Damaging Floods at Upo and surrounding Farmland
September 2003

The Upo Ramsar site holds flood water from tributaries flowing through the site into the Nakdong river. Summer water levels of the wetland are much higher than water levels in winter, due to summer monsoon rains or occasional typhoons. Much of the natural floodplain around the permanent water bodies has been drained, and converted to farmland, and within the past 3 years drainage work, even within the Ramsar site boundaries, has been continuing - without detailed discussion. Much of the drainage work and infrastructure (such as flood bunds/dykes) has been demanded by local farmers, who didn't like the area being designated a Ramsar site (in 1998).

On Friday 12th and Saturday the 13th of September, one of the most powerful typhoons ever to hit South Korea dumped around 200 mm of rain in 12 hours in the area - backed by winds gusting to 250 Km per hour.

Soon after, the main 100 year old dyke which separates the largest area of permanent water from farmland was breached, flooding surrounding farmland to several meters depth. People who have lived in the area for 50 years said that they had not seen flooding like this before.
The Area flooded: 170ha rice field, with some other crops.
The Number of Damaged households: 272 people/71houses

In the photograph right (taken on Sept 16th or 17th) the solid green line at the top of the image (arrowed) is the top of one of the high dykes.

The reasons for the seriousness of the flooding this time are not clear, and clearly require much greater research.

As NGO activists, however, we have repeatedly asserted that much greater research needs to be undertaken into the site's hydrology, and into impacts of drainage works in the surrounding area. Various changes in site hydrology have been initiated in recent years, without deep consideration of the potential impacts on the overall system. Most significant perhaps has been the construction of a large pumping station in the upstream section of the site, Sajik Po. This pumping station started operations less than 2 years ago, and was built to shift water more quickly from the one of the permanently wet areas (Sajipo Lake) into the main lake (Upo lake), in order to protect several hectares of rice-field on the upstream edge of the site. This has been constructed, within the boundaries of the Ramsar site, without the corresponding creation of overflow wetland areas to receive such rapidly-displaced floodwater.

Local people, whose livelihoods have been devastated by the flooding simply (and inevitably) blame environmentalists and the Ministry of Environment for the flooding, because they believe that environmental groups were opposed to the repairs to the dykes and construction of drainage facilities - thus creating the problem.

This led to some people in the affected local communities marching on the Upo Wetland Center office (smashing windows and property) and also demonstrating at the offices of the Nakdong River Basin Office (local branch office of the Ministry of Environment) and the Kyungnam Provincial Offices.

This violent reaction is clearly an expression of people's anger and confusion. It is clear evidence too that local people do not feel involved in the management of the Ramsar site and that they do not understand the Convention; they feel they do not get any benefits through the site's designation - only hardship.

It is likely that unless positive steps are taken immediately, local government will move swiftly to assuage local peoples' concerns by increasing the extent of drainage operations - leading to further changes to the site's ecological character.

At present, although the local government asserts that there is a discussion mechanism, this outpouring of anger and resentment by local people demonstrates that such a discussion system is not effective or representative. Local people clearly need to be involved more deeply in discussion and receive much better information on projects affecting the hydrological, ecological and economic status of the site: such information and discussion is clearly recommended by the Ramsar Convention guidelines and has been clearly outlined both by ourselves and by the Ramsar Bureau in earlier communications.

Clearly, local people need to benefit more from the site's designation and develop pride for the wetland's unique character.

So as an organization Changnyeong KFEM will:

  1. Strive to communicate more, to win the trust and understanding of local people;

  2. Ask government to provide more support for local people;

  3. Recommend improvements in policy, to increase the benefits of conservation for local people.

  4. Work to improve the discussion system, to involve local people more actively.

We would therefore like to take this opportunity to inform the Ramsar Bureau of the recent situation at the site in this open mail; and ask respectfully for your continuing support in persuading both national and local government to open and improve the discussion process - leading to genuine participatory management of the site.

Respectfully and sincerely,

Kim Su Kyung
Director of Project Planning Team
Upo Wetland Center (under Changnyeong KFEM)
WBKEnglish network

20th Sep. 2003

For more information on Upo and the threats to its character and biodiversity, or to offer support (technical or financial) to the center, please e-mail Birds Korea or Upo Wetland Centre, and access the centre's new website at:http://eng.upo.or.kr