S. Korean wetland faces doom


For those readers long ago numbed to the fraud, waste and environmental abuse that accompanies public works projects in Japan, here’s one that might jump-start your ire: A project by the South Korean government to landfill and develop 40,100 hectares (almost 100,000 acres) of coastal waters and wetlands in the Saemangeum Estuary.

To put this massive undertaking into perspective, recall Japan’s own controversial Isahaya Bay landfill project in the Ariake Sea, Nagasaki Prefecture.

Isahaya was once Japan’s largest remaining wetland, a tidal flat crucial as a food source for local aquaculture, fishers and thousands of migratory birds. But in April 1997, a 7-km barrage across the bay was closed, and 3,550 hectares of rich tidal flats were cut off from the sea. The plan is to landfill 1,600 hectares for agricultural use, and to use the remaining area as a reservoir for river runoff.

The Korean government’s project impacts an area an astonishing 11 times larger than Isahaya and involves two river estuaries — not just one.

Unsurprisingly, both projects have been tied up in lawsuits for years, with the courts flipping back and forth between the short-term benefits of public-works spending and the long-term value of coastal marine ecosystems.

The Saemangeum Estuary (pronounced Say-man-gum) is located 250 km southwest of Seoul, near Kwanju City, where the Mangyeung and the Dongjin rivers join and flow into the sea. If completed, this multi-billion-dollar project will seal off from the sea two vast, fertile estuaries, permanently damaging local fishing and aquaculture, which employ 25,000 people in the region, and destroying a mudflat essential for hundreds of thousands of birds that migrate between Siberia and Australasia each year.

A national movement

The estuary is being sliced off from the ocean by a 33-km seawall that is nearing completion. If the Ministry of Agriculture in Seoul succeeds in finishing the wall, most of the estuary will be landfilled — purportedly for agriculture — and the remaining portions will become a reservoir for river water.

Opposition to the Saemangeum project became a national movement in 1998, when environmental groups, local communities and religious leaders realized the full extent of the damage the seawall and landfilling would cause to livelihoods and the environment, according to Ma Yong-Un of the Korean Federation for Environmental Movement (KFEM) and Friends of the Earth Korea.

Ma also notes that the Saemangeum project is already $400 million over budget, and will require another $4.3 billion to complete.

Hopes were raised in February 2005, when the Seoul Administrative Court determined that the government’s environmental impact assessments were inadequate. It also deemed the original intent of creating farmland to no longer be legitimate grounds for the project, since farming has been declining nationwide. The court also raised concern about the quality of the river water that would be captured behind the seawall.

According to the Yeonhap News Agency in South Korea, Feb. 4, 2005: “The court ruled that no economic benefits can be expected from the Saemangeum reclamation project because of the anticipated economic losses caused by water pollution in the proposed reclamation reservoir, and by the destruction of the tidal-flat ecosystem.

“The court therefore ruled that it is necessary to cancel or change the permit to reclaim the public water area, because the environmental, ecological and economic damage to be expected from the project is huge and irreversible.

“They listed the following reasons to support their ruling to change or cancel the original permit: The possibility of using land reclaimed through the project for agriculture is very low; it is anticipated that the water quality in the reclamation reservoir will be too poor to use for agriculture; estimates of economic benefits to be derived from converting the existing area to agriculture are flawed; and massive damage will be caused to the tidal-flat ecosystem.” (Ma Yong-Un translated this news piece for KFEM.)

To the disappointment of project opponents, the Seoul Administrative Court’s decision was overturned on appeal in December by the Seoul High Court, and the Ministry of Agriculture has stated that it intends to complete the seawall in April.

Nevertheless, the Saemangeum case has been appealed once again, and is now before the country’s Supreme Court, which began hearings last Thursday. A decision is expected in March.

Some of the most outspoken opponents of the project are bird conservationists, who report that the tidal flats of the Saemangeum Estuary are vitally important to an estimated 500,000 waterbirds. Nial Moores wrote in the October 2005 issue of WWF Arctic Bulletin that more than 27 species of waterbird in internationally important concentrations stop over to feed at these tidal flats during their annual migrations, including the globally-threatened Spoon-billed sandpiper, Spotted greenshank, Black-faced spoonbill and Saunders’s gulls.

But perhaps more important than the obvious losses that will result from landfilling Saemangeum are the unknown ramifications of the destruction.

Ecosystems are inherently dynamic and interrelated. When a variable in one ecosystem is altered, it will result in changes across that, and adjoining, ecosystems. No doubt the Seoul Administrative Court was right when it stated, “the environmental, ecological and economic damage to be expected from the project is huge and irreversible.”

Myopic bureaucrats

Sadly, it appears that in South Korea, just as in Japan, the public-works purse strings are held by myopic bureaucrats whose only concern is seeing a project through to the end — however harmful or destructive that end might be.

When this is the case, it becomes the courts’ responsibility to identify and shield the overriding, long-term public interest.

Public works projects undeniably provide temporary economic stimulus; but when this short-term gain is at the expense of the long-term economic, social, environmental and esthetic benefits of preserving our irreplaceable ecosystems and natural patrimony, it is essential for the judiciary to act for the sake of present and future generations.

Ironically, even as the South Korean government forges blindly ahead with one of Asia’s most destructive and ill-conceived landfill projects, it is also making plans to host a meeting of the Ramsar Convention on Wetlands of International Importance — an international agreement dedicated to preserving wetlands worldwide. This gathering of representatives from nations around the world will be held in 2008.

No doubt the Korean government hopes that, by then, construction at Saemangeum will be well past the point of no return. My hope is that the Supreme Court will bring a halt to this fraud, waste and abuse, and demand that key sections of the seawall be removed to save the Saemangeum Estuary. As for the remaining sections, they should be left standing as monuments to remind us of just how dangerous hubris can be to our planet.

For more information on the Saemangeum project, visit: www.birdskorea.org/saemref.asp

Stephen Hesse welcomes readers questions and comments at: stevehesse@hotmail.com

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