Episode two of the four part series on the shorebirds of the Flyway has now aired on BBC World radio and on Australia’s ABC. In the ABC broadcast, the Saemangeum seawall is described as the boa constrictor that strangled the life out of the tidal-flats. One of the Flyway’s top scientists, Professor Rich Fuller from University of Queensland, even talks of how he burst into tears at the sight of the devastation caused by the 40,100 ha project.
I could only compare it to watching someone that you love dying a slow and unnecessary death: devastating.
Spoon-billed Sandpiper at Saemangeum: September 2006 © Nial Moores
It is now a little over ten years since the 33km long Saemangeum seawall was closed: a decade of slow and terrible death. And as with so many other mega-sized developments projects, the promises that were so easily made about the Saemangeum reclamation still continue to be broken.
Developers said that shorebirds would move elsewhere; our paper in Emu demonstrates unambiguously that they did not. They died. The developers promised that water pollution would not be an issue: yet the massive reclamation lake is brown and turbid and in the words of one newspaper “contaminated” – just as so many of us predicted back in the 1990s. The developers promised that Saemangeum would be a land of “new treasures” attracting massive investment. It is not, and it looks increasingly likely that it never will be.
With the headline of “Exodus of investors picks up at Saemangeum” the Joongang Daily newspaper on June 7th 2016 reported that several of the biggest investors in Saemangeum’s future development have pulled out. It seems that even some of those close to the heart of the national economy no longer believe in the product that the developers and reclamation proponents keep on trying to push.
And yet, according to the same newspaper article, the government nonetheless still intends to pour a further 17 trillion won into Saemangeum (compared to the 9 trillion won so far spent) – another 14.5 billion USD equivalent on a project that has already cost so much environmentally, socially and economically.
It is worth repeating: Two-thirds of the economic cost of this ecologically disastrous project is still to be paid for.
How much cheaper would it be to stop the project; how much wiser to see what if any of it could be restored – as an act of bold leadership, in order to help conserve waterbird populations and to restore the region’s fisheries – both devastated by the loss of habitat.
Saemangeum, November 2015 © Jason Loghry
Few in Korea know much about the current reality of Saemangeum or about what is being lost. Most think the construction is more or less finished as advertisements show a bright new city with marvellous infrastructure. Such promotional material chooses not to show that most of the area – even at the end of May this year when I last visited it- still looks like a treeless desert. Most people in Korea also do not know that outside of Korea Saemangeum is increasingly recognised as one of the world’s biggest man-made ecological disasters. Concern about Saemangeum, anger about it even, is growing. A recent facebook post by Rick Simpson of Wader Quest received almost 5,000 hits from around the world.
How do people in the rest of the world see Saemangeum? If the weakness of overseas investment and the ABC and BBC programs and the Wader Quest post all from this month alone are not convincing enough, how about the words of infuential British writer Michael McCarthy? Last year he wrote that Saemangeum was “unparalleled in the damage it had done…”, adding that it “is what you get, sooner or later if you are wholly consumed by the obsession with economic growth: the deadscape…” He went on to assess both the project and the developers’ promises as “boastful…something repellent… dressed up in lies…the whole thing had been put together by people who had a substantial part of their moral compass missing. It was public relations at its most pathetic. It was nauseating” (“The Moth Snowstorm”, pages 80-83).
Saemangeum: the truth of it is enough to make scientists weep and writers sick.