New water management for the Republic of Korea

The first blog of 2019 comes from SGIF member, and previous Chair, Dr Brian D'Arcy. Brian focuses on his recent trips to South Korea and the inspirational water management projects being undertaken there.


South Korea is justly world renowned as a ‘can-do country’ – or ‘can do and does’!  The Cheongecheon Stream restoration project deserves praise for turning around an impoverished district of Seoul, and creating a thriving district where waterside strolls are a feature of everyday lunch breaks, cool evenings, and early morning too.  As a social improvement it has been an undoubted success. One of the most amazing aspects of the Korean achievement is that the project featured in the election campaign for the new Mayor of Seoul; pledging to spend millions of dollars on an environmental improvement proved to be a vote winner and he won.

As an example of real, ecological, river restoration, it is somewhat flawed however.   Although the old stream culvert was replaced with an open channel, there was no attempt to drain its catchment to the watercourse.  Awareness of diffuse pollution risks for the small stream (the consulting engineer involved was subsequently a chair of the IWA Diffuse Pollution Specialist Group) was the reason why surface runoff from the surrounding area was drained into new twin surface water sewers, one either side of the stream channel.   Prof Sung-Ryung Ha explained to me back in 2009 that they had no space for surface water treatment facilities such as raingardens, so rather than risk creating an open channel stream polluted with oily runoff and sediment, perhaps sewage wrong connections too, the engineers decided to supply clean water by pumping from the Han River, to guarantee their expensive new amenity feature in the heart of the city centre would look attractive at all times.  [Something very similar was done at the Edinburgh Business park, but that also involved putting a hitherto open stream into a new culvert…]. More than a dozen fish species have nonetheless colonised the Cheogecheon and a more relaxed approach to colonisation by aquatic and waterside plants is enhancing wildlife interest there.

The Mayor subsequently became head of the South Korean Government and embarked on a far more ambitious project:  the Four Rivers Restoration Project.  That was even more narrowly engineering-focused and drew a lot of criticism.  The growing ecological movement in South Korea supported others in advocating a more joined up approach to managing the water environment in South Korea.

The Korean Government held a series of consultation meetings and workshops in response to that and other pressures, and I was happy to be invited to participate in their 6th and final one in September 2017, when they sought international perspectives.   At the time, responsibility for water management was divided between two ministries: water quality management by the Ministry of Environment, and water quantity management by the Ministry of Land, Infrastructure and Transport. 

The outcome has been to make 3 key changes to the environmental legislation in South Korea[1]:

  1. The Government Organisation Act

This Act was revised and enacted on June 8th 2018, transferring Ministerial affairs on managing water quantity from the Ministry of Land, Infrastructure and transport (MOLIT) to the Ministry of Environment (MOE).

  1. The Framework Act on Water Management

This new framework Act establishes a master plan for national water management and for South Korea’s four major river basins, based on the concept of integrated water management.  It will be enacted in June 2019, establishing the national water management committee and basin committees, to promote sustainable and integrated water management.  The basin committees will provide a forum for concerns and dialogue.

  1. The Water Management Technology and Industry Act

Also a new Act, this legislation will be enacted in December 2018; it contributes to enhancing quality of life through the development of water management technology and promoting the water industry.

In the years since Cheongecheon, there has been additional encouragement of informal recreation in South Korea.  Other small tributaries are now also seen as attractive assets for informal recreation with streamside walkways, stepping stone crossings as well as footbridges, and seats and viewpoints.

These green corridors are now valued parts of the much-valued green infrastructure of the city, which includes stands of native pines and other trees, green walls and an impressive indoor green wall at the city hall.  Seoul also has a national park at the boundary of the city:  Bukhansan National Park, the most visited of the national parks in Korea.

Brian J. D’Arcy

Independent environmental consultant This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.

 [1] New water management for the Republic of Korea, leaflet from the Ministry of Environment.


[Lest anyone in Scotland should be shaking their heads at the Cheongecheon development, it’s worth noting that the Edinburgh Business Park created a shorter but basically similar amenity feature, building a nice open watercourse with footpaths and seats, attractive waterside planting– but the city and developers put the local stream which was there prior to the development plans, into a new culvert!  The new Edinburgh ‘watercourse’ is fed by drinking water, with stormwater drained to the culverted burn… shocking but true].