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MARCH 31, 2009


Can restoration of rivers solve recession?
Korea has a tradition of turning water and other environmental crises into opportunities
Green Growth: Korea's New Strategy ( 17 )
The following is the 17th in a series of articles focusing on the Korean government’s “green growth” strategy. The series will also introduce the increasing efforts of major advanced countries of the world to promote a green economy. — Ed.

Chris Williams
Chris Williams is based at the Centre for International Education and Research, University of Birmingham, the United Kingdom, and has also held posts at the universities of London, Bristol, Cambridge, Cairo and the United Nations. ● He published the books Environmental Victims: New Risk New Injustice, and Terminus Brain: the Environmental Threat to Human Intelligence. His other books include Leadership Accountability in a Globalizing World (2006), Palgrave Macmillan, London. ● He can be reached at

By Chris Williams

Korea has an “invisible crisis” of water. But because Korean leaders have responded intelligently to this threat throughout history, Korea can now make an important contribution to global water security. Not least, President Lee Myung-bak plans now to use river refurbishment as a way to stimulate the economy by creating 280,000 jobs. This is the conclusion of my paper, which was presented at a recent symposium on water organized by the Geneva Institute of Water, Health and the Environment together with the United Nations Environment Program. Korea’s water crisis is not obvious. The peninsular experiences extreme variability in rainwater, from heavy monsoons in the summer to long severe droughts in the spring. And 70 percent of the country is covered by steep mountains, which turn storms into raging torrents of water. Fast moving water does not only cause an immediate flood hazard, but groundwater reserves are low because the water flows quickly into the sea rather than being absorbed into the earth. So it is not a coincidence that the world’s first rainwater gauge, “Cheokugi,” was invented in Korea in 1441. The gauge could help to predict floods and droughts, and made the “invisible crisis” visible as a significant threat, so that action could be taken. A river gauge, “Supyo,” was also used to measure the height of river water. Two were situated on the Han River and Cheonggye Stream in Seoul. The invention and promotion of these devices was pragmatic and scientific, but it was also educational and democratic. It was a symbol to the people of the importance of water management, and the ever-present threat. It was democratic because, like King Sejong’s famous initiative, the Korean alphabet, it gave power to the people to take action at individual levels. By contrast, the famous “Nileometer,” which helped to predict the inundation of the Nile, was only accessible to the elite, who could use this knowledge to enhance their power. It is perhaps no surprise that the Korean flag is probably the only flag in the world to include a symbol of water in the top-right corner. The clean-up of the polluted river for the 1988 Olympics was similar. Koreans had become annoyed by the pollution from the river, because it affected life in their pleasant new cities — cities that had resulted from the industrial and economic development that caused the pollution. The subsequent political sound-bite became “The two

Chris Williams (left), a professor from the University of Birmingham, presents Seoul’s Cheonggye Stream restoration project as an example of good water management at Yonhap News the International Environment House in Geneva on Thursday.

miracles of the River Han” — one, the industrial growth it facilitated, and two, the clean-up. This neatly packaged the coincidence of industrial, economic, national and environmental interests, and symbolized public praise for a political change of policy. Korean leaders continue to see water management as worthy of significant attention. A recent example is the successful rehabilitation of the Cheonggye waterway in Seoul. Although central to Seoul’s existence through history, during the Japanese colonial period (191045) this waterway became polluted. In 1958, it was decided to cover the waterway and build expressways above it. But by the end of the 20th century, this concrete jungle had started to degenerate. In 2003, the then mayor of Seoul, Lee Myung-bak envisioned a plan to remove the expressway and restore the river to create a public recreation area, which was completed in 2005. Interestingly, Lee Myung-bak was not only responsible for removing the Cheonggye expressway, he was also responsible for building it with Hyundai Engineering & Construction. This provides important lessons about the public’s relationship with its leaders. As argued in Leadership Accountability in a Globalizing World, modern leaders need to be able to make U-turns, and if this is done for good reason it should be applauded and not criticized. The modern world is complicated, unpredictable and fast-changing. Something that was right in one era may be wrong in another. An ability to evolve thinking and policy is a positive leadership attribute. And leaders must balance many competing interests, and must look for mutual areas of interest and opportunities that arise, to achieve change. The expressway and covered river were suffering serious structural problems by 2000. The choice was

between rebuilding the expressway, or a more creative solution. But are words like restoration and rehabilitation correct? The Cheonggye waterway was clearly not returned to its former condition, certainly not back to the era of the river being an open sewer lined with slums. We should always ask, “Back to what?” And usually that means some form of compromise. The Cheonggye waterway was renovated to perform a desirable function, which was a compromise between visions of the past and future and the competing interests of the present. In January 2009, there was another example of Korea responding to crisis through water management. Lee announced his “Green New Deal” policy, which included river refurbishment that aimed to create 280,000 jobs — far more than other forms of infrastructure projects. As the global economic recession deepened, the Minister of Land, Transport and Maritime affairs Chung Jonghwan affirmed large water and river projects. This is to include water security measures such as disaster prevention and floodwater storage; wetland restoration; and development initiatives such as bike lanes, public waterways, ecological parks and water sports. If it works, the projects will show that economic and water security interests need not be in conflict. Korea is also now demonstrating interesting initiatives in educational settings. Fifty schools in Gyeonggi Province have installed rainwater systems to teach about rainwater, others are part of a program to reduce water costs by using rainwater, and one has started a rainwater museum. Seoul National University has a public “rainwater center,” and SBS broadcasts programs about rainwater use. The Ministry of Defense has introduced a program to teach about rainwater

The world’s first standardized rainwater gauge (“Cheokugi”) invented in the 1440s

A gauge to measure the height of water by the Cheonggye Stream

to conscripts, which means every man in the country will share its understanding. In his recent book “Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail or Survive,” Jared Diamond identifies Iceland as an example of a country that should have collapsed because of its fragile ecosystem. It did not, because the obvious fragility made the country’s rulers and population acutely aware of their precarious state and therefore they put in place and accepted systems to protect their nation. He concludes that, “Leaders who ... have the courage to anticipate crises or to act early, and who make strong insightful decisions of top-down management really can make a huge differ-

ence to their societies.” The lessons from water security problems in Korea are less obvious than Iceland, but similar. After World War II, Lee Myung-bak lived in his father’s home town of Pohang, which was also once the home to the Buddhist thinker, Wonhyo (A.D. 617-686). Perhaps Lee heard the story of how one night Wonhyo was caught in a rain storm, and took shelter in a dark cave. During the night he was thirsty, and he reached out and found what he thought was a gourd full of beautiful fresh mountain water which he drank with relish. In the light of the morning, he found that he was in an ancient tomb, and he had been drinking brackish

water from a human skull. Instead of disgust, Wonhyo was fascinated by the power of the human mind to transform reality — what he termed a “consciousness-only enlightenment experience.” Wonhyo might have said to President Lee, “If fetid water in a skull can be seen as fresh water from a mountain, an expressway can be seen as a waterway, and a deepening economic crisis as a river restoration project.” He might also have pointed out that Korean leadership, old and new, has much to teach the world about responding to water and other environmental crises, and that this source of wisdom is now starting to be tapped.

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