South Korea green growth to hurt environment: report

SEOUL (Reuters) - A massive river restoration project at the center of South Korean President Lee Myung-bak’s green growth strategy will harm globally threatened bird species and destroy critical habitat, a conservation group’s report said.

Lee’s government intends to spend 22.2 trillion won ($19.68 billion) to dredge, dam and beautify four major rivers with golf courses and bike trails in a plan that is supposed to increase the supply and quality of fresh water and prevent flooding.

“(It) will impact 50 bird species negatively, causing further declines in several sensitive waterbird species that are ecologically dependent on shallow rivers, flood-plain wetlands and estuaries,” the conservation group Birds Korea said in a report released on Thursday.

The group, which has conducted some of the most extensive studies of waterfowl in the country, said the further damming and deepening of rivers through dredging will lead to the decline of feeding grounds and biodiversity.

“We have lost almost all of the natural stretches. This project is going to kill off what little remains,” Nial Moores, director of Birds Korea, told Reuters.

Among the species threatened with habitat loss and population declines are several listed globally as critically endangered -- including the spoon-billed sandpiper -- and others South Korea lists as “national natural monuments.”

The group called on the government to halt the project and conduct an extensive environmental impact study. Construction started last November.

A South Korean environment ministry official said the government is doing all it can to prevent and minimize any harm the project could cause to wildlife.

“There are some regions where construction is inevitable, and for these places, we are building new alternative habitats and environments for wildlife,” said Yeo Soo-ho.

Critics said the project is more about local politics, aimed at creating jobs in rural areas that will provide crucial votes for Lee’s conservative camp in South’s Korea’s next presidential election in 2012, when construction is due to end.

Lee, a former CEO of Hyundai construction, has been campaigning globally to show his country as an environmental industry leader. He has touted the four rivers project, saying it will reshape Asia’s fourth-largest economy.

South Korea has few supplies of fresh water and two of its major rivers flow from rival North Korea, which has built dams along the waterways that can severely alter water flow.

($1=1127.8 Won)

Additional reporting by Christine Kim; Editing by Jerry Norton