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The Taehwa River

Posted June. 22, 2010 12:24,   


On June 23, 2000, some 10,000 dead mullets emerged belly up on the surface of the Taehwa River in the southeastern port city of Ulsan. Their deaths were blamed on a rush of pollutants entering the river due to rain. The Taehwa suffered a slow death over 30 years from the emergence of the Ulsan plant complex in 1964 to the raising of Ulsan’s status as a metropolitan city with a population exceeding one million in 1997. Ulsan became known as “the city of the rotting river.”

Shocked by the mullets` deaths, the Ulsan municipal government began a cleanup project in 1995. The Taehwa River was heavily polluted with factory and domestic waste. So the city first installed a sewer drainage system and built a waste water treatment plant to prevent domestic wastewater of residential areas from flowing into the river. It also removed slime piled up on the river bed and refurbished the bamboo forest Sipri on the lower reaches of the river. Businesses and civic groups participated in purifying the riverside and underwater areas. Salmon released in 2000 returned to their home in 2003, signifying the renaissance of the river. Groups of white herons made the bamboo forest their home, and an otter leisurely swimming in the river near sunset was also seen.

“Bamboo forest at Taehwa riverside where the two of us walked together is still there… (Ulsan Arirang).” “I met you in this city where the blue river flowed, at this Taehwa River where the sun set as if the Sipri bamboo forest disappeared into the river… (Taehwa River Love Song).” The “rotting river” has been restored to one with an ecosystem as sung by many singers and poets. A Gwangju city councilor who had visited the river four years ago recently said, “The Taehwa River, which was as polluted as the Gwangju River 10 years ago, has now been revived as an eco-river, but the Gwangju River is still a river of death.” The Gwangju River is still reeling from pollutants.

Ulsan Mayor Park Maeng-woo said, “The environment is as much the effort of us humans.” He has stood at the forefront of implementing a 10-year master plan for the Taehwa River since 2005. Instead of resting on his laurels, he is considering building an eco-forest in the middle of a city. Opponents to the central government plan to restore the Han, Nakdong, Geum and Yeongsan rivers claim that the Taehwa River was revived because of sand bar removal in 2006, but blocking the flow of domestic wastewater was also a major factor. Levees of the four major rivers have the advantage of maintaining consistent water level even in dry season. Park said, “Opponents to the restoration project would change their minds if they looked around the Taehwa River.” Unfortunately, they seem too immersed in political strife to notice such positive changes to the river.

Editorial Writer Hong Kwon-hee (konihong@donga.com)