Published : 2013-01-11 20:28
Updated : 2013-01-11 20:28
As president-elect in January 2008, Lee Myung-bak said at a news conference that he was working on a grand infrastructure project: a plan to turn the nation’s four largest rivers into canals for more efficient inland transportation. In the face of mounting resistance from the opposition parties and diehard environmentalist groups, however, he backed off and promised not to pursue the project.
But in December the same year, he came up with a four-river project again, this time aimed at improving the quality of water and regulating the flows of water during floods and droughts. Though scaled down, the project was set to cost an astronomical amount ― 22 trillion won over the next four years. Moreover, there were still unanswered questions about the feasibility study of the project and the evaluation of its impact on the environment.
Environmentalists rose up in arms again. Oppositionists blasted Lee for wasting a gigantic amount of money, which they said could be put to better use. But Lee ignored their opposition this time, earmarked a large amount of money for public relations, went ahead with the project and completed it on schedule. He awarded more than 1,000 people with citations for their contribution to successfully completing one of the largest civil engineering projects ever launched in the nation.
But the project, which Lee had undoubtedly intended to be one of the greatest achievements of his presidency, is now shaping up to be a major scandal that could torture the outgoing president for a long time to come. It is also an irony that it may torment some of the cited people as well, with disciplinary action reportedly being considered against them.
According to news reports, the quality and amount of water contained in the 16 reservoirs built on the Han, Nakdong, Geum and Yeongsan rivers fall far below the levels targeted by the Lee administration. These are reportedly among the findings by the state watchdog, the Board of Audit and Inspection. If true, the findings will vindicate the concerns of the environmentalist opponents.
A government official is quoted as saying that the quality of water is that of water for industrial use, well below the target. Worse still, the official told a news outlet that it would be too costly to bring water all the way from the reservoirs to industrial complexes.
Other problems that the watchdog has reportedly found include deep erosion in the riverbeds near the weirs and cracks found on some of the weirs. An official from the watchdog was quoted as denying that the riverbed erosion posed any immediate threat to the safety of the weirs, and that construction experts were discussing remedial work.
The Board of Audit and Inspection, which started an inspection in May last year, reported its findings to President Lee last month. It is also preparing to report them to President-elect Park Geun-hye’s transition team, along with the Ministry of Environment and other government agencies involved, during the next several days. In a presidential debate last month, Park, saying that she was well aware of the issues being raised about the completed four-river project, promised to establish a panel to look into them.
It is not just President Lee and some errant government officials that will land in hot water over the watchdog’s latest findings. The watchdog itself is faced with public censure as well, given that its earlier inspection, conducted in 2010-11, found no serious problem with the project. At the time, it said a small part of the construction cost, specifically 511.9 billion won, might not have been put to proper use.
Also among the serious problems with the project are allegations that participating construction companies rigged bids and that one of them created a slush fund, part of which some critics claim might have been used to bribe senior government officials and politicians. The prosecution is already looking into these allegations.
Like it or not, the Park Geun-hye administration, when launched next month, will have to conduct a comprehensive review of the project and take up all the issues raised about it, including the change in the construction of weirs ― from the original four small ones to 16 large ones. Its inclusion is all the more necessary, given that the dams are blamed as the main culprit for the worsened quality of water.