Saemangeum - a vital wetland

by Nial Moores and Charlie Moores, from OBC Bulletin 37, June 2003.

The Yellow Sea, comprising the coastal wetlands and marine areas lying between South Korea, North Korea and China, is one of the world's most important yet threatened ecosystems. Despite extensive reclamation projects, increasing pollution and unsustainable resource use, the Yellow Sea still contains more than 1 million ha of tidal-flats, supports a massive fisheries industry, and is used by the entire world breeding population of the Black-faced Spoonbill Platelea minor and Saunders's Gull Larus saundersi. It also maintains internationally important concentrations of a significant percentage of the East Asian-Australasian Flyway's migratory shorebirds, three species of crane and several populations of threatened anatidae.(1,2) In many respects the Yellow Sea can be considered the East Asian counterpart of north Europe's Wadden Sea (the latter sea shared by the Netherlands, Germany and Denmark), and in terms of global biodiversity is equal in importance to it.

Black-faced Spoonbill  © Martin Hale

Black-faced Spoonbill © Martin Hale

Within the South Korean part of the Yellow Sea alone, some 48 sites meet Ramsar criteria for identification as internationally important for waterbirds,(3) with the most valuable of all centred at approximately 35°50'N, 126°45'E: Saemangeum.

Comprising the two free-flowing estuaries of the Mangyeung and Dongjin rivers, the Saemangeum wetland (pronounced 'Say-Man-Gum' in English) is considered in various government publications to be the most important known national site for shorebirds, and by Barter(2) to be the single most important shorebird site in the whole Yellow Sea. Saemangeum comprises some 30,000 ha of tidal-flats (being up to 25 km wide in some stretches) and 10,000 ha of shallows, and supports possibly 30 species of waterbird in internationally important concentrations. No fewer than eight of these are believed to be globally threatened.(4) Recent significant counts include a day peak of 155,000 shorebirds, including over 80,000 Great Knot Calidris tenuirostris (Gosbell unpubl. data). In addition, counts of threatened waterbirds include over 700 of the Vulnerable Saunders's Gull, the world's highest recent count of the Endangered Nordmann's Greenshank Tringa guttifer, and up to 200 of the fast-declining and probably Endangered Spoon-billed Sandpiper Calidris pygmeus.

Saemangeum should be one of the best-known wetlands in East Asia; it should be conserved and managed sustainably in accordance with the obligations of the Ramsar Convention, which South Korea acceded to in 1997. However, the entire area of 40,100 ha (401 km2 or two-thirds the size of the Wash in the UK) is being reclaimed in the world's largest known ongoing coastal wetland reclamation project.

The first phase of the project, the construction of an outer seawall wide enough to take two lanes of traffic and over 5 m high, started in 1991, and despite increasing concerns is still ongoing in 2003 with over 60% of the 33 km long wall already completed. Its completion will mean the loss of almost 100% of the existing tidal-flat, and will lead to significant declines in many waterbird populations.

As proposed the wall will eventually dam off both estuaries in order to create 28,300 ha of rice-field and industrial land, and 11,800 ha of barrage lake. As proposed, it will likely be completed by 2006, with the gradual conversion of the tidal-flats to rice-fields following a few years later.

The stated aims of this reclamation project are both to increase national territory and to create more land for rice culture. The tidal-flats are, of course, already part of South Korea territory, and whilst food production and security is vital to any nation, a shift in national diet away from rice, combined with advances in rice-growing technology, has led to a massive annual rice surplus in South Korea since 1996. (The surplus, twice that advised by the Food and Agriculture Organisation, even threatens a rice price collapse.) Informed commentators confidently identify that regional politics (the incumbent president, Kim-Dae Jung, was born in a neighboring province) remains the real factor behind the drive for this project.

Progress of the Saemangeum 'reclamation' has not been smooth, with significant financial and time overruns. Initially dreamt up by the military government of the 1980s (as part of a comprehensive Master Land Use Plan targeting 90% of all remaining inter-tidal wetland and shallows for reclamation) construction costs had already exceeded the original price estimate, with 2.3 billion dollars spent by 2001, and anticipated future costs many times higher still. The whole project was even temporarily suspended in 2000 to allow for some further research on possible environmental impacts by an expert panel. After a year of intense review the panel concluded that this project would inevitably produce significant environmental problems, including increased water pollution, declines in fisheries and impacts on other wildlife. The majority of the panel therefore called for the project's cancellation. Ignoring their calls, and after a series of delayed announcements, the government announced simply on 25 May 2001 that the Saemangeum reclamation was to restart in 'an environmentally friendly way' (government spokesperson, 'Korea Herald', 26 May 2001).

Despite a number of recent positive shifts in policy and initiatives pursued especially by the Ministry of Environment (including a UNDP-GEF Wetlands Biodiversity project still in the development phase) the government of South Korea still avoids the issue of loss of biodiversity through reclamation, instead insisting (1) that it is too late to turn the project back, (2) that local people want the development and (3) that the only environmental issue remains maintenance of adequate water quality in the barrage lakes to allow for eventual irrigation of the rice-fields. In line with other such projects, there will be no compensation offered beyond one-off payments to fishing communities for the loss of their fishing rights, and no significant modification of the design. The regional fisheries industry, which both supplies a multitude of 'products' ranging from seaweeds through shellfish and crabs to fish, and forms the cultural core for many small coastal communities, is already in significant decline - a situation that will be severely worsened by the conversion of many harvested species' egg-laying and nursery areas into rice-field.

Is there hope for the future? The plight of the wider Yellow Sea has until very recently been largely overlooked by the international conservation community and ignored by international media. However, WWF-International has now identified the Yellow Sea as one of its Global 200 eco-regions, and BirdLife International is also in the process of drawing up a list of Important Bird Areas within the Sea. (5) BBC World radio and Earth Report have started the process of exposing the Saemangeum issue, and there is now adequate information about the wetland on websites and in some conservation-oriented publications to help better inform opinion.

Within South Korea itself, Kim Dae-jung's presidency (his image seriously dented by a series of financial scandals) comes to an end in February 2003, and with this change the possibility of cancellation again increases. President-elect Roh, although not apparently mentioning environmental legislation at all during his election campaign, is already establishing a reputation for challenging corrupt money politics and for increasing government transparency. Mindful of several failed and extremely destructive reclamation projects (most notably Shihwa, where plans to use reclaimed land for agriculture had to be given up due to poor design and extreme pollution problems) the Saemangeum reclamation also continues to be opposed by the majority of Korean people, by all the country's environmental groups, apparently by the two main Ministries responsible for wetland conservation in South Korea (the Ministry of Environment and the Ministry of Maritime Affairs and Fisheries), and by a significant number of international NGOs outside of Korea. Wetlands International, BirdLife International, the RSPB and Friends of the Earth International have all sent letters of protest against the project.

With so little time left before the outer dyke is completed, it is essential that leading NGOs and concerned individuals do not give up the fight for Saemangeum. South Korea, a nation that has achieved miraculous growth and development over the past few decades, remains both open to change and improvement, and is sensitive to international criticism. Letters sent to Korean embassies in home countries, to relevant media (including English language newspapers in Korea), and to officials responsible for environmental policy in their own countries as well as to the office of the new president will continue to encourage domestic opposition to the project, and empower sections of society, business and government to again demand for the project to be stopped. With heightened awareness and a new president, there must still be hope for Saemangeum and its enormously important biodiversity.


  1. Moores, N. et al. (a 2001) Yellow Sea Ecoregion: Reconnaissance Report on Identification of Important Wetland and Marine Areas for Biodiversity. Volume 2: South Korea. Joint publication of WWF-Japan, Wetlands & Birds Korea, and Wetlands International China Program.

  2. Barter, M. (2002) Shorebirds in the Yellow Sea. Importance, Threats, and Conservation Status (AWSG: in press)

  3. Moores, N. (b 2001) Internationally Significant Wetlands to be 100% Reclaimed. WWF Arctic Bulletin (3) 12-13.

  4. Asia-Pacific Migratory Waterbird Conservation Committee (2001) Asia-Pacific Migratory Waterbird Conservation Strategy: 2001-2005. Wetlands International-Asia Pacific. Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia.

  5. Anon (2003). A strategy for Threatened Birds in Asia, to be published by the Birdlife Asia partnership in June 2003.

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