trails were extended and streams widened to create an eco-park at the waist of the mountain. Streams were blocked, which led to walls of mud piling up and finally cascading down in a deadly manner.

Trees were felled to develop posh mountainside homes and farmyards, losing the natural protection against landslides. Experts had warned that excess development could produce landslides, but the authorities chose to ignore them. Local district and government heads recklessly gave out licenses to win votes and create a scenic and luxurious facade instead of paying attention to safety concerns.

Other mountainsides around the capital are equally vulnerable to landslides. Local districts have been in competition to renovate mountains to make them prettier and easier to walk around, building wooden decks around streams on Mount Chunghye. Mount Acha and Mount Bulam are also under renovation. Building trails around mountains can make them more vulnerable to landslides. The mudslide that crushed a tourist at the foot of Mount Majeok in Chuncheon and killed 13 students in a summer volunteer camp was also caused by redevelopment around the Soyang River, including the development of hotels and restaurants.

Landslides were the biggest cause of the death toll from the recent rains. They are caused by changes in natural settings. Most, therefore, are man-made and preventable.

The government must re-examine its emergency control system against weather disasters. It must also step up surveillance on development of the natural environment. Local governments must first of all end showy construction projects that, in the long term, put taxpayers in the way of danger.
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