Gambling on the Future: Saemangeum

Nial Moores PhD, Personal Comment, December 12th, 2012

 


Dead Spoon-billed Sandpiper, Saemangeum, September 2006. One of the very real costs of reclamation. Copyright Nial Moores / Birds Korea.

 

The global conservation community knows the 40,100ha Saemangeum reclamation as an ecologically-disastrous project that has helped cause the global population decline in species including the now Globally Vulnerable Great Knot and the now globally Critically Endangered Spoon-billed Sandpiper.  Many others know it also as a terrible project of economic mismanagement that has resulted in enormous hardship for local communities that once depended on the estuarine system for their livelihoods.

Many project proponents, on the other hand, still push on with it, trying to seek apparently ever new and exciting ways to justify the destruction of what used to be East Asia’s most important shorebird site. Their newest poker-faced proposal: the creation of foreigners-only casinos:

http://koreatimes.co.kr/www/news/biz/2012/12/602_126649.html

There is striking irony in this latest proposal, so please forgive the excess of metaphors. For from the very start, this reclamation project appears to me to have been but one sleight of hand and one roll of dice after another.  Its initial primary purpose and permit, under the Public Waters Reclamation Act of 1962, was to create land and a water supply for agriculture. Even before construction of the seawall started in 1991, however, its main purpose had already been promoted as supporting the development of the port city of Gunsan for future trade with China.  By the early 2000s, as the seawall grew longer and as protests over its legality and merits raged, some project proponents continued the bluff.   They insisted that the project was indeed still primarily for environmentally-friendly agriculture, even as alternative uses such as golf-courses and industrial estates were being proposed – including in national media.

In 2005, Ramsar Resolution IX.15 formally requested “the government of the Republic of Korea to advise the Secretary General of the current situation concerning the seawall construction and reclamation of the Saemangeum coastal wetlands, and the impact of the construction works to date on the internationally important migratory waterbird populations dependent upon these wetlands”. But it seems that project proponents held their cards to their chest, did not share data for another two years, and simply pushed on.

By the time of seawall closure in late April 2006, there was still no real clear plan or end-use – just the determination to continue on regardless.  Consider this report carried by the Reuters news agency on April 21st 2006, the day the last gaps in the outer seawall were filled:

“We were so busy we haven’t had the chance to look back and think about what this means,” Kim Wan-joong, a director at the state-run development corporation, said from the site by telephone. The government has yet to finalize how to use the reclaimed land and fresh-water lakes that will be created inside the sea wall…

(see: http://www.birdskorea.org/Habitats/Wetlands/Saemangeum/BK-HA-Saemangeum-Campaign-Review-2006.shtml)

To keep the Saemangeum game going legally, existing laws which could have helped to mitigate impacts were then trumped in December 2007 by the Special Act to Promote the Saemangeum Reclamation.

In 2008, the year that we published the last of the three Saemangeum Shorebird Monitoring Program reports, the nation hosted the Ramsar Convention conference.  Still, as shorebird populations declined and as some local communities faced ruin, the project simply went on – with the area newly-designated as a special economic zone in order to (try to) attract overseas investment.  Saemangeum was at that time to be the “new Dubai in Asia”, until economic realities there required a new image to be conjured up. By 2010, the reclamation area had re-emerged as “Ariul, the new water city of Asia.”

Recalling all the past claims and hyperbole, it is hard not to think of that line from the movie Field of Dreams, “If you build it, they will come”.  While the idea that people will come to watch ghosts playing baseball might work in a movie, this kind of fantasy-planning is probably not the best way to maintain or grow an already mature national economy.

Now in late 2012, the vast Saemangeum estuarine system has been more or less converted into a dying expanse of lake and desert (a good place for ghosts?). And we have this foreigner-only casino plan.  The matter-of-fact announcement was made a mere three months after the ROK hosted the IUCN World Conservation Congress and the IUCN-commissioned report on intertidal wetlands was published. In sharp contrast to the endless ads for Ariul Water City, this scientific report (which can be downloaded in full through the home-page of  www.birdskorea.org) clearly documents the negative environmental, economic and social impacts of the ongoing Saemangeum reclamation and of other reclamation projects in the region (see e.g. pages 17-19).  It concludes, “The countries of the region would benefit greatly by drawing a red line on the destruction of the last estuarine intertidal habitats by following the precautionary principle, delaying approving new reclamations until better assessment of losses is completed.”

Neither the casino article nor the Saemangeum reclamation proponents refer to such concerns or to such losses. They do not acknowledge that the Saemangeum reclamation area is still largely “undeveloped”.  They do not publicise that it will likely costs billions of dollars more to build inner sea-dykes, and canals, and roads – the infrastructure needed by these proposed casinos and resort developments.  They do not acknowledge that some of the former ecological value of the site could still be restored, as proposed in international symposia earlier hosted by the national Ministry of Environment and as suggested by the IUCN-commissioned report (on page 18: “Even though much is already lost, conservationists still think parts of the area are worth protective management and corrective actions.  As recently as September 2011, the few remaining ‘living tidal-flats’ in the Saemangeum reclamation area still have small numbers of shorebirds, including Critically Endangered Spoon-billed Sandpipers.”).

 

Outer part of Saemangeum, September 2012.  Contrary to most of the publicity there is still no city there and some of the area could still be restored.  Copyright Nial Moores / Birds Korea.

 

Those of us who still value Saemangeum as a national treasure and potential source of national pride continue trying to push for the restoration of tidal-flow (through for example opening and widening existing sluice-gates).  This would be a safe and simple and cost-effective way to start the restoration process and to save some species, livelihoods and money in the long-run. Perhaps existing technology (now in place at Sihwa) could also later be used to build tidal power turbines into the Saemangeum sea-wall. This could generate some energy and further reduce the need (as if there was any such a need…) to destroy tidal-flats in Incheon and Ganghwa as part of those discredited tidal power-plant proposals.

In contrast to these low risk suggestions, many of the project proponents instead still seem to me to be hell-bent on gambling with Saemangeum’s and the nation’s environmental and economic future.

While there is still time to restore at least part of Saemangeum, decision-makers and the general public need hard facts not fantasies.  Tell us honestly: build it and who is going to come?

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