A council that does magic

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A council that does magic

I visited a wetland around Lake Shihwa, a man-made lake connected to the coastal city of Ansan in Gyeonggi Province over the weekend. A trail cutting cross a reed marsh brimmed with tourists and visitors appreciating the late autumn scenery. Some took pictures of the swaying reeds and some observed the migrating birds. Some just enjoyed the moment and scenery in the company of friends or family.

The wetland and lake created by the Korea Water Resources Corp. has became a favorite getaway destination for city slickers and serves as a site for field studies for the environment for students, drawing 300,000 visitors a year. It is also frequented by cameramen of broadcasting stations who film migrating birds and the burgeoning population of other animals in the wetland. In May, one of JTBC’s programs introduced a new inhabitant of Lake Shihwa - a great crested grebe that arrived at the lake last winter and settled upon it as its new home.

The lake was the accidental offspring of a major reclamation project. It was a by-product of construction of a tide embankment and tidal power station in 1994. It was a pool of dead water at the beginning due to poor planning. In 2001, authorities gave up on desalinating the waters and instead keep rotating its seawater to keep it as fresh as possible. Lake Shihwa therefore is a lake in name only and falls under the jurisdiction of the Ministry of Oceans and Fisheries.

How has a biological habitat come to grow up around its waters? The government cannot really take credit. Nor does the credit go to the Korea Water Resources Corp., whose officials were demoted and dismissed for water pollution after an audit by the Board of Audit and Inspection in 1996.

The kudos go to a joint civilian-public organization called the Sustainable Management and Development Council for Shihwa District. It was established in 2004 with 50 representatives of environmental groups, scholars, the central government, local governments, district councils and the water resource authority to coordinate disagreements and disputes over development and environmental issues. The council does not simply discuss and debate. It serves as a decision-making agency on environmental and development projects in the area. In 2008, it also won legal status from the Ministry of Land, Infrastructure and Transport. It has the last say in any construction project in the district.

The council reviewed the development of the wetland and lake and its pollution problem from the start. The government and Korea Water Resource Corp. officials respected its decisions. After numerous decisions for the best interests of the region, the water slowly began to improve. Nearby seafood restaurants began to draw customers.

The council’s decision-making procedures are unusual. It does not abide by the usual democratic principle of majority rule. It prefers a unanimous vote. Because a majority vote can leave room for dispute and defeat, and usually does, the council discusses everything until they reach a unanimous decision. Unanimous agreements take time, but once a decision is made, it can be carried out with speed. Kang Sung-gwi, head of the green city department of the Korea Water Resource Corp., who has worked with the council for a long time, said unanimous agreements are actually the fastest way to get things done.

The idea makes one wonder. What if opponents stick to their position until the end? Seo Jeong-chul, head of the council, said the system works because it is based on joint study and concentrated debate.

“Everyone studies the topic carefully. If everyone is an expert on the subject, there is no room for humbug. The discussions go on for hours. A decision made after such a scrupulous process cannot be argued later,” Seo said.

The council excludes outsiders. It therefore does not make kneejerk opposition to development programs and is open to any idea if it brings practical benefits to the residents. After a marathon discussion, the council agreed to give the go-ahead to the construction of a golf course nearby. Of course, it has its critics. It gets attacked by fundamentalist environmentalists. It is accused of serving the government and turning into a champion of urbanization and development.

But no one can argue against its success. There are few development areas in the nation that have successfully worked out problems in such a constructive and diplomatic way. Because of the power of the council, there are few construction and real estate developers snooping around to make money.

Could its development formula work in other areas? We cannot say. Lake Shihwa is an exception born after a major flop by the government. It is uncertain if a mediating council can help solve the long-standing conflict in Miryang, where residents are engaged in a standoff with Korea Electric Power Corp. over plans to build towers for high voltage power cables to distribute nuclear-generated electricity. But authorities and representatives of residents should nevertheless give the idea a try. The problem-solving mechanism is a valuable lesson coming from the Lake Shihwa wetland.

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

by Nahm Yoon-ho
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