By Kim Jong-chan
A couple of weeks ago, I saw a TV program about a group of KBS reporters who make an on-site trip of the entire route of the proposed Seoul-Busan canal by small boat. They were accompanied by an architect for the canal project and an environmentalist, both invited to join the journey.
The architect asserted that the project would create minor environmental destruction. But the environmentalist expressed concerns that building man-made canals could result in the destruction of the ecosystem by dredging the bottom of several sections of the Han and Nakdong Rivers.
The depth of water was too shallow for the tiny boat to pass through those sections, including Yoju in Gyeonggi Province and Joryeongcheon in Mungyeong, North Gyeongsang Province. We can imagine how deep the canal builders would have to dig as the waterway is designed for large container carriers. Needless to say, the work could destroy parts of the ecosystem. Actually, the builders plan to construct a 20-kilometer tunnel that penetrates the inland Gyeongsang mountainous areas.
The history of the debate about building a canal in Korea goes back to the 18th century. In 1782, King Jeongjo of the Joseon Kingdom (1392-1910) officiated gwageo or a state exam to recruit public servants and asked the applicants to present measures to facilitate transportation of materials going to the state coffers.
The king was apparently mindful that cargo vessels departing from the southwestern Honam region by sea often sank at a location called Anheungryang now near the Anmyeondo in South Chungcheong Province. This ignited debate on the need to dredge mudflats now in Taean to build a waterway. The monarch promised to listen to any opinions of the applicants regarding the feasibility of the proposed groundwork.
Despite President Lee Myung-bak's desire to push the cross-country canal project forward, there are growing concerns that building a canal over mountain ranges in some areas could result in flooding as well as environmental destruction. Opponents have also raised doubts over the practicality of building a waterway in a peninsula country, where most big cities are not far from the sea. In addition, they question the project's economic effect, insisting that the initiative will require a large amount of money with low returns.
Initial estimates say construction of the canal would cost 16 trillion won ($17.1 billion). However, the total costs might soar to 40 trillion won, given money needed for maintenance, reconstruction of 80 of 120 bridges and the relocation of facilities.
The project, a flagship campaign pledge of Lee, also reminds people of the Gyeongin Canal connecting Seoul and Incheon on the west coast. Construction of the 18-kilometer canal began in 1995, but it has not been completed yet.
But Lee, 66, who served as CEO of Hyundai Engineering and Construction, claims that the waterway would reduce transportation costs by a third, boost tourism, create thousands of jobs and revive regional economies.
There are some signs of a slowdown. But consistent efforts are being made to lay the groundwork for the construction. Members of the canal task force team plan to meet a group of Dutch experts to discuss cooperation. An experts' meeting, site inspections and special legislation will proceed as originally planned.
Lee's firm determination to push the project was also manifested well in his appointment of Yoo Woo-ik, a key architect of the plan and geography professor of Seoul National University, as his chief of staff.
The nation's worst oil spill in waters off Taean gives us a lesson that it is hard and takes a long time to restore the environment to its original state once after destruction.
Environmentalists claim that if the canals are built, 58 species will face extinction. They include the European otter, small-eared cat, black-faced spoonbill, Bewick's swan, Reeves turtle and plants. In addition, the construction could destroy 416.3 square kilometers of nearby land, including wetlands. The size is 49.6 times as large as that of Yeouido in Seoul, which occupies 8.4 square kilometers of land.
King Jeongjo, who reigned the Joseon Kingdom from 1776 to 1800, did not adopt the proposed idea of building a waterway in the west coast area for reasons unknown to us today. The new government should listen more regarding the feasibility of the controversial plan.