The Heat Is Online

Korean Drought Triggers Political Unrest

Water shortage grips Korean Peninsula

Korea Herald, March 24, 2009


The worst drought in 12 years has forced some to lose patience and stage a fight against those responsible for the water supply.


Residents in heavily affected areas are currently protesting what they call the government's failed water management policies.

Provincial entities near a polluted southern river have waged a "war of water" to secure a reliable supply.


Over the weekend, activists and citizens called for greater efforts to deal with the threat from scarce and contaminated water resources at various events marking the March 22 World Water Day.


Korea has been categorized by the United Nations as a country suffering from a more than moderate level of tension because of its water supply. India and South Africa are also in that group.


The drought that began in July last year has left many parts of the nation - especially Taebaek and other southern areas of Gangwon Province - feeling the thirst for more water, with its rivers and streams close to being completely empty.


The Environment Ministry found that 124,917 people in 44 different cities nationwide were suffering from water shortages as of March 16.


Not surprisingly, residents of Gangwon Province took up the greatest portion with 59,121 affected people, followed by South Jeolla Province and North Gyeongsang Province with 22,566 and 21,957 people, respectively, ministry data showed. People in South Gyeongsang, North Jeolla and South Chungcheong provinces were also suffering limited water supplies.


The current water shortage crisis led Taebaek residents to form an emergency committee last week to demand the government offer three specific types of countermeasures by March 30: changing old water pipes, securing mid- and long-term water storage sites and declaring the area as a special disaster zone.


On top of that, Busan Metropolitan City and South Gyeongsang Province are in the middle of a fight to secure water supplies. Busan is asking Gyeongsang Province to share some of its water, but Gyeongsang Province is refusing to do so, even bracing for a battle against the central government if it is forced into taking such action.

This comes after Daegu in North Gyeongsang Province almost had to turn off its taps due to a high concentration of dioxane - a substance possibly carcinogenic to humans - that had been discovered in the Nakdong River. The river is a main source of drinking water for many regions, including Daegu and Busan.


Cause of crisis


The question comes down to: What has caused the nation to be so unprepared for the water shortage crisis?


Experts say multiple factors contributed, including the relatively low amount of precipitation, the effect of climate change and the nation's inefficient water management system.


The country's water supply is managed mainly by Korea Water Resource Corporation, also known as K-Water, and regional or provincial organizations.


According to data from K-water, the amount of precipitation for Gwangdong dam, which supplies water to residents in the driest region in the country, Taebaek, Gangwon Province, was 1,301 millimeters in 2007, but fell to 995.2 millimeters in 2008.


But from September to December, precipitation was less than a third of what it had been in 2007 - falling to just 109.3 millimeters.


"This is the most important period because it is the time when we start storing water inside the dams," an official at K-Water said.

In general, the nation received 30 percent less rain, or an average of 906 millimeters, in 2008 and dam-stored water plummeted by 50 percent, both compared to the previous years, said Hwang Phyll-sun, chief of the water resources operations center at K-water.


As a result, the water-storage rate maintained a low level of 35.8 percent on average as of March 1, he said, adding that this drought is the fifth worst since 1974.


There are 15 multipurpose dams and 14 that were built specifically for water use like irrigation in Korea.


Climate change is also said to be part of the water crisis because of irregular weather patterns.


"Not only Korea, but we see droughts and floods on a frequent basis because of the impact of climate change," said Min Kyung-sok, professor of environmental engineering at Kyungpook National University in North Gyeongsang Province.


Adding to the problems, the nation's complex water management system - managed altogether by various government branches - has been blamed for inefficiency. Water volume statistics are compiled by the Ministry of Land, Transport and Maritime Affairs; water quality is taken care of by the Environment Ministry; while water for agricultural purposes is managed by the Ministry for Food, Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries.


Devising solutions


As an emergency measure, the government has drilled over 1,000 underground wells that serve as main water supplies to 1,061 villages across the nation.


Some regions, including Taebaek of Gangwon Province, are making plans to start rationing out water by limiting supply to one to three hours per day.


The Environment Ministry is also planning to draw up a bill this year that will promote the reuse of collected and restored water from rain, rivers and waste.


Although many agree that tapping underground water could be a possible solution, pundits say not so much could be done in the short-term to overcome this matter.


Yun Zu-whan, professor of environmental engineering at Korea University, said that merging the agencies responsible for water resources is a step in the right direction.


"The ultimate solution to the problem is unifying the water management agencies into a single government branch for efficiency," he said.


Yun, who is also the president of a group called the Korean Society on Water Quality, pointed out that Korea mainly focused on developing and using water resources, pursuing an indifferent attitude towards maintenance measures over the past three decades.


"We should have continued to build small to mid-sized dams for use of water with special purposes or we should have taken good care of the rivers to boost their water storage abilities, but those are some of the efforts we lacked especially in the past decade," he said.


"When the nation tried to construct dams, it faced great opposition and river management was also troubled."


But it is not too late to devise mid and long-term solutions with "investment" being the key word, according to experts.

"We need to secure investments on building dams to store more water and release funds to upgrade rusty water pipes that result in water leakages in the process of delivery. It looks like we're currently encountering a tough situation," said Min.