Saemangeum: Decades of “Zombie Development”

Dr Nial Moores, Director, Birds Korea

May 2023. Members of the Saemangeum Citizens’ Ecological Group in Saemangeum, counting globally Endangered Black-faced Spoonbills (area 3, Figure 1 below) © Nial Moores.

On May 10th, I spent most of a day within the northern part of the Saemangeum reclamation area with Mr Oh Dong-Pil (오동필) and other members of the Saemangeum Citizens Ecological group. The group has for years worked selflessly to try to protect the remaining ecological value of this vast and in parts now lifeless area, with much of their effort focused on one vital wetland adjacent to Gunsan airport in the outer part of the Mangyeung: “Sura“.

The Sura wetland remains nationally or internationally important for biodiversity. In addition, it is a symbol both of all that has been wrong with the nation’s development model; and also of what could be saved and restored (and cherished) if decision-makers were finally to decide to avert the very worst impacts of the worsening climate and ecological crises. Immediate actions for Sura and Saemangeum need to include suspension of reclamation activities; restoration of tidal flow; and cancellation of airport / airbase expansion. Subsequent actions could include the establishment of new water management regimes, to create a diverse and thriving wetland ecosystem – at least in those areas which can still be influenced by the tides.

On this hazy day in May, there were still hundreds of shorebirds in and close to the Sura wetland, including Dunlin and Bar-tailed Godwits, both stopping over on their long migrations up to breeding grounds in Siberia and on the North Slope of Alaska; a breeding colony of nationally Vulnerable Little Tern; and 20 or so globally Vulnerable Saunders’s Gulls – a species that until recently nested here in their hundreds.

But still, the bulldozers were hard at work: mindlessly rolling past nesting birds; shoving around the last remaining patches of life-rich mud, in order to dry it out, to get rid of anything that might block the proposed construction of a massively expanded US air base within the Sura wetland.

May 10th 2023: The destruction continues, mindless of the feeding shorebirds and breeding Little Terns © Nial Moores. Area 1 in Figure 1.

This visit, my first in two or three years to Saemangeum, felt traumatic. There was a bad smell, a rotten smell, in the air and water. The overwhelming abundance so evident until seawall closure in 2006, is gone but the mindless wastefulness of it all continues.

This reclamation project was initially conceived by a military government, and was included in a land use masterplan in 1984, which identified exactly two-thirds of all of the nation’s tidal flats and sea shallows as fit for conversion into land for industry and agriculture. This was therefore a project from a time before Korean democracy; from a time when the importance of the area was unknown; before EIAs and laws had been passed to conserve biodiversity; before the ROK acceded to the Ramsar Convention. But somehow, the Saemangeum reclamation project has been allowed to proceed, despite all the scientific evidence of its negative impacts. Promise after promise has been broken: of “environmental friendly reclamation” made to the Ramsar Convention Secretariat back in the 2000s; in commitments to the Convention of Biological Diversity and bilateral agreements for migratory waterbirds; and in grand claims of massive investment and regional development.

I first surveyed what is now called Sura back in April 1998, when I knew it as “airport”. “Airport” at that time had 5 km wide tidal flats, that ranged from sandy to sand-mud mix, with deeper patches of super-rich and saturated clay-type soils. At low tide, the flats were dotted with Kentish and Siberian Sand Plovers. As the tide rushed in, the shorebirds rose in lines and waves – masses of Great Knot, and many thousands of plovers.

And although those tidal flats looked vast, I already knew that they were only a small part of Saemangeum – one of the world’s largest estuarine systems. There were more than 27,000 ha of complex tidal flats in Saemangeum at that time, all fed by two free-flowing rivers – the Mangyeung to the north and the Dongjin to the south. There were also thousands of ha of salt-marshes, working naturally to absorb marine and atmospheric carbon; more than 10,000 ha of fish-rich sea shallows; literally hundreds of thousands of shorebirds; and an estimated 40,000 fisherfolk and shell-fishers who made a good livelihood, while protecting the nation’s food security.

It was because of this abundance that Saemangeum became recognised at the turn of this century as the most important site for shorebirds in the whole of the Yellow Sea – a Sea that forms the very heart of the magnificent East Asian – Australasian Flyway. To think of it now…There were more shorebirds (many more) here, within this one system at that time, than can now be found in the whole of the ROK.

For those who did not witness Saemangeum before seawall closure, the place probably now looks oddly empty and neglected. For those who did know it, the overwhelming sense is one of loss and waste. Instead of billions of shellfish and crabs and worms and fish, Saemangeum is now remarkable only for all the tens of billions of won that have been largely wasted on grandiose but still-unfinished infrastructure: sea dykes; big roads and ornamental bridges; even cycle roads and pocket parks, used by almost nobody. There is still no city in Saemangeum – in spite of all the promises and the commercials that get shown on the KTX – and there is almost no industry. “Build it” but no-one came.

Figure 1. Saemangeum today. © Google Earth. Where are the factories and where is Ariul City, the famed Venice of Asia promised to the nation back in the late 2000s?
May 2023. Newly completed bridge on the road to Buan – a fairly small market town © Nial Moores. The road is close to 2 in Figure 1 above. Even along the side roads, there are two rows of fences. Why?
May 2023. An empty pocket park with some kind of viewing platforms (?), manicured lawns and ornamental trees © Nial Moores (approximately at point 2 in Figure 1 above).
Saemangeum, May 2023 © Nial Moores. Without any sense of irony, a once naturally productive tidal flat is now covered in solar panels as part of “green growth”. (Point 1 in Figure 1 above).

Back in 1998, a thin line was barely visible out on the horizon beyond the airport tidal flat. It was the start of a 33 km long outer sea dyke that was set to impound and convert the whole system into land and a vast reclamation lake.

After years of corruption scandals, delays and court-cases, that outer sea-dyke was finally completed, in late April 2006. That was the month in which Birds Korea partnered with the Australasian Wader Studies Group to conduct the three-year long Saemangeum Shorebird Monitoring Program (SSMP).

The SSMP documented the stopping of the tides; the mass die offs of shellfish; the crash in shorebird numbers; and the change in behaviour of species like the Great Knot. Great Knot used to form a black carpet of birds that fed side by side without conflict, moving in and out across the mud with the tides. In 2007, for the first time we saw them fight over dwindling food resources, some even drawing blood. By 2008, the number of Great Knot had crashed. An estimated 92,000 Great Knot were “lost” in just three years – to Saemangeum, to Korea and to the world. For what?

Saemangeum back in 1998 © Google Earth. Saemangeum contained approximately 27,000 ha of tidal flats, 13,000 ha of sea-shallows and hundreds of thousands of shorebirds each year.
April 2006: the “airport” tidal flats at low tide © Nial Moores (area 4 in Figure 1).
April 2006: the Saemangeum tide-line, with the seawall now visible behind. © Jan van de Kam / Birds Korea. This was Sura.

Back in 2009, a major symposium was hosted by the Ministry of Environment, inviting international experts to assist them in creating artificial wetland areas within Saemangeum, that could help to mitigate some of the losses caused by reclamation. There was some discussion about opening of the two sluice gates (labelled a and b in Figure 1). Although the 7m tides could no longer flow into the system, even a 75 cm tide through the two sluice gates would expose thousands of hectares of rich shorebird habitat at low tide.

The sluice gates were not opened, however, unless briefly to allow polluted water out into the sea. And of course, there are no protected wetlands within the Saemangeum reclamation area either. Indeed, in stark contrast to the valiant efforts of local activists, no formal management is being taken to conserve any of what remains – although efforts are being made to control water pollution issues.

Driving together along near-empty roads, we stopped to count a few groups of Black-faced Spoonbills, and some Bar-tailed Godwits. We saw that one of the godwits, a beautifully orange male, had legs bedecked with leg rings, enabling him to be individually identified. We waited for more than 30 minutes to get images of these rings. And as we waited, he searched for food – worms or small shellfish that could fuel the next stage of his massive migration. He failed, however, to find any large prey at all.

Just the day before I had spent two hours watching flocks of Bar-tailed Godwits feeding and roosting in the adjacent Geum Estuary. There, the godwits were consuming several prey items a minute, just as they used to in Saemangeum before seawall close.

I could not help but reflect that, like so many people, this individually-marked godwit had somehow also been deceived by the promise of Saemangeum. Once a thriving estuary, the wetland has been reduced by decades of development for development’s sake, into a resource poor wetland in desperate need of restoration.

May 2023. Individually marked Bar-tailed Godwit 큰뒷부리도요 in Saemangeum, at 35.861, 126.594 © Nial Moores. Compare his body profile with Bar-tailed Godwits from the Geum Estuary one day before….
May 9th, 2023, Bar-tailed Godwits 큰뒷부리도요 at roost, Geum Estuary © Nial Moores. These look much fuller-breasted and heavier-bellied, with fuller abdomen profile, than any of the godwits seen in Saemangeum the following day. This roundness comes from storing fats and muscle, built up to allow the birds to fly thousands of km non-stop.

For this godwit’s sake, and for the sake of all of us, we have to wake up. It is time to change direction; to stop the self-deception and to accept that the Saemangeum reclamation is an ecological, economic and social disaster. We all need good development (including more investment in better managed ecosystems, schools and hospitals and social welfare). And we all need to reject this kind of zombie development: mindless and destructive development for development’s sake that no-one yet seems willing to stop.

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