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Revival on the Four Rivers

Any appraisal of the legacy of the Lee Myung-bak administration would be incomplete without an in-depth look at one of the most notable policies in Korea’s recent political, economic, and ecological history, namely, the Four Major Rivers Restoration Project.

This development of a national waterway infrastructure system has not only transformed the Han, Geum, Yeongsan, and Nakdong Rivers but has also brought to surrounding regions a wealth of new possibilities.

A night view of the Juksan Weir on the Yeongsan River
A night view of the Juksan Weir on the Yeongsan River (photo courtesy of the National River Restoration Office).

President Lee declared the project’s successful completion on October 22, 2011, at an official ceremony to commemorate the opening of the 16 new weirs. His announcement came less than two and a half years since the project was officially finalized and jointly adopted by the Ministry of Land, Transport and Maritime Affairs, the Ministry of Environment, and the Ministry for Food, Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries.

“The Four Major Rivers Restoration Project is not just about securing stable water resources or preparing against floods and droughts,” said President Lee during his celebratory address. “From reenergized local communities to higher quality of life across the country, a revival of our rivers will be a revival from which all will benefit.”

President Lee Myung-bak and other dignitaries tour the newly opened Ibo Weir in Gyeonggi-do (Gyeonggi Province) at the opening ceremony on October 22
President Lee Myung-bak and other dignitaries tour the newly opened Ibo Weir in Gyeonggi-do (Gyeonggi Province) at the opening ceremony on October 22 (photo courtesy of National River Restoration Office).

Even before completion, the new waterways had proven effective at minimizing flood-related damages. Though 2011 saw record rainfall and a prolonged rainy season, flooding in the Four Rivers’ drainage basins during the year amounted to less than one-tenth of that recorded in previous years of heavy rain.

In addition to improved flood control and drought prevention measures, key objectives of the 22.2 trillion-won project include improvement of water quality, revitalization of regional economies, and restoration of river ecosystems. True to this last goal, as of last October, much of the arable land in waterfront areas has been reintroduced as protected ecological zones complete with a wide variety of flowers, fish, birds, and other wildlife.

A family explores the waterfront area by the Seungchon Weir on the Yeongsan River
A family explores the waterfront area by the Seungchon Weir on the Yeongsan River (photo courtesy of the National River Restoration Office).

The creation of new environmental facilities has been coupled with efforts to bring the rivers closer to the people. Newly opened riverside parks and a 1,692-kilometer cross-country bicycle path provide cultural and recreational spaces for local residents as well as travelers from farther cities. In the months since last October, these sites have been visited by over 610,000 people.

Korea’s rivers have also attracted interest overseas. The United Nations Environment Programme’s 2011 Green Economy Report introduced the project as a prominent example of a government-funded river restoration initiative.

A newly opened bike path on the Nakdong River
A newly opened bike path on the Nakdong River (photo courtesy of the National River Restoration Office)

Among the many international guests who toured the river basin and expressed their admiration of the area’s remarkable transformation were Dr. Klaus Arzet, who headed the project to restore the Isar River in Munich, Germany, Steve Drown, an international ecology landscape architecture specialist from the University of Idaho, and Kathleen Stevens, former United States ambassador to the Republic of Korea.

Last November, the office of Thai Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra expressed interest in working together with Korea’s National River Restoration Office (NRRO) to improve Thailand’s water infrastructure, in light of record flooding that affected over 70% of the country earlier that year.

By Kwon Jungyun
Korea.net Staffwriter

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