An update on two of South Korea's ongoing wetland sagas
The reclamation of the Saemangeum estuarine system on the west coast;
and Upo wetland in the southeast of the country, still one of only two designated Ramsar sites nationwide

At the end of March/beginning of April, the General Secretary of the Ramsar Bureau, Dr. Peter Bridgewater, made a historic visit to South Korea to attend a UNEP conference and to hold meetings with various ministries about the state of wetland conservation in the country, with special reference to Saemangeum. Although not a Ramsar site, Saemangeum has long been recognized by the Bureau as meeting the criteria for designation, as it supports probably more than 27 species of waterbird in internationally important concentrations. (For more on Saemangeum, go to Saemangeum Reference Page.)

Dr. Bridgewater's visit was reported on April 3rd by BBC online (go to:, and his interview with them helped form the title of their report: "Korean wetland plan to go ahead".

The title is a depressing conclusion. It is perhaps a pragmatic estimation, perhaps rather more a reflection of government intent which has never wavered (for all the usual political reasons) in pushing for the loss of 40,100 ha of tidal-flats and shallows.

Dr. Bridgewater, speaking with great politic and due respect for Korean institutions, is quoted by BBC Online as saying: "(Government ministries) said they'd listened to people's concerns, and that the (Saemangeum) project would be eco-friendly as a result."

He added, "I pointed out to them that while it was excellent to design wetland systems into the proposed reclamation, these resources might not be available to migrating birds. I offered to provide further advice if it would help, and urged the idea of nominating new Ramsar sites to the north and south of Saemangeum so as to make an integrated approach to conservation and development. I was impressed at the way they listened to my suggestions and feel they are striving for the best solution for a project which is now so advanced it will inevitably have to be completed."

Although it is easy to agree wholeheartedly with most of Dr. Bridgewater's suggestions, the project's inevitability is highly questionable. There is still growing opposition to the project domestically, including by local people who are finally linking collapsing fisheries with the reclamation and changes in tides, and the domestic courts have yet to rule on the legitimacy of the project (delaying their legally-binding decision possibly until September). There clearly is still some hope of getting this devastating project cancelled, before the sea-gates are finally due to close in late 2005.

On other points, if the project does go ahead, Dr. Bridgewater is surely right to suggest the plans need to include specially-designed waterbird habitats, as much estuarine habitat will be lost, and the government of South Korea remains obligated by the Articles of the Ramsar Convention to maintain existing populations of migratory waterbirds (including those of threatened estuarine species such as Spoonbilled Sandpiper and Nordmann's Greenshank). However, proposals so far put forward by the Ministry of Agriculture and Forestry completely fail to inspire confidence (for analysis on the proposals and an expert response, please go to /Habitats/Wetlands/Saemangeum/BK-HA-Saemangeum-MAFrebuttal.shtml).

In addition, South Korea really does need to designate more Ramsar sites, especially in coastal areas. It is one of only twelve contracting parties worldwide to have designated less than 1 000 ha of wetland as Ramsar site (compare that with for example the UK's 861 235 ha, or even landlocked Switzerland's 7 946 ha), even though over 60 wetlands meet waterbird criteria for designation, and probably over 100 sites nationwide could also be designated for their values to fisheries, or for their "representativeness" etc. This lack of designation cannot be a question of money (the nation has become one of the world's twelve richest) and seems to be rooted more in lack of understanding of conservation and of how to manage wetlands.

Dr. Bridgewater's diplomatic advice rightly recognizes therefore that South Korea would benefit greatly from receiving expert technical support from the Ramsar Bureau and the Convention's partners - both on the principles of wetland conservation in general and on managing Ramsar sites in particular.

This last point becomes especially evident when considering the second of the country's most well-known wetland trouble-spots: Upo Ramsar site, in the Nakdong River flood-plain. Since Upo was designated as a Ramsar site in 1998, and subsequently as a "Wetland Conservation Area" (making it one of the most highly protected wetlands nationwide), there have been a series of "eco-friendly" projects undertaken there by engineers and local government, who have constructed roads, installed a major pumping station, and are at present building concrete flood protection dykes in the heart of the site ;for background go to /Habitats/Wetlands/Upo/BK-HA-Upo-wetland.shtml).

The whole (tiny) 854 ha site is targeted for yet more new roads and infrastructure, including additional floodgates, as part of a national push towards creating Eco-Parks, with funding support being sought from national government. The site is suffering significant ecological change in character and should be put forward by the government for inclusion on the Montreux Record "of sites requiring attention". However, the development is still promoted domestically as being "Eco-friendly", like the development at Saemangeum, and the wetland is touted by some as an example of advanced wetland conservation approaches.

While it is therefore absolutely appropriate to applaud and support all those in government who are doing their best to create genuine wetland conservation mechanisms and structures (and there are several such excellent individuals and departments), it would still be very unwise to assume that South Korea as a whole is yet ready to either embrace Ramsar's "wise use" conservation concepts, or to develop any projects in a genuinely "eco-friendly" fashion. Respect for international obligations and understanding of ecological fundamentals fail by far to match the economic might that the country possesses.

"Korean wetland plan to go ahead"? Wetland loss in South Korea will continue? Saemangeum will be lost? Upo will lose its international value? Waterbird populations and fisheries will continue to decline?

All of this is inevitable? As one (of many) who believes deeply in the benefits to humanity and birds of "wise use of wetlands", I choose not to believe so, and urge other like-minded persons not to accept "the inevitable", but rather to increase our efforts, for Saemangeum and Upo, and for all other threatened habitats. We need to show greater support for those who are opposed to the reclamation of Saemangeum and the degradation of Upo, and we need to continue reminding the government of South Korea and other nations of the very great benefits to be accrued through wise use of natural resources and through proper participation in international agreements.

If we do not, the future of many of the world's migratory waterbirds, of fisheries and of our own species will become increasingly less secure - inevitably.

Respectfully and resolutely.

Nial Moores
Birds Korea, South Korea