Are environmental conflicts all bad? (9)
Environmental disputes are causes of waste in budgetary expenses, but they also prevent financial waste by helping to terminate unnecessary development projects.
By Lee Kyoo-yong
Conflicts occur in every society. There are disagreements concerning environmental problems coupled with development projects, stretching from which end of the water resources residents are in and numerous interest parties.
Conflicts happen all over the world, no matter what the size and depth of the problems are in terms of economic and media considerations. Owing to the fact that the adverse effects of environmental conflicts tend to be told to the public, there is a deep-rooted social stigma that conflicts must and should be prevented at any cost. But are conflicts really and only destructive in nature?
Traditionally, Korean people have lived in a culture which stresses the importance of harmonious coexistence and this is well reflected in the education system. Accordingly, it is generally regarded that environmental conflicts result in heavy economical and social costs as well as social disruptions. However, the reality is that there are both positive and negative functions of environmental conflict as in any social confrontation.
The basic element of environmental conflicts is the function of maintaining a balance between development and preservation. While most environmental disagreements are causes of waste in budgetary and other expenses, they also tend to serve the purpose of preventing financial waste by helping to terminate or modify unnecessary development projects.
Certainly, there are instances when these occurrences bring about confrontations and disputes among parties of interest but the same can be said for the fact that they sometimes prevent further escalations in disagreements.
Such conflicts often provide the opportunity for involved parties to coordinate their differences. There are naturally instances when they serve the opposite purpose. One thing for certain is that they put the spotlight on important issues for which discussion and debate are desperately needed.
Consequently, it would not be appropriate to attempt to avoid environmental conflicts simply because of their positive or negative implications. In a diverse and modern society, such conflicts are, in many ways, unavoidable. The point would be to sidestep the undesirable impact of such confrontations to allow rational functions to take their course.
In Korea, and in any developing country, environmental conflicts are bound to occur. The pace of development speeds up with economic prosperity and the side effects of such major developments are to be expected, thus bringing about clashes in interests.
In many instances, political considerations and efficiency tend to override environmental and economic viabilities. More often than not, the interests of residents and civic organizations are not well reflected in pursuing major development projects.
The problems are further aggravated by the absence of objective measurements on the economic benefits and the practicality of such development projects and the environmental impact they could have on future generations.
For instance, differences can be resolved if there is a way of putting accurate financial value on, say, the quality of air that the current and future generations of people will and can enjoy.
In other cases, conflicts arising from contrasting interest and understanding are relatively easy to address.
Take the case of Paldang Lake, which provides water to more than 25 million people living in and around the capital district and the need to preserve the quality of water on the Nakdong River.
By introducing different pollution quotas and water charges depending on the locality, that is the upper or lower reaches of the water resources, residents can be persuaded to accept the rationale of regulations and impositions in the spirit of coexistence.
On the other hand, when conflicts in understanding collide with financial considerations, disputes become more difficult to resolve. Major cases in point are the construction of the Tonggang Dam and the development of the Saemangeum region which have long been enveloped in all kinds of confrontations.
In the case of the Tonggang Dam, considerations include the economic benefits of its construction and safety in addition to the ecological and cultural damage. Also posing as a serious problem is the breakup of the residential community. These combine to create a situation where there exists a severe conflict in both respective interests as well as economic implications.
Owing to the complexity of the elements involved, it is difficult to form a platform for seeking a solution through dialogue and political decisions are needed to either terminate or push ahead with the project.
While the details of cases tend to differ in terms of their fundamental characteristics, conflicts surrounding environmental considerations exist in every country and they certainly pose difficult challenges.
However, as a person who has spent most of his career in government dealing with environmental policies, this writer would like to stress that while challenging, there are viable ways activating elementary functional methods of minimizing conflicts.
Simply put, it is of vital importance that a strong public consensus is realized by ensuring the rationality of projects and policies in question and proper procedures are always observed.
Detailed economic feasibility work will have to be undertaken and all environmental aspects, such as environmental impact assessments, are comprehensively initiated.
Such efforts are particularly important in pursuing major development projects such as the installation of a circular road around Mt. Sapae and the Seoul-Busan bullet railway network through the Mt. Cheonseong Tunnel.
For government officials involved in such projects, it is vital they equip themselves with viable alternatives and act with sincerity in seeking cooperation among parties involved.
In showing commitment and conviction and engaging in dialogue, this writer has experienced that there is always a workable solution within reach.
Confrontations resulting from differences in the views of residents in the upper and lower reaches of rivers in implementing a special law for the refurbishment of the nation뭩 four major rivers and the construction of a landfill in the capital area, which ran into severe protests from residents, are some prominent examples.
There was also a major dispute among lawmakers, the media and protesting parties surrounding the selection of one of the 12 options in determining the route of the circular road around Mt. Sapae which required open and public debates.
At the same time, there is a need to provide proper compensation for residents who must make sacrifices in terms of environmental damage and emotional and psychological sufferings.
In the case of the special law for the refurbishment of the four major rivers, tough regulations were imposed for the upper reaches of the tributaries while an additional water charge was introduced for the lower reaches.
As for the construction of the landfill in the capital area, 10 percent of the revenue from its operations was provided to residents living around the area.
Role of expert groups
On the other hand, the importance of the role of the media, expert groups and opinion leaders cannot be overemphasized ensuring objectivity and neutrality.
More often than not, there are instances when conflicts are aggravated or ignored with the involved parties choosing an easy way out of problems. It is during such cases when rational decisions are sought and sincere opinions are needed most.
In the middle of the 1990s, there was a severe conflict over water sources between Yeongwol and Jaecheon and undisputable reports of shortages from related experts were crucial in resolving the differences.
Environmental conflicts have a tendency of leaving deep scars when not properly addressed and resolved but they also provide opportunities for settling differences.
Consequently, rather than avoid environmental conflicts from the simple perspective of them being positive or negative, it is critical that the fact they are unavoidable is accepted and wisdom is exercised to realize rational solutions.
Water pollution is any chemical, physical or biological change in the quality of water that has a harmful effect on any living thing that drinks or uses or lives (in) it. When humans drink polluted water it often has serious effects on their health. Water pollution can also make water unsuited for the desired use. There are several classes of water pollutants, the main being disease-causing agents. These are bacteria, viruses, protozoa and parasitic worms that enter sewage systems and untreated waste.
Former Environment Minister Lee Kyoo-yong, Ph.D., is a career bureaucrat who began his service in government in 1978 at the Ministry of Government Legislation and joined the Environment Ministry in 1990. At present, Lee is senior advisor for environment-related cases at the law firm Kim & Chang. Lee graduated from the law department of Seoul National University and obtained his doctorate in environmental engineering from the University of Seoul.