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[Editorial] Success or half success?

Two years after work started to help the four major rivers serve industries and rural life, river beds have been deepened, banks streamlined and hundreds of kilometers of bike lanes built on both sides of the waterways. To the great relief of President Lee Myung-bak and his development-minded aides, the rainy season up until September passed without major flood disasters in the Han, Nakdong, Geum and Yeongsan rivers this year.

Some of the planned 16 dikes have been completed and others are approaching dedication in the coming months to wrap up the signature project of the Lee administration by the middle of 2012, the final year of the president’s five-year tenure. If we are to make an overall assessment a little prematurely, the “Four Rivers Project,” revised from what was originally a cross-country canal project, will go down in the nation’s modern history as yet another example of territorial improvement.

But we also have to point out quite a few shortcomings. The biggest complaints from the residents near the four rivers were that plans were concentrated on the main courses of the rivers, and tributaries were generally neglected. Farmland was inundated as rainwater did not properly drain into the main rivers that were protected by high embankments.

A huge amount of sand was dredged and river beds are now 5 to 6 meters deeper to be able to contain increased volumes of rainwater this past summer. Yet, storage of the sand was poorly managed, causing blockages of irrigation facilities here and there. The plan to sell the sand to construction businesses to cover part of the project cost was not well carried out.

Critics assert that the simultaneous start of the work at the four rivers caused a temporary shortage of manpower, equipment and materials, raising costs considerably. If the project was conducted on rotation, starting from the Yeongsan River, for example, and then moving to the Nakdong two years or so later with lessons learned from the earlier project, there would have been greater efficiency and much less expenditure, they argued.

A total of 22 trillion won ($18 billion) will have been spent on the four rivers till the completion of the whole project next year. Experts are skeptical about the effect of the investment in activating provincial construction industries and increasing employment. Many Seoul-based companies outbid local firms and large numbers of migrant workers were employed, keeping unskilled residents out of work.

These and other criticisms notwithstanding, larger numbers of residents of riverside areas expressed satisfaction over the outcome of the project so far, particularly for the absence of major flooding during the summer, according to opinion surveys. They were happy about new park facilities and bike routes but were sorry for the disappearance of natural riverside beaches and wetlands.

The crucial assessment can be made years later when we can determine how the quality of water has changed in the rivers where the newly-built dams and deeper riverbeds will hold a greater body of water for agricultural and industrial use. Since the four-river development project was conceived, proponents and opponents have fought over the claims that an increased volume of water makes it cleaner and that contamination will worsen because the dams will slow the flow of the rivers.

Whatever the arguments, we are witnessing the outcomes of the huge amount of money spent on the four rivers under a responsible decision by the government. Environmentalists’ objections and warnings must have had the positive effects of leading government planners and project contractors toward minimizing adverse ecological impacts.

Only the first stage of the rivers improvement project will be completed next year. The central government and local administrations should then immediately start the second-stage work, which is to refurbish the tributaries that feed water to the main rivers. Only after this next work has been done can we say whether the four-river project was successful.
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