Shiwha: past, present and ... future?
The contentious history of Shiwha is well-known. In 1987 the reclamation of 173 square kilometers of coastal mudflat began with the construction of a 12.7-kilometer dike. The government's intention was to create a freshwater lake for agricultural use and revitalize the construction industry.
Combined with the 1983 destruction of Gimpo's mudflats, the loss of the Shiwha tideland adversely impacted the harvest of oysters, algae and shellfish in Gyeonggi Bay, which fell from 8,000 tons in 1984 to a mere 1,674 tons in 1993. Fish catches dropped over the same period, devastating whole fishing communities, which subsequently struggled to find alternative livelihoods.
After the seawall's completion in 1994, fertilizer, sewage and industrial waste quickly accumulated in the lake, via small creeks flowing from urban and industrial areas. Biota in and around the lake vanished: levels of dissolved heavy metals, for example, soared to thirteen times higher than previously. The crisis became a hot issue after television news flashed images of stinking, blackened water that the nation couldn’t ignore.
Out of desperation the polluted water was discharged into the sea in 1996, causing an unprecedented mass die-off of shellfish and marine life. Levels of pollution entering the lake continued to increase with the expansion of the industrial zone along its north bank and there were no inflowing rivers large enough to dilute and offset the pollutants. The water remained unfit for even industrial use.
From 1997 the sluice gates were opened to allow the permanent inflow of seawater, to dilute the problem. As a last resort the dike was converted into a $335 million tidal power plant, and a further $696 million of water purification measures were instituted. Reckless development has unforeseen costs.
Nowadays a new, an alternative ecosystem has formed, albeit one intrinsically less valuable than the former tidal flats. The lake, its surrounding shallow wetlands and extensive reed beds ― that reach to Hwaseong ― now support tens of thousands of wintering waterfowl. Optimal species such as the rare Steller's Sea Eagle, Oriental Stork and Imperial Eagle have moved in, all of them globally endangered creatures that depend on large and undisturbed tracts of habitat for their survival. This rare wilderness also attracts increasing numbers of people to enjoy the invigorating fresh air, peace and scenery.
But something spoils the picture. Lines of trucks trundle from the nearby mountain, which has been gouged into a quarry for raw construction materials. Arterial roads are relentlessly carving up this wilderness into bite-size chunks. Bulldozers are opening fresh wounds in the earth, only yards from circles of elegant swans.
Memorandums of understanding ― environmental death sentences ― have been signed among businessmen to create a different future here, namely the envisioned Seongsan ``Green City", Universal Studios theme park and a leisure sports epicenter ― involving large golf courses, a subway station, and technology valley.
It is hard to imagine how a sensitive ecosystem could survive the imposition of a city, with its massive disturbances, or to accept that a settlement built on a former intertidal mudflat can be labeled as green. Fortunately the present economic downturn has provided a temporary stay of execution, and construction has largely been delayed.
In this breathing space, it is crucial to ensure that coming development preserves the ecological value as much as possible. Leisure use of the lake should be carefully restricted. Significant stretches of shallow freshwater wetland must be left untouched and protected.
On a national level, new developments have to start making genuine provisions for biodiversity ― rather than being green-washed projects to further benefit existing large Korean industries.
The writer is a conservationist associated with various environmental organizations in Korea. Email him at email@example.com.