Water Crisis by over development and poverty
December 12, 2002
Yum, Hyung-cheol (Mr.)
Korean Federation for Environmental Movement (KFEM)
I. The aim of this article
This article will show you how the water policies of government help developers make
profits. I hope this writing will help activists in other countries not to repeat these
mistakes of Korea and to watch out Korean construction companies that are looking for
opportunities to make profit in other countries. And also, I hope this article will be a
reference for the Asian civic groups to fight to keep water in common use.
II. Situations of over development
1. The Korean government’s lie to justify dam construction
Korean government has constructed many dams ceaselessly. As the result, South Korea has
1,213 large dams (‘large’ in international standard) as of 2001. It means Korea is the
most 7th country who has a large dam in the world, and at the very densest dams compared
to its territory. As the government has educated people that the dam is a cure-all to
overcome drought, prevent flood, supply water, produce electric power, provide leisure
town, and boost economy, that many dams could be constructed without strong opposition
In 1990’s, however, environmental movements began to oppose dam construction and water
policy concentrated in increasing water supply. And together with residents in dam site
and Buddhists, environment activists succeeded in repealing dam projects in several
rivers. In the course of this movement against dam construction, tit was found that dam
is never a cure-all, and rather it is a sicken-all.
Most assertions of the dam constructors were far from truth. Dam construction has not
prevented the flood. Korean government’s statistics showed the damage by flood increased
dramatically in last 30 years.
Flood damage in Korea
1970’s – 132.3 billion Korean Won (about 110 million US $) per year
1980’s – 355.4 billion Won (about 300 million US $) per year
1990’s – 628.8 billion Won (about 510 million US $) per year
– By Ministry of Construction and Transportation (MOCT), 2001
According to ‘The Long-term plan for Water Resources by Ministry of Construction and
Transportation (MOCT)’, water amount under control of more than thousands dams is only 2
billion ton, which is 5% of the rainfall in rainy seasons. The damages enlarged because
the government has reduced the widths of rivers, change water flows, and built city near
to rivers. Second, damages from drought have not been reduced because 70 % of Korean
territory is composed of mountains, which block irrigation to land. Third, as river
streams are short and rainfall is concentrated in rainy season, power generation is
therefore not effective. Now dams are producing only 1.5% (4,151 GW/h) of the total
electric power. Briefly, the dam cannot be used effectively except for supplying water to
cities and agriculture. Moreover, city is not short of water. For example, in 2001 when
the drought was the most severe in 100 years, Han River had water sufficient to supply
water in Seoul and Kyoung-gi Province (half of total national population) for 2 months
(From the announcement of Seoul city). We could see that MOCT’s advertisement of water
shortage was definitely a lie.
Even though dam constructions give no benefits but damages on environment and people and
burden on budget, government announced plans to build more dams. And politicians,
developing enterprises, scholars, and press are gathering together to support dam
construction. They even manipulate data. Especially they enjoy exaggerating drought. In
media, there has been 7 times of drought fusses. In these fusses they advertised that
Korea needed more dams to overcome drought.
Another example of their deceit was their advertisement in air that Korea was classified
a country water shortage by UN. In fact UN Population and Action Institution (UNPAI)
classified site a country water shortage with per capita rainfall (except evaporation)
per year of less than 1,700 tons. As for South Korea, it is 1,560 tons. Moreover, the
criterion does not consider available water amount. As Korea has so many dams, we are
never short of water. But the government advertised as if we would run short of water
even for drinking, showing a girl in advertisement complaining that she wants to drink
As the opposition against dam construction is strong among residents in dam site, the
Congress legislated a law requiring that government budget of 30 billion Won (about 27
million US $) should be given to local government during the time of dam construction
each new dam and 3 billion Won (about 2.7 million US $) be given to support every years.
As this amount is enough to buy some residents, there are conflicts between residents of
proponent and of opponent. By this conflict, peaceful communities are easily broken. Like
this, the Dam coalition in Korea composed of government, developing enterprises,
scholars, and media are likely to do anything to keep their profit from dam construction.
2. Construction Will not simply guarantee water quality
Only 3% of the people drink water directly from the tap (water pipe). It shows the
failure of Korean policy of water quality. Even though the government has put 10 trillion
Won (about 8 billion US $) into water quality, people would not believe that water from
the tap is safe to drink. The problem is that the government always try to settle the
problem by ‘building something’. In other words, it’s because the developers’
coalition has used the water quality as another source of profit.
In 1980’s Korea had several accidents water pollution from industrial chemicals. To
settle problems, the government began to enlarge waterworks and sewer system in a large
scale. They would never listen to the advice that small-scaled waterworks from near water
sources and natural-type water purification are much more efficient and much more
economical. And they had no intention to regulate the source of pollution itself, which
is the best way for water quality. It shows that they are building the large – scaled
facilities only to make their own profit, not for the whole nation. Ministry of
Environment (MOE), which is in charge of water quality, is not different from Ministry of
Construction and Transportation (MOCT) in the sense that they just try to spend money for
Example, after dam project in Dong River, which is called the best ecosystem in South
Korea, was cancelled, MOE announced to build sewer system (which costs 200 billion Won,
about 170 million US $) in order to conserve the eco system of the River. Fortunately
this plan was nullified after 2 years attack from environmental activists. Another
example is Jeju islands. MOE announced a plan to build sewer system with 85 billion Won
(about 70 million US $) in southern area of Jeju islands for 20,000 people living
scattered around. But most experts are saying that small scaled purifying facilities are
much more economical for this area.
We can see this way of thinking – solving environmental problem by building something –
in the presidential election (December 19, 2002). The candidate from the 1st opposition
party is saying that he will spend 5.35 trillion Won (about 4.2 billion US $) for water
until by 2008, raise the rate of water works in rural areas from 28% (in 2000) to 90%,
renew old waterworks 42,000 km long, change 2,000 water purifying facilities, and
construct dams for drinking water.
Even though the government was busy building, people just have refused drinking water
from water tap. Now only 3% of people are drinking water from water tap. Water purifying
machine market has grown so much that the sales amount is 500 billion Won in 2001. And
sales amount of water in battle is 185.7 billion Won in 2001. Other people drink water
after boiling. (From Korean Daily, October 11, 2002)
3. Another construction – state complex, Japan
This kind of situation seems to be similar in Japan. I would like to introduce a book
showing the Japanese situation (The Emptiness of Japanese Affluence, by Gavan McCormack).
75,000 constructing companies were in Japan in 1960 with 2.5 million employees. In early
1990’s, it increased to 500,000 companies with 6 million employees. It is surprising
that only 4.8 million is employed in manufacturing companies. In 1993, 31.8 trillion
Japanese Yen of public investment fund of various sources was put into construction. 31.8
trillion Yen was 43% of the total government budget. With private housing and land works,
20% of GDP was used in constructing, which amount to parallel US defensive budget. We can
recognize this abnormal situation by other numbers.
*Constructing investment per population
Japan 661,000 Yen; US 257,000 Yen; France 270,000 Yen; Germany 266,000 Yen; Sou Korea
*Construction investment per area (square km)
Japan 216,000,000 Yen; France 27,000,000 Yen; Germany 66,000 Yen; South Korea 53,000 Yen.
*Construction investment compared to GDP
Japan 19.1%; US 8.1%; France 11.4%; Germany 10.0%; South Korea 18.0%
Why Japan spends that much in construction? Some people would attribute it to the needs
to boost domestic economy because Japan depends on export too much. But clearer
explanation is that ‘the construction iron triangle of construction-state complex’
composed of construction companies, government officials, and politicians have made use
of government budget to make their own profit. In the name of ‘rebuilding Japan’, the
Japanese government executed a series of development projects. In the course of these
projects the construction-state complex formed. Ministry of Construction gives jobs to
companies included in the construction-state complex, the companies pay back by bribes,
and politicians bridge the companies with government officials by getting some portion of
the political fund. As this cartel does not want competition, the construction cost have
risen so much that now the cost of paving roads, for example, is 4 times that of Germany,
and 9 times that of US. Though the taxpayers know it, they cannot do anything against the
cartel. And 15% of the government budget is used for interest from the debts they obtain
for the construction. And the Prime Minister Koizmi considers himself a radical reformer,
but may not be able to defeat the iron triangle.
The cartel is strong in water section, too. More than 1,000 dams were built after the
War, and 400 more dams are under construction. And concrete is being poured into
riverbank and seashore. While the Japanese government is advertising that the dam is one
of the great achievements, a large part of water supply from the dam is superfluous. And
Japan is very poor at preserving water resources and managing dams.
As US is sick with Military-Industry Complex, Japan is sick with the construction-state
complex. The construction-state complex is like cancer in Japanese society and economy.
Now, to get rid of this cancer is the most urgent problem in reforming Japan.
4. Developers’ advance into foreign countries
According to River Watch in East and South East Asia (RWESA), 79 dams are under
construction or plan in 11 counties in East and Southeast Asia. While domestic
governments construct dams in Japan, Korea, and Taiwan, dams in Southeast Asia is
constructed by foreign – especially Japanese – capital. And Korean construction
companies are beginning to advance into foreign countries by taking in consortium with
Japanese capital. It seems that they are searching for easy accesses as they are blocked
III. Suggestion for common good
According to UN, more than 1 billion people in 31 countries are not provided with
purified water, and 3 billion people are living without sewer system. By 2025, among
increased 2.6 billion populations, 2/3 is expected to living short of water, and 1/3 is
expected to living on poor water. Especially 1/5 among the 3rd world is unable to drink
purified water, and a child without purified water is calculated to die per 8 seconds.
Totally 14,000 ~ 30,000 people are dying everyday with waterborne diseases.
But capital searches only for profit. Dam developers funded from developed countries are
beginning to work if there is profit. They often manipulate data to justify construction.
Like this, they do not have interest on whether or not dams are needed by people.
Moreover they are never interested in environmental damage, preserving water resources,
or management after construction.
In these situations, Asian civic groups should cooperate to cope with this international
problem. But we should not search new vision. RWESA have asserted our aims and objective.
So we have to share a vision of ecosystem of rivers. We have to seek a world in which the
rights of peoples and communities to their river resources are respected and promoted.
Recognizing that development has benefited those who have had the power to appropriate
resources for unbalanced economic interests, consumption and distribution of resources
must be based on principles of ecological sustainability and social justice. We have to
restore rivers, which have been damaged by destructive development, and to secure
reparations to affected communities. So, Let’s solidify with this sprits and make our
network all around Asia.
In addition, we have to focus on World Water Forum (WWF) that began in 1997. While they
are saying that World Water Council (WWC) and Global Water Partnership (GWP) made WWF to
cope with water shortages around world, in fact they are just paving road for capital.
They want to induce private fund in water developing works in the 3rd world with help of
World Bank. Likewise, WWF is in charge of privatising water supply in the world.
The next World Water Forum will be held in Japan (March 2003). To cope with it, Friends
of the Earth Japan plans various events to notify the fault of WWF. Here I would like to
suggest that we have to meet at forum to cooperate in fighting against privatising water.
I believe you would know well that it is our role to keep Asian peoples’ lives from the
1. OECD, 2001, ‘OECD Environment Outlook’.
2. Gavan McCormack, 1996, ‘The Emptiness of Japanese Affluences’
3. Marc Villers, 1999, ‘Water: The fate of our most precious resources’
4. Patric McCully, 1996, ‘Silenced Rivers’
5. Maude Barlow and Tony Clark, 2002, ‘Blue Gold’