A $20-billion scheme

2014-07-07 : 17:40

Should taxpayers take on debt regarding 4-river projects?  

The ugly truths behind the four-river restoration works, which the former Lee Myung-bak administration boasted as its signature project, are being laid bare one by one. 

The Nakdong River, which serves as the source of drinking water for 15 million people in southeastern Gyeongsang provinces, has all but stopped its function, as green algae began to cover the river-turned-reservoir as early as June. 

In the southwestern Jeolla provinces and Gwangju, which welcomed the project most warmly five years ago expecting it would revive their pollution-stricken Yeongsan River, local administrations have launched joint efforts to return it to a “natural” state, after making abortive appeals to the central government. 

Situations are little better along the Han River in Seoul-Gyeonggi area and the Geum River flowing through the midland Chungcheong provinces ― as the 22-trillion-won ($20 billion) project turned the biggest rivers in the southern half of the Korean Peninsula into artificial lakes and reservoirs, obstructing their natural flows and resulting in environmental cataclysm. In short, the Lee administration spent huge sums to destroy nature. 

Worse yet, the Park Geun-hye administration is even moving to force taxpayers to foot the bulk of the bill. 

The Ministry of Land, Infrastructure and Transport said it has requested the finance and strategy ministry to allocate 80 billion won and 317 billion won, respectively, in next year’s budget to help the state-run Korea Water Resources Corp. (K-Water) repay part of the principal and interest on its 8 trillion won debt incurred by the four-river projects. All this comes on top of the 1.3 trillion won already paid in interests from taxpayers’ money. 

Glaring as it is, the current situation could have been predicted five years ago when the former Lee administration forced the reluctant K-Water to jump into the project, mainly for the purpose of making the government’s spending 8 trillion smaller to be shouldered by the state company. In return, the government promised to help it repay interest from the budget and designate it as the “best-managed” state enterprise. K-Water was supposed to pay the principal with income from real estate businesses along the rivers, which flopped amid the property market slump. 

Last year, K-Water was designated as the exemplary state firm with its executives and employees receiving bonuses up to 70 million won each. The company even recorded net profits last year but would use no part of it for debt repayment because it has maintained a “separate” account for the river projects, and instead asked the government to raise water rates. What all this leads up to: the government and local builders ― mostly the construction arms of family-controlled conglomerates ― threw a $20-billion party, resulting in serious environment disaster and demanding people to take the tab. 

The Park administration should launch investigation and hold all officials responsible for one of the most glaring wastes of taxpayer money in history ― from former President Lee on down. 

If it continues to look the other way, Koreans will regard the incumbent administration as the accomplice of its predecessor, and the ill-conceived project as their joint work ― like, for instance, state spies’ intervention in the election.