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[Editorial] Unreasonable advice

Proposal to dismantle weirs is not based on balanced analysis of all relevant factors

Last week’s proposal by a government-private committee to dismantle three of five weirs built along the Geum and Yeongsan rivers and open the others at all times is far from based on a balanced and objective analysis of all relevant factors.

Moreover, it runs against the results of a survey conducted by the committee itself, which showed that not only residents in areas near the rivers, but the general public was in favor of keeping the weirs intact. Weirs are low barriers built across rivers to control and direct the flow of water.

Announcing the proposal Friday after months of studies, the committee said the measure would improve the water quality and ecosystem of the rivers, while largely ignoring what experts cite as benefits from the river restoration project implemented by former President Lee Myung-bak’s administration. The Lee government completed the project to restore the country’s four major rivers at a cost of 22 trillion won ($19.6 billion) in 2011 to solve water scarcity, prevent floods, improve water quality and refurbish riverside facilities.

The committee was set up by the Ministry of Environment in November to evaluate the effects of the project and suggest measures regarding the 16 weirs built along the Geum, Yeongsan, Nakdong and Han rivers. It is planning to make recommendations on how to deal with the remaining 11 weirs on the Nakdong and Han rivers by the end of the year.

A presidential commission on water resources management is scheduled to convene in June to deliberate on last week’s proposal. Given President Moon Jae-in’s negative view of the river restoration project, the proposal is likely to be approved.

Shortly after taking office in May 2017, Moon ordered a review of the project. The instruction has been followed by the opening of 13 of the 16 weirs, which he had blamed for spreading harmful green tides and worsening water quality.

The committee said last week it had reached the conclusion after analyzing a range of factors, including economic feasibility, effects on water quality and public opinions. But its analysis seems to have been made in a biased and unbalanced way to help induce the conclusion of dismantling the weirs.

Above all, it is hard to agree with its low assessment of their economic feasibility. The main benefits -- preventing drought and flood -- have been evaluated over a long term beyond 100 years. The two dammed pools on the Geum River, which the committee proposed dismantling, proved useful in irrigating nearby farmlands last summer during times of low precipitation.

Furthermore, experts warn that the country is likely to suffer from severe droughts in coming years amid worsening climate change.

Before releasing water from weirs to monitor changes in water quality last year, Moon instructed officials to work out drought countermeasures in advance. Fundamental, not temporary, preparation for droughts might be made by keeping back water in the dammed pools in summer. Using weirs to regulate flow could also help prevent riverside areas from being flooded.

It is unreasonable to discharge water in order to decrease algal bloom without making full efforts to block the inflow of waste from livestock farms, factories and other facilities. And it is nonsense to spend money on destroying the weirs.

It is also too hasty to conclude -- based on less than a year of study -- that the dammed pools have worsened water quality. Given differences in annual precipitation, it should take several years to evaluate the effect on water quality. The assessment by the committee also excluded some indicators that experts note have improved since the construction of the weirs.

Its proposal also runs against the results of a survey of 2,000 people, including 500 residents in areas near the five weirs in the Geum and Yeongsan rivers, which showed more respondents wanted to maintain the facilities that wanted to get rid of them.

The unreasonable conclusion, which appears to pander to the Moon government’s preoccupation with erasing what has been done under previous conservative administrations, might have been fixed at the outset, given the committee’s composition. It comprises seven officials from the Environment Ministry and eight representatives from the private sector, five of whom have professed their objection to the Four Rivers Project.

It might not be too long before they could see what would happen if their proposal is eventually carried out.