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The River Is Us:

The Controversy Surrounding the
Four Rivers Restoration Project
y 2012, South Korean President Lee Myung- reinforced the aims of the project to the global

B bak’’s administration will have spent 22.2

trillion won ($17.7 billion) on a controversial
construction project aimed at restoring the nation’’s
community. ““The project aims to eliminate
environmental contamination caused during the
country’’s industrialization in the second half of the
four major rivers. The cornerstone of Lee’’s Green New 20th century. The riverbeds will be dredged and
Deal is the Four Rivers Restoration Project.. The aim cleaned up. Unlike a dam project that submerges a
is to revitalize the Han, Nakdong, Yeongsan and Geum large area of adjacent land or forest under a reservoir,
rivers by dredging rivers and streams, building the project takes an innovative approach, which will
reservoirs and dams, expanding sewage treatment
facilities and creating jobs. Finalized in 2009, the
project is said to help build tourist zones around the
major rivers and counterbalance river contamination
from recent decades of industrialization.

While all of this sounds great in theory, many

environmental and religious groups are calling upon
the government to halt the project fearing it may do
more damage than good in regards to delicate wetlands
and biodiversity around the country. Foreigners and
Koreans are joining together to educate the
international community on the Four Rivers Project
and why they feel it could have a disastrous impact on
the environment.

In May 2010, Gwangju News joined about 30

foreigners and Koreans who toured Yeoju along the
Han River with the Eco-Horizons Institute to learn
more about the possible devastation that could be
caused by Four Rivers Project. Together they explored
areas that have already been constructed and others in
the pre-construction phase.

President Lee’’s Stance

Despite criticism, Lee’’s administration has vowed to
press on with it as it announced its intentions to
““aggressively carry out the Four Major River
Restoration Project to re-store the ecosystems around
Korea’’s four major rivers”” in support of the 2010 UN
designated Year of Biodiversity.
In a leading international report, Gicana 7, Lee Map of the river and dams. Birds Korea

4 Gwangju News August 2010


enable the four rivers to constantly hold 1.3 billion tons

of water, which is enough to resolve the nation’’s water
shortage. When the ecosystem is revived, water quality
will be improved substantially, the biological diversity
preserved, and the quality of life enhanced remarkably.
What is more, the river areas will turn into the bases
for green growth, as tourism, leisure and industrial
activities will contribute to local livelihoods.””

While referencing a previous pet project, the

Cheonggye Stream project, carried out under his
tenure as mayor of Seoul, Lee proudly asserted his
favorable track record in bringing eco-friendly projects
to fruition.
Kim Jong-kyum of Eco-Horizons Institute
Opposition Mounts explaining before and after photos of a
However, nicknamed ““the Bulldozer”” from his early construction site. Alva French
days in construction, some have privately accused
President Lee of cronyism by using the project to get ““All the vegetation has been removed……So we are
jobs for his old boys’’ network. The recent death of a told that there will be bike paths established
construction worker on the project due to stroke has when the construction has been completed. This
made some even more skeptical of the Four Rivers used to be the most beautiful spot of Yeoju, we
Project. Despite published assurances from the don’’t know how long it will take to recover. 100-
government on the project, many don’’t buy the 200 years? We don’’t know…… [This] leaves us to
assertion that the Lee administration has the best of question the [project’’s] agenda. Whether it will
intentions. really improve the water quality and prevent
drought or flooding. Those questions are with
Ma Yong-un of the Korean Federation of us…… If we just take one example, water quality
Environmental Movements (KFEM), an NGO that is improvement. If we dig out the bottom, the
part of the Friends of the Earth organization, while natural water purification system will be
talking about President Lee stated, ““He wants to finish distorted, and that will not help water quality
the project before his term ends, so the construction improvement.””
work started in November of last year and everything
will be finished before the end of 2012. The
will increase disturbance to sensitive species and
government is quite concerned about the opposition
systems.”” WWN went on to report on how many
from environmental groups, religious groups and the
foreign damming projects were being modified in favor
Opposition party. They just want to speed up the initial
of more progressive solutions. Their letter concluded
stage. Some of the construction companies involved in
by asking Lee's administration to cancel the Four
the project work 24 hours a day……Some of the workers
Rivers Restoration Project.
work 24 hours a day. In April, they worked 24 hours a
day 7 days a week. It is normal to work from 6am to
Birds Korea, a Busan-based bird and habitat
8pm. It’’s no wonder the worker at the construction site
conservation group, recently outlined their concerns of
passed away from being overworked.””
the project. ““[It] will impact 50 bird species negatively,
causing further declines in several sensitive water bird
The World Wetlands Network, a group of over 200
species that are ecologically dependent on shallow
NGOs, in an open letter to President Lee and his
rivers, flood-plain wetlands and estuaries. Having
administration, offered this: ““As proposed, the Four
conducted extensive tests on habitat and waterfowl
Rivers project will lead to a massive loss of biodiversity
around the country, Birds Korea has also called for a
and cause enormous environmental costs, some of
halt to the project..
which will be immediate, and others which will emerge
longer-term as the rivers and watersheds can no longer
While acknowledging the current state of pollution of
function in a natural way.””
the four major rivers, the government through its
website,, refuted critics by citing the
Furthermore, ““the construction of bicycle trails and
positive benefits of pollution reduction. ““Some argue
resort areas proposed as part of the Four Rivers Project
that the project will only leave the ecology in ruins, but

Gwangju News August 2010 5


Left: Vanessa Falco, an American activist based in Suwon, organized the walking
tour of the construction sites with Eco-Horizons Institute. She shared her thoughts
on how she got involved in the fight against the Four Rivers Restoration Project.
Credit: Alva French

““Well, I visited this organic farm, called Paldong and I was listening to the
farmers. We were interviewing them and they were saying how the government
wanted to destroy their farms and build a bike path and a park. They were
explaining how ridiculous it was, in their view. After that, I wanted to go back
and talk to them again.. Paldong was the start of all of this. Before that, I had no
idea the Four Rivers Project was destructive. I had been reading here and there
in newspapers, but usually they had a very conservative stance, which is very
compatible with the government.. I had no idea it was destroying instead of
restoring. I just read articles from June of last year and I read how it was going
to cost $ 22 billion dollars with the goals of preventing flooding, drought and water pollution. At the time, it
seemed like that was evidence enough, but then when I was listening to what the farmers were telling me, ““We
have been here for thirty years.”” …… Their presence had decreased the nitrates…… [Basically] the government is
claiming that they need to leave because they are polluting the water! Therefore they have to relocate, which I
think is absurd. It upsets me because they say they are restoring the environment, when they are destroying it.””

happening here is destroying the free

flowing natural river. It’’s not the
restoration, but just destruction of
the natural river ecosystems.

““We want to survey the impact of the

restoration project and publicize this
for Korean people, and organize
different events for people to see. The
developers and construction
companies involved in the project
would not allow us to go to survey
wild plants and animals. The
government doesn’’t want us to do
surveys in the project areas. We sent
official letters to the Ministers of
Land, Transport and Maritime
Ma Yong-un of KFEM, the Korean Federation for Environmental Affairs and the Minister of the
Movements, an activist at the forefront of the movement against the
Environment……We suggested that
Four Rivers Restoration Project shared his views. Alva French
environmental groups and the
““According to opinion polls around 70 % of South government set up a joint-committee to survey
Korean people do not agree with the Four Rivers wildlife in the project site, but we got no response.
Project. I still think most Korean people do not know
what is really happening around the Four Rivers ““International interest will help us to conserve the
Project...The government keeps saying that they are rivers. We [still] need more international interest
building more than 20 dams and [are] dredging and awareness on what is going on the four largest
more than 570 million cubic meters of sand and rivers in South Korea. There have been several
gravel for the rivers to supply more water for people international media reports, but still not many
and prevent flooding, create recreation areas along people know about it.””
the river and restore river ecosystems. What is really

6 Gwangju News August 2010


nothing could be further from the truth……Once the Gwangju News also met a weak and weary Reverend
project is completed, Korea will have secured extra Soo-kyung who had been protesting since March 2010
reservoir space that can contain 1.3 billion cubic at a new construction site near a Buddhist temple.
meters of water. More water will mean less water Some see the construction near a normally off-limits
pollution, even during the dry season.”” religious sanctuary as a further affront by a Christian
president against traditional Buddhist traditions.
A Separation Between Church and State Angered by the complete disregard to the sacred
The project has drawn the ire of religious groups as grounds of the temple by the Four Rivers Project he
well. The Catholic Alliance to Stop the Four Major urged the group to resist the situation and reflect on
Rivers Restoration Project, a group of Korea’’s Catholic Buddhist principles valuing the cycle of life. ““We are
bishops and believers, has also protested against the the river. The river is us. The river is ourselves,”” he
Four Rivers Project in droves holding daily life and said.
peace masses nationwide followed by all-night vigils
calling for an end to the project. By Alva French

In late May 2010 another Buddhist monk, Reverend

Munsu burned himself in protest of the Four Rivers
Project leaving a handwritten will that translates as
follows: ““[The] Lee Myung-bak administration
should stop and scrap the Four Rivers Project. Lee
administration should eradicate corruption. [The]
Lee administration should try its best to support
ordinary, poor and underprivileged people instead
of chaebols and rich people.””

The Korea Times, in a June 2, 2010 editorial on

Reverend Munsu’’s death, summarized the impact of
the Buddhist and political conflict: ““People,
especially government officials, will have to stop and
think at least once what has driven the 47-year-old
monk to the extreme means of self-immolation, with
respect to the controversial river reconstruction
project…… When the two conflicting arguments are
two poles apart to find a middle ground, the only
compromise should be sought in taking a more
cautious, gradual approach. Yet the Lee
administration is pushing ahead with the
reconstruction of the nation's largest rivers as if
there are no next governments, and despite
opposition from a majority of the people. Little
surprise then, religious leaders are resisting the
ruling elite's unwarranted assumption of infallibility,
which the priests believe should belong to only

On July 17, 2010, thousands gathered in Seoul to

mourn Reverend Munsu’’s loss.
Handwritten note of Reverend Munsu
KFEM/ Ma Yong-un

Gwangju News August 2010 7

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