[Viewpoint] The need for hydro grows

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[Viewpoint] The need for hydro grows

The government’s ambitious multibillion-dollar project to renovate the four major river systems - the Han, Nakdong, Geum, and Yeongsan - is under fire again due to a rare drought in the southern region. But its opponents are fighting a losing game. They erred from the beginning by attacking the construction project’s risk of undermining water quality.

Thanks to damming and dredging, however, more than 700 million tons of extra water supplies have been secured. Even if river flows are disturbed by the construction, the increase in water levels can dilute contamination. Time has been on the side of the project architect, President Lee Myung-bak. The government pumped in 15 trillion won ($12.08 billion) to buttress the tributaries as demanded by the opposition and environmental groups. Enhanced sewage systems in the tributaries and river branches will improve water quality in the main streams.

The 22 trillion won mammoth pork-barrel project was a luxury in our economic condition. A state with per capita income over $40,000, or double the size of our economy, should be able to afford such exorbitant flood control project. But the country was unable to build a single multipurpose dam to store more than 100 tons of water over the last 15 years.

The past two governments scrapped or neglected public works to prevent water shortages and bolster flood control. As a result, they gave the excuse to the incumbent government to pursue the costly four-rivers project. Opponents who have been campaigning against the project on loose grounds are stumbling to find more excuses to complain. Lee Chul-jae, policy director general at the Korean Federation for the Environment Movement, in an interview with a monthly journal, confessed that the environmentalists could end up sounding like the boy who cried wolf too many times if the construction progresses well without incurring major problems, as critics have repeatedly warned of.

Environmentalists may again lose face as with the tunnel construction in Mount Cheongseong, which they heavily protested in order to protect rare species like salamanders that, however, still breed well in the area despite daily bullet train traffic.

President Lee, during a visit to Brazil, expressed confidence that the country can combat drought and floods once the renovations are done. But obviously, he hasn’t been briefed on recent drought news. The extra damming and channelization cannot be the final solution. The four-rivers project somehow ended up being glorified as a panacea to combat both flood control and water shortages amid a highly publicized debate over the construction.

Water experts say the current work on the four rivers are makeshift measures and what the country requires is more multipurpose dams. Dams to create man-made reservoirs are most suitable considering Korea’s geographic features, including its rich mountains, short river lines and a concentration of rain from June through September.

The Namhan and Nam rivers are already running short on reservoirs. Their alternatives rest in the Dong and Mount Jiri rivers, with cumulative reservoirs worth 700 million tons. Dams for the two rivers would cost 2 trillion won, or 10 percent of what has been spent on the four-rivers project, to secure similar amounts of water supplies.

But the push to build a giant dam on the Dong River was overthrown by heavy protest from environmentalists defending the river valley ecosystem. A similar attempt for the Mount Jiri River also was upset by concerns about flooding. A dam in Gilan, North Gyeongsang, was optimal at the upper reaches of the country’s longer river of Nakdong, but the plan flopped due to opposition from residents. To build dams, authorities search locations that can generate less resistance and compensation for residents rather than purely looking at the engineering perspective.

Japan, which shares similar climate and geographic conditions, has recently been warned of a grave outlook by the Japan Meteorological Agency. By 2075, rain clouds won’t be able to climb beyond Okinawa and Shanghai during the traditional rainy season due to global warming. If that is true, Japan’s precipitation rate should fall by35 percent. The Democratic Party of Japan campaigned to stop the Yanba Dam project as a symbol of a wasteful civil engineering under the slogan “from concrete to humans,” to advocate a shift of public money from public works to improving public lives.

The construction of the dam has been stalled for 59 years due to a ballooning budget. But the ruling party reversed its campaign pledge to continue with the construction. Japan is also renovating the Maruyama Dam that was constructed after the World War II to boost its reservoir up to 146 million tons.

Local weather forecasting agencies have been issuing similar warnings for Korea. A seasonal rain front that does not go beyond Japan cannot be expected to arrive at the Korean Peninsula. The Geum and Yeoungsan river areas will be hardest hit. The country has been warned of extreme drought every half a century. Scarce rain this summer may be a harbinger. While Japan is preparing half a century later, we are still wasting time debating over our four rivers. Koreans use a similar amount of water, yet their bills are about one-fifth what the Japanese pay. In the future, we may find the fortunes reversed.

* The author is an editorial writer of the JoongAng Ilbo.

by Lee Chul-ho
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