Costing US$19 billion, Lee's plan benefits South Korean construction companies (Lee is a former Hyundai Construction CEO nicknamed "the Bulldozer") at the expense of South Korean biodiversity. The scale is enormous: 16 dams on four of the country's largest rivers, creating five tributary dams, the raising of 87 irrigation dams that are already in place; reinforcing hundreds of kilometres of riverbank and 570 million cubic metres worth of dredging.
Overseas and Korean environmentalists and scientists call Lee's project an ecological disaster. The Professors' Organization for Movement Against Grand Korean Canal, a group of 2800 academics say, instead of preventing flooding, the dam construction would increase the risk and scale of flood damage. Damming and dredging would turn living into dead rivers.
Korea Wetlands Campaign has a disturbing short video, "The Excavator Age," that shows what now is happening to rivers in South Korea "in the name of the 'Four Rivers Restoration Project.'"
James Card, an American journalist living in South Korea, provides background in http://e360.yale.edu/content/feature.msp?id=2188'>"Korea’s Four Rivers Project: Economic Boost or Boondoggle?" posted last year at Yale E360:
The Korean peninsula was once called geum-su-gang-san, “a land of embroidered rivers and mountains.” Before South Korea industrialized in the postwar years, the rivers were wild-running freestone streams barreling down the mountains and turning into sandy shallow rivers edged by wetlands as they reached the sea. In her 1898 book Korea and Her Neighbors, 19th-century travel writer Isabella Bird described the upper Namhan River as “where pure emerald water laps gently upon crags festooned with roses and honeysuckle, or in fairy bays on pebbly beaches and white sand.”Read the rest of James Card's article here.
That world is long gone now, as the Namhan and nearly every other South Korean river has been dammed, forced into concrete channels, or otherwise re-engineered by successive governments that have funneled billions of dollars to the powerful construction industry to fund countless public works projects designed to tame the country’s rivers. Today, besides a handful of creeks deep in the mountains or protected in national parks, only one major river, the Dong, exists in a natural meandering and un-dammed state.
Now, in part to boost the fortunes of the construction cartel in a global recession, there is a new public works offensive: the Four Rivers Restoration Project. The $18 billion plan will further develop Korea’s four major river systems — the Han, Nakdong, Geum, and Youngsan — with the stated goals of preventing water shortages, improving water quality, bolstering flood control, and creating “eco-friendly culture spaces” for tourism. The work would require building 16 new dams on those rivers, rebuilding 87 old dams, reinforcing 209 miles of riverbanks, and dredging 570 million cubic meters of sediment from 428 river miles. On 14 tributaries there will be five new dams and nine more will be rebuilt, and 151 miles of riverbank will be buttressed with concrete...
The four rivers targeted in the project no longer exist in a natural state as many stretches have been straightened and channelized. But for the large numbers of migratory birds that still pass through South Korea, the ceaseless work will further erode dwindling habitat. The Geum River, for example, still has a massive flock of Baikal teal, but many of those birds will have to find new roosting territories as the river’s remaining shallow, reed-filled areas are excavated and deepened. One researcher at the state-funded Korea Institute of Construction Technology called the Four Rivers Project a “grand disaster that any expert can clearly foresee with common sense.”
* Update: "'Green' New Deal Projects Threaten Korea's Rivers and Tidal Flats" posted at Internationalrivers.org.