River cleaning: Lessons for India from South Korea

River cleaning: Lessons for India from South Korea

They are there to cycle, play soccer, jog, camp, do touristy ferry trips or simply enjoy family outings. With 23 bridges within Seoul limits across it, the Han river plays a visibly important role in Seoul’s social life, with floating restaurants, an upcoming ‘art island,’ parks and jogging and cycling tracks dotting its surroundings. Quite obviously, for Seoulites, the river is an important breathing space within a concrete jungle.

Contrast this with New Delhi, India’s capital city, and the way its citizens have treated the Yamuna river, which almost similarly divides it in two unequal halves, though in this case into east and west unlike Seoul’s north and south. Just like the Ganga, the Yamuna too is a river venerated by the Hindus, but in Delhi, it is no more than a drain now, with the stench emanating from its pitch black waters making it virtually impossible for anyone to even stand on its banks beyond a few minutes.

So much so that recently Union Sports Minister M S Gill even wondered aloud whether foreigners who would visit Delhi during October’s Commonwealth Games should be barred from venturing near the river-turned-drain.

In the case of the Han river too, things were not hunky-dory till 1988, when Seoul hosted the Olympic Games. Till shortly before that, Han — or Hangang as it is locally known (Han means wide and gang means river in Korean) was the city’s sewage line, with huge amounts of untreated sewage and industrial waste flowing into it daily, a la Yamuna and Ganga of today.

But using the 1988 Olympics and the 2002 Soccer World Cup as the right occasions, the Seoul city government not only took it upon itself to improve the condition of the river but also succeeded in doing it. So much so that South Korea’s growth from the depths of the Korean War to become the world’s 13th largest economy is called the “the Miracle of the Han”, in a way also symbolising the river’s resurgence.

Contrast this with the erstwhile Ganga and Yamuna Action Plans, which now have been replaced by the omnibus National Ganga River Basin Authority (NGRBA). Thousands of crores of rupees were spent in the efforts to clean the rivers under these plans. While in the case of the Ganga there was some success, in case of the Yamuna, the money, to use a cliché, literally went down the drain.

The river remains as dirty and polluted as ever, with its biological oxygen demand (BOD), an indicator of marine life survival possibilities, continuing to be abysmally low. As recently as on May 19, the Cabinet Committee on Infrastructure (CCI) approved one more project under the Jawaharlal Nehru National Urban renewal Mission (JNNURM), budgeted at Rs 1,357.71 crore, for laying interceptor sewers at three locations on the river to control its pollution.

Non-stop sewerage

But none of the schemes till date have tried to control or stop the flow of sewerage and industrial waste into the river. The scale of the problem becomes apparent when one refers to an estimate that 46 per cent of Delhi’s about 1.5 crore population is not connected to the capital’s sewerage network. Quite obviously, the human waste generated by this segment of the population, as well as industrial waste, continues flowing into the river unabated, as is visible in many parts of the city.

Even as India grapples with cleaning the Ganga and the Yamuna, in Seoul, the Han river’s beautification process is being taken to the next level now, with the eye on the 2014 Asian Games to be hosted by Incheon, at a stone’s throw distance from Seoul. As more and more citizens are making the riverfront their major pastime location, the government under President Lee Myung-bak, a former Seoul mayor, is taking up ambitious plans to further expand the beautification drive, so much so that some local groups are even protesting that too much artificiality is creeping into the riverfront, allegedly at the cost of its natural environs. Environmental groups as well as Christian and Buddhist religious organisations are leading the protests against the 22.2-trillion-won ($18 billion) restoration projects of four major rivers — the Han, Nakdong, Geum and Yeongsan —  that are targeting improvement in water quality, prevention of floods and droughts, secure water supplies, more tourist facilities and regional development.

Though for the locals the water quality of the river remains an issue, with its pollution levels still being a cause of worry for many, locals like tour guide Cindy aver that things have changed for the better to an unbelievable extent if one compares to what it was pre-1988.

Already, total length of bicycle tracks along the river in the city area is over 41 km on the south bank and about 30 km on the north bank, and one can see hundreds of people, young and old, using them regularly at any given point of time. There are even exclusive ‘bicycle parks’ at Nanji and Gwangnaru areas with racing lanes, rail biking area, a park featuring unusual bikes, mountain bike paths, and even extreme cycling areas.

Also coming up, as part of the 20-year-long Han River Renaissance Plan, is the Han River Art Island, a landmark on the Nodeul Island on the river with a 1,900-seat symphony hall, a 1,500-seat opera house and a performance hall with a 300-people capacity.

Quite clearly, India can learn some good lessons from Korea on how to turn pollution-laden rivers into city lungs and tourist destinations. But the question is: will our politicians and policy makers show as much vision in this as has been done by their Korean counterparts?

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