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Decision Process Needs to Be Changed from Top Down to Bottom Up
Policy Change in Water Management
Decision Process Needs to Be Changed from Top Down to Bottom Up
  • By Jack H. Park
  • March 31, 2014, 08:30
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Annual precipitation per capita in Korea is 2,629m3, merely 1/6th of the world average (16,427m3). In particular, summer rainfall accounts for 70 percent of annual precipitation in the country. Since rivers are relatively short and steeply sloped, it is difficult to manage water, and thus the nation is vulnerable to floods.

Recently, floods and droughts have frequently occurred at the same time on the Korean peninsula, as the weather is being affected by climate change. Between 2010 and 2012, heavy rain caused havoc throughout the metropolitan area, as seen by the flooding of the quite busy Gangnam Subway Station. But droughts also triggered a limited water supply for 300,000 people in 2001 and 280,000 people from 2008 to 2009.

In response, the Korean government has made an effort to prevent flooding, and to secure and supply water resources in a timely manner. As a result, the amount of water used annually has increased from 5.1 billion cubic meters to 25.5 billion cubic meters, a five-fold increase from 1965 figures. In addition, the nation’s penetration rates of waterworks have risen from 21 percent to 98 percent, a 4.6-fold increase. On top of that, the government has improved its ability to control flooding of up to 5.1 billion square meters of water by building 16 multipurpose dams. It has also increased river maintenance ratios as much as 80 percent.

However, water-related disasters still wreak havoc on the nation because of a rise in floods and droughts fueled by unpredictable climate change. Social discord such as friction with neighboring regions surrounding one water supply and controversy over dam construction projects continues to be seen in the country.

To deal with the problem, the Park Geun-hye administration has decided to strengthen the nation’s water management system to respond to climate change. The administration is planning to rule out political influences as much as possible, and to evaluate the Four Rivers Project in an objective and scientific manner, even though the pros and cons of the project are unclear at the moment. Based on the plan, the government intends to pursue its policy in a way that promotes national interest.

An official at the Ministry of Land, Infrastructure and Transport (MOLIT) remarked, “The Lee Myung-bak administration pushed forward with a broad range of policies to respond to climate change, and to address water shortages. The current administration is going to pursue more detailed policies that are convenient to people.”

First, the government is going to expand infrastructure. It will do so by undertaking maintenance work in rivers, enhancing the safety of existing dams, expanding the water works system, and securing underground water resources. In particular, it will try to come up with an inclusive measure to prevent flooding, including a comprehensive flood control scheme in urban areas and a flood warning system to reduce flood damage in those densely-populated areas. Seoul is planning to restore damaged rivers and to manage already-reorganized rivers by classifying them as Waterfront Cultural Spaces and Spaces for Conserving the Ecology.

The government also made the decision to improve a procedure for any dam project that generates friction between neighboring areas, or opposition from environmental groups. The MOLIT said, “We are going to prevent social and economic losses, and to try to regain the public’s trust in government policies by conducting a strengthened feasibility study, listening to local residents’ opinions, and creating a procedure to reconcile conflicts.”

It has been more difficult to construct a dam to develop new water resources. The phenomenon is attributable to a decreased amount of water in downstream areas propelled by the development of water sources in upstream areas, and worries over degraded water quality. The difficulty also arises from opposition by people living at the source of a river, on account of a restriction in various development activities and tension between development and environmental protections.

To address the problem, the government agreed to establish measures to secure alternative water resources, which include building underground dams, turning sea water into fresh water, and using rainwater.

In line with its prediction that demand for water will outstrip supply in the end, Seoul is going to create a water usage environment based on economic principles, to wean the country off of the industry that uses excessive water, to create an industrial structure for water reuse, and to privatize water work projects. To tackle water shortages in the long term, the legislation of water resources management regarding the effective use of existing facilities and the development of alternative water resources will be created.

In addition, problems related to water supply in the surrounding areas of Nakdong River are going to be resolved by mediating inter-regional disputes and by diversifying water sources, including producing water through a riverbank filtration process.

Meanwhile, the river environment in the nation is becoming more complicated, owing to climate change and a largescale river maintenance project like the Four Rivers Restoration Project. Accordingly, it is getting more difficult to maintain and manage water resources.

Furthermore, a demand for water is likely to rise due to population growth, the expansion of local development projects, and the housing supply, in line with economic growth. The phenomenon is also attributable to urbanization and an increase in waterworks usage ratios. Other contributing factors to the worsening conditions for the management of water resources include deteriorating conditions for developing new water resources and the complicated interests of the people concerned.

Therefore, the establishment of a non-conventional way to manage water resources is increasingly needed to actively cope with changes in river environments resulting from natural and artificial factors.

The nation’s water management is considered to be rather inconsistent and inefficient, arising from the different regulations of water management agencies and government departments and their decentralized work. Currently, several government departments such as MOLIT, the Ministry of Environment, the Ministry of Agriculture, Food and Rural Affairs, and the National Emergency Management Agency are in charge of water management, which raises concerns about redundancy and excessive investment. In other words, there is a lack of cooperation between the various government departments for water-related work.

Hence, the government is considering a way to maximize the efficiency of water management by merging the different organizations and functions of water management. It will do so by overhauling regulations and systems for the combined management of water resources.

An expert pointed out, “So far, the development, conservation, use, and maintenance of water resources in the country has been decided by the central government,” adding, “I’d like to praise the effort of the Park Geun-hye administration, since its bottom-up approach reflects the opinions of beneficiaries and victims of water resources.”