Planners go Seoul gazing

United Nations Office for Disaster Risk Reduction - Office in Incheon for Northeast Asia and Global Education and Training Institute for Disaster Risk Reduction
Along the promenade in Cheonggyecheon, Seoul
Along the promenade in Cheonggyecheon, Seoul

INCHEON, 8 November 2012 - Seoul's Cheong Gye Cheon, a once polluted river now restored to its former glory, captured the attention of development planners and disaster managers meeting here this week for a Leadership Forum at UNISDR's Global Education and Training Institute for Disaster Risk Reduction.

In the middle of a hectic week, over 30 government officials from Armenia, Cambodia, The Gambia, Lao People's Democratic Republic, Mongolia and Republic of Korea decamped to Seoul for a walk through a newly created urban oasis.

Covered by concrete for nearly four decades until its reopening in 2005, the Cheong Gye Cheon river and promenade is now a showcase for Seoul's ability to wed engineering and development. The project was overseen by the then-mayor and now president, Lee Myung-bak.

In the 1950s, as rural migrants streamed into the city, slums grew up on the banks of the Cheong Gye Cheon, turning the river into an open sewer. In the next decade, the Korean government covered the stream and built an elevated highway over it, eventually causing traffic congestion, health and environmental issues which led to huge public dissatisfaction in the 1980s and 1990s.

Shortly after becoming mayor, Mr. Lee launched an urban renewal programme that began in 2003. Among his proposals was to revive the "lost" stream that used to run through the South Korean capital.

The mayor's plan to restore the river attracted mass demonstrations from thousands of merchants and business owners along the highway worried about potential business losses. Negotiations with some 220,000 people working at approximately 65,000 stores located near the river ended with the mayor's office offering relocation sites and financial assistance.

Now the river is a major attraction for international tourists as well as local city-dwellers, and fish and water fowl have returned to the city's waterways.

Planners from Laos, The Gambia and Mongolia were particularly attuned to the challenges faced by former Mayor Lee Myung-bak, now President of the Republic of Korea, because each country has a capital city located on a body of water.

Water in the Selpe River which runs through Ulaanbaatar, Mongolia's capital, used to be abundant but the water level is hugely reduced due to climate change. Zandan Bayarkhuu, an officer in the Integrated Planning Division in the Ministry of Economic Development, said the municipal government was considering engineering works to improve water flow.

"Very soon we will begin discussions on the river project. The next step will be to connect the National Emergency Management Agency, which is the main implementing agency, with other ministries including the economic development ministry," he said.

"We realize the environmental and economic impacts of our decisions must be discussed early on and the example of Seoul's Cheong Gye Cheon shows the importance of consultations across different sectors."

Water works are also a concern in Banjul, capital city of The Gambia. Sitting just where the Gambia river meets the ocean, the city is now experiencing flash floods and the Banjul pumping station is not functioning.

"The moment we were at the Cheong Gye Cheon, our group started discussing the capital city which is an island surrounded by water. Because of the floods, we began seeing crocodiles in the city. There is also a high prevalence of malaria," said Poulo O. N. Joof, Acting Executive Director of the Gambia's National Disaster Management Agency. "In addition to ensuring the pumping station is operational, we will need to carry out a dredging process to create canals to improve water flow."

But the high price tag of Cheong Gye Cheon -- said by some to have cost US$900 million -- has given the Gambian planners some pause for thought. "Even if we have the best land-use planning and the highest level of political commitment, without financing we will not be able to implement the project let alone do a feasibility study," said Mr. Joof.

Managing the cost of development projects was a subject that cut across the different topics covered by the Leadership Forum since the meeting began on Monday.

Bouasy Thammasack, Senior Office and the National Disaster Management Office in the Lao People's Democratic Republic, one of the officials who visited the Cheong Gye Cheon, said: "Before doing something, if you do not prioritize you will end up spending more. You must plan very carefully so you do not have to remove an entire expressway, which could end up costing you lots more."

But the beauty of the restored river left a favorable impression on Fongsamout Khamvalvongsa, Deputy Permanent Secretary at the Ministry of Planning and Investment in the Lao People's Democratic Republic: "The project shows that political leadership is important amid conflicting influences. There were strong supporters but equally some were strongly against the project. He decided to push forward, which was one factor that impressed me."

The Leadership Forum on Mainstreaming Adaptation and Disaster Reduction Into Development (MADRiD), organized by the UN Office for Disaster Risk Reduction in partnership with UNDP, runs all this week.

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