Kwak Kyul-ho
describes how his country has learned a hard lesson from rapid industrialization and is setting out to restore the balance between nature and human desire

Although more than 70 per cent of the blue planet, our home, is covered with water, access to safe and clean water has become a major challenge to sustainable development. Facing ever-increasing demand and suffering widespread degradation, the world’s water resources are under serious stress. This often debases the quality of life for many and, in extreme cases, threatens the vital life-supporting infrastructures of our planet – as UNEP and other United Nations bodies have warned.

Challenges concerning water also overshadow the Republic of Korea. There are almost 4,000 rivers and 19,000 lakes within our four major domestic river basins. Our ancestors referred to our land as ‘the gallery of waters and mountains’, thanks to the abundant availability of clean water. But this harmonious co-existence with nature has been shaken by rapid development starting in the early 1970s and characterized by export-led industrialization and urbanization. The Republic of Korea’s development was dubbed ‘the Miracle on the Han River’, but it also incurred high hidden costs. In particular, intensive economic growth triggered a break in the balance between the demand and supply of water resources, thus, in a larger sense, weakening the balance between nature and human desire. Indiscriminate acts of development were rampant, and supply-oriented water management dominated our water policy objectives. The outcomes were staggering: safe and clean water resources became scarce and visibly inferior. We learned that ‘it does not take long to go downhill’.

It was only in the 1990s that the Republic of Korea started adopting an up-to-date body of legislation providing legal and scientific instruments for the integrated management of the quality and quantity of water resources. Billions of dollars have been invested to improve quality and to secure resources. Considerable progress is being made, for example, in expanding water supply and sewage treatment to certain rural populations, but the overall improvement is below our expectations. High population density and an explosive increase in consumption – coupled with rising demand for water-related recreation – have posed many new challenges, making water management issues a top priority on the Republic of Korea’s environmental agenda. We have come a long way to learn that integrated and preventive water protection measures are the most cost-effective ones in the long run.
Our ancestors referred to our land as ‘the gallery of waters and mountains’, thanks to the abundant availability of clean water

Landmark initiative
Now the main focus of our water policy has been shifted toward integrated water resource management, including the harmonious sharing of water resources between upstream and downstream residents, and the balance between the protection of valuable habitats and economic development. In this spirit, the Republic of Korea is currently implementing landmark water initiatives, under the auspices of special laws on the four major rivers, consisting of watershed-based water management practices guided by the principle of an ecosystem approach. It would be premature at present to evaluate their effectiveness, but we expect that implementing and enforcing the special laws will ensure a significant contribution to managing the water resource soundly.

Given the crucial role of water in sustainable development and the worsening water situation around the world, the international community should put water issues near the top of its agenda by strengthening global policy and raising environmental awareness. Major United Nations conferences and international agreements on water over the last 30 years have been paving the way for sustainable water management. In March 2004, our mission will resume in Jeju, Republic of Korea. I believe that the upcoming UNEP Governing Council/Global Ministerial Environment Forum is taking place at a key moment and in a key way, in making a collective effort towards managing water sustainably. It is the first global ministerial meeting since the decision by the United Nations Commission on Sustainable Development in 2003 to discuss water, sanitation and human settlement as a priority in 2004-2005 in its multi-year programme for 2004-2017. The Republic of Korea sincerely hopes that the Jeju meetings will serve to deepen the understanding of our common responsibilities and help implement the internationally agreed goals on water

Kwak Kyul-ho is Minister of Environment, Republic of Korea.

PHOTOGRAPH: Tetsuo Natiano/UNEP/Topham

This issue:
Contents | Editorial K. Töpfer | Action for tomorrow | Turning words into action | One hand washes the other | People | Fragile resource | Realizing the dream | Washing away poverty | At a glance: Water and sanitation | Music makes magic – Angélique Kidjo | Targeting sanitation | In a city like Mumbai | Flowing from the bottom up | Books & products | Watering a thirsty land | Peace through parks | Reaching the unheard

Complementary issues:
Water, 1996
Freshwater, 1998
The Environment Millennium, 2000
Poverty Health and the Environment, 2001
WSSD, 2002
Global Environment Facility, 2002
Freshwater, 2003