As a former longtime resident of Seoul it disheartens me to see the recent images of the capital and surrounding areas as the nation struggles with record rainfall and devastating flooding and landslides.
I see the pictures of familiar subway stations and other landmarks and think about all of the memories I have of those places. The water will subside, the city will be repaired and cleaned and my memories of these places will remain intact. Unfortunately, instead of healing and unity over the loss of life and property, we are likely to see division and cacophony as the public and politicians play the blame game.
This year in my home province of Manitoba in Canada, we have seen some of the worst flooding on record. Because of excessive precipitation, our rivers and lakes swelled to the point of causing damage to farms, businesses and homes with an estimated cost in the billions of dollars. Although we did not suffer loss of life like South Korea has, people’s lives and livelihoods have been turned upside down.
Instead of focusing on rebuilding and preventive measures to avoid future flooding, the entire process has been wrought with finger pointing and politicking. Every government decision, regardless of size or consequence, has been criticized heavily by a variety of stakeholders. This is hindering recovery efforts and possibly threatens to stall or put an end to important contingency measures.
To be sure, the provincial government has made tough choices; the unfortunate reality is that the severity of the flooding means whichever route the government chooses to take (whether to breach a dyke to avoid uncontrollable river flooding, for example), negative spillover on part of the population is unavoidable.
Flood politics, of course, is not limited to Manitoba. The North Korean regime has recently been accused of doctoring photographs to overinflate the impact of flood waters. Since we know that North Korea has experienced severe flooding it would be strange if North Korea doctored these photos. Nevertheless, it is another example of a government making use of a flood crisis in an attempt to further its own causes.
Criticism of all levels of government has already begun in South Korea. Seoul Mayor Oh Se-hoon has been denounced, quite rightfully, for failing to follow through on a 2010 promise to expand and modernize the city’s drainage system after Gwanghwamun was overwhelmed by rain waters last year.
Mayor Oh instead spent huge sums on his Han River renaissance plan and other cosmetic improvements to the city, possibly contributing to the current detriment of residents. In another case, a stalled local government plan to replant fallen trees on Mt. Umyeon after a typhoon last year has been blamed for the excessive damage to an apartment complex and loss of life in southern Seoul after the heavy rains and landslides.
Many scientists and the public alike increasingly attribute apparently worsening global disasters like flooding, typhoons and drought to global warming. If this is true, we all have a duty to continue to investigate the causes and effects of global warming. We must work toward reducing further damage to the environment as a genuine solution to reducing the occurrence, and mitigating the impact, of such disasters. As the old adage goes, an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure.
But it is also important that politicians do not forget that a government’s primary duty is to protect its people. Rather than using a crisis like the current floods for opportunistic politicking for personal or party gain, South Korean politicians must take the steps necessary to avoid future disasters.
Ben Kolisnyk is a former English teacher and editor in Seoul and lived in South Korea for close to five years. He lives in Winnipeg, Canada, and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.