The Seawall Controversy: An International Expedition to Saemangeum, South Korea

PAVA World Invites Heal the Bay to visit South Korea

Pacific American Volunteer Association (PAVA) Invites Heal the Bay to Visit South Korea

The Seawall Controversy: An International Expedition to Saemangeum, South Korea
By: Jason Lee with contributions from Julian Kim, Victor Kim & Daniel Min

In the summer of 2016, the Pacific American Volunteer Association (PAVA) invited Heal the Bay’s Education & Outreach Manager, Nancy Shrodes, to join them in exploring tidal management overseas. Jason Lee reports on the student group’s trip to the Saemangeum (pronounced say-man-geum) Seawall and highlights the controversies surrounding its construction and function. 

Saemangeum Seawall as seen from the sky.

Saemangeum Seawall as seen from the sky.

Although we humans try and feel like we control nature, we often forget our limitations and the negative impacts that follow our alterations of the environment.

When I learned about the Saemangeum Seawall, I was instantly impressed about its length (21 miles!) and the way it was built on water. To get an idea of how huge this project is, check out Julian’s first impression:

“To be honest I did not know what to expect. I thought the seawall would look like those freeway dividers in Highway 880. My bus started to drive over this sea wall as I was listening to Lemonade by Queen Beyoncé. Even though Beyoncé is life, I was actually quite amazed and mesmerized with this project. The wall had four lane roads in the middle, two lane roads on each side and a curved wall of rocks in the side.”
— Julian Kim

The Saemangeum Seawall created more land for farmers.

The Saemangeum Seawall created more land for farmers.

The seawall’s 45 year-old history and its benefits to the economy, agriculture, and land gain of 150 square miles seemed ultimately worth it, but there was more to it upon further inspection. To better understand the project, we can look at its proponents and its opponents:

“The government supported the construction of the sea wall because they wanted to have a large freshwater reservoir and more land for agriculture. Locals opposed the construction for fear of losing their food source, income, and the way their community will look. Both groups had their reasons and every reason is an important factor that needs to be considered to make this huge decision. I found the process of planning, lobbying, and determining the environmental damages to be way more complicated than I thought.”
— Julian Kim

Discussing the pros and cons of the seawall.

Discussing the pros and cons of the seawall.

I started to realize the other aspect of the world’s longest human-made sea wall: environmental degradation. Just like we learned in the Ecoplex, muddy flats are an essential ecosystem for many tidal creatures and migrating birds. Therefore, as the seawall eliminates the previous shores, by limiting the amount of ocean water that can enter the walled off area, many creatures are losing their habitats or places to rest for long distance migrations. Such habitat loss spells out possible extinction for many of the different species. Additionally, an increase in urbanization leads to more pollution from both farms and inner cities. Ultimately, the Saemangeum Seawall Project limits biodiversity in the Yellow Sea region. Other students had concerns too:

“The Saemangeum Seawall, like many other innovative creations, have both benefits and drawbacks. Although the benefits, including economical improvement, flood prevention, and etc, all are changes that can resolve many current and future issues, the drawbacks may or may not cancel the benefits from the Saemangeum Seawall.”
— Victor Kim

“The Saemangeum Seawall has been a big economic boost to the Korean economy due to attracting tourists, providing jobs, and creating farmland. However, it has also been a downfall to the ecosystem such as water pollution, noise pollution, and impacting marine life.”
— Daniel Min

Midway point along the Saemangeum Seawall.

Midway point along the Saemangeum Seawall.

This mindset that humans are entitled to the environment is truly wrong. We take from the environment while not thinking about the impacts on other species. We forget that we are a part of nature and are harmed by our own actions. It is essential that we remember our jobs in curing the planet of the disease we have plagued it with in a sustainable matter.

PAVA in Seoul

PAVA is optimistic about a sustainable future!

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