Once, you could stand in the middle of the Saemangeum estuary at low tide and look out on a vast expanse of shimmering gray mud seemingly as boundless as the ocean itself, a landscape pockmarked with thousands of tiny volcanoes and home to diverse species of wildlife.
All of that changed in 2006 when the South Korean government impounded the sea behind the world’s largest dike, the Saemangeum Seawall, enclosing the area where two rivers meet the Yellow Sea on the country’s southwestern coast.
Twelve years later, this seawall has devastated the ecosystem of what was one of South Korea’s largest and most ecologically dynamic mudflats.
“The words that come to my mind when I look at Saemangeum, always with tears in my eyes, are desolation, emptiness, devastation,” said Dr. Nial Moores, director of Birds Korea, a nonprofit conservation organization.
Before, the Saemangeum estuary played a central role for local humans and wildlife alike. As recently as a decade ago, you could still see local women and some men wearing rubber boots and gloves tramping across the intertidal guck to harvest critters like webfoot octopus (jukkumi), long-arm octopus (nakji), and a variety of clam species before transporting them for sale at the country’s seafood markets. Shorebirds would stop on transcontinental migrations to feed on the abundance of available prey and fill the sky in such great numbers that from a distance you might have mistaken them for clouds.
“That abundance [at Saemangeum] was only really confined to some of the most outstanding places in the world,” said Moores.
Life-giving ocean tides had ebbed and flowed twice daily across the Saemangeum estuary for thousands of years. When the tides were banished behind a nearly 34-kilometer long embankment, an ecosystem — whose value Moores compares to the Amazon rainforest and Florida Everglades, particularly for its significance as a feeding site for migratory birds — disappeared underwater without any of the drama of felled trees crashing to the ground.
For Moores, who has made hundreds of trips to study shorebirds at Saemangeum since moving to South Korea in 1998, returning to the estuary in the aftermath of the seawall has become akin to visiting a wasteland.
The South Korean government sees things differently. The primary purpose of the Saemangeum Seawall is to transform hundreds of square kilometers of tidal flats into dry land – a process common in mudflat-rich South Korea and called “land reclamation,” as though developers were taking back land that nature had wrongly appropriated.
A City in the Sea
A promotional museum at the southern end of the seawall on the Byeonsan Peninsula features a room-sized mockup of the carbon-free, eco-friendly city that the South Korean government plans to build on the reclaimed land. It’s a vivid rendering of a colorful metropolis filled with illuminated glass skyscrapers, verdant green forests and farms, and vibrant pink and yellow flower fields – a fantasy-like depiction that seems to invite favorable comparisons with the drab, monochromatic mudflats of Samenageum’s past: a place supposedly greener than the estuary itself.
The website of the Saemangeum Development and Investment Agency (SDIA), the main government organization overseeing the development project, lays out the project’s eco-credentials: towering wind turbines and solar farms that feed into a smart power grid, a public transportation system utilizing electric buses that run on a magnetic track, energy-efficient buildings that maximize natural lighting.
When the project was first conceived in the 1970s, the rationale for reclamation – both at Saemangeum and other locations – was to increase food self-sufficiency and create more farmland for a small mountainous country with relatively little arable terrain.
That goal became irrelevant in the lengthy interval between the seawall’s conception and completion; the South Korean economy flourished since the 1970s and stockpiles of rice grew excessively large.
The current plan is to reclaim a total of 291 square kilometers of land at Saemangeum and build a new city that can serve as a hub for global trade. To date, less than 10 percent of that total has been completely reclaimed, but more than a third of the area is currently undergoing reclamation, and President Moon Jae-in has also pledged to support the project and accelerate land reclamation efforts.
What Moon, a former human rights lawyer, fails to mention are the enormous sacrifices accompanying this vision of a glitzy modernity: the death of more than 100 dolphins, a dramatic decline in migratory birds, water pollution and the destruction of the local fishing economy.
One of the immediate consequences of building the Saemangeum dike was that large areas of mudflats dried up without tidal flow and “enormous numbers of shellfish…came to the surface and gaped open as they died,” according to a 2016 research paper that Moores co-authored.
At first, the decaying shellfish provided an easy meal for thousands of shorebirds migrating along the East Asian-Australasian Flyway, for whom Saemangeum was the single most important stopover site in the Yellow Sea during northward migration. In recent years, researchers found that the number of shorebirds observed at Saemangeum declined dramatically, by more than 90 percent from 2006 to 2013.
One of the species is the spoon-billed sandpiper – “a totally mind-blowingly gorgeous little bird … with a ridiculously cute spoon for a bill,” Moores said – which fed in large numbers at Saemangeum pre-seawall but is now classified as critically endangered, with only 400 to 600 individuals worldwide.
20 to 30 percent of the global population of great knots, approximately 90,000 individual birds, have died as a result of the loss of feeding grounds at Saemangeum, Moores said. The gregarious birds, slightly smaller than pigeons, used to spread out across the mudflats like “a dark shadow” while feeding but are now classified as endangered.
In human terms, the local fishing industry, which formerly brought in 40 billion won annually (about $37 million), shrunk by 70 percent, according to Nam Dae-jin, the director of the Save Saemangeum Movement. Yields from Saemangeum specifically are now thought to be nearly zero. Before, the mudflats produced the lion’s share of nationwide harvests: up to 90,000 tons of hard clams and 1,000 tons of mud octopus annually, contributing significantly to South Korea’s seafood-rich food culture.
“A lot of the local citizens are basically wondering what this development project is about, and they’re all regretting placing their hopes in it because they just think that having the area left as a tideland would have been more profitable for them,” Nam said.
Compounding all these problems is the dangerous accumulation of pollutants in Saemangeum Lake, which formed after the embankment was built.
“Because the water can’t circulate, the ecosystem within the lake is basically dead,” Nam said. “A lot of the marine animals in the lake basically won’t survive. And when the water is trapped, it can’t be used for farming.”
The government has vowed to invest billions of dollars to improve water quality at the lake by 2020. The Ministry of Environment is overseeing water quality improvement at Saemangeum, but a representative did not reply to requests for an interview.
“The Saemangeum development project is environmentally harmful in the sense that it alters nature from its original form,” said Kim Gwan-yong, a lawmaker from the People’s Party. “However, if we can minimize the loss resulting from these changes, and further combine cutting-edge technology with better convenience and eco-friendliness, then it can’t be considered environmentally damaging.”
Kim is one of the most prominent advocates for Saemangeum in part because he champions plans to build a resort and casino at the site, which he says will spur development and draw visitors year-round, much like the Las Vegas Strip and Singapore’s Marina Bay. According to him, Saemangeum’s economic potential is no chimera.
Developers can create a city “three times the size of Barcelona, four times the size of Paris, and five times the size of Manhattan” that will “attract the attention of the world,” Kim said.
Despite the government’s reassurances, Nam said the eco-friendly plan fails to address the most environmentally destructive aspect of the development: the impounding of the tides by the Saemangeum Seawall.
Nam’s organization, Save Saemangeum Movement, is an umbrella organization of about 20 different non-profit, civil, environmental, and labor groups in North Jeolla Province, where the Saemangeum estuary is located. The movement, which launched in March 2016, is appealing to the government to slow down land reclamation at Saemangeum and consider new policies.
Chief among Save Saemangeum’s demands is that the government open two sluice gates in the seawall that could allow tidewater to once again flow into the estuary, potentially restoring parts of the wetlands. Nam says that without these tidewaters, no development can be rightfully called environmentally friendly.
“What [the government] claims to be eco-friendly is not at all eco-friendly when you actually look at its plans and the way it’s been proceeding,” Nam said. “Eco-friendly is just a mask or a façade. It’s just fake.”
‘Reclaiming’ the land
Tidal flats like Saemangeum are advertised as national treasures.
In 2010, the South Korean government submitted a proposal to add some tidal flats along the southwestern coast to UNESCO’s World Heritage List, for their outstanding “scale and diversity.”
One can’t help but note the irony, then, that one of the six areas apparently included in the proposal, the Buan tidal flats, is in fact one of the last remaining intertidal areas within the Saemangeum Seawall. Similarly curious is the fact that South Korea signed onto the Ramsar Convention for protecting international wetlands in 1997, nearly a decade before the closure of the seawall.
That the government continues to reclaim land at Saemangeum while simultaneously seeking international recognition for the area’s mudflats fits a common pattern for conservation in South Korea. Economic ‘development’ – code for environmental bulldozing – coexists with profitable marketing of ecological treasures (think the gotjawal forests of Jeju Island), which in reality do not get prioritized over short-term economic growth.
Saemangeum isn’t the only such reclamation project in South Korea. The government has undertaken numerous construction projects over tidal flats throughout the years – for instance, building Incheon International Airport and the nearby city of Songdo on reclaimed land.
Moores said that two-thirds of South Korea’s tidal flats were lost to reclamation between 1950 and 2010. By the end of this decade, he said, as little as 900 square kilometers of tidal flats could remain – less than 20 percent of the estimated historical area.
About a year ago, a friend and I visited the Sinseong-ri Reed Field just upriver from partially protected tidal flats north of Gunsan, a study in contrasts with nearby Saemangeum. We had just finished touring the fields, shivering in the wintry coastal breeze as the sun began to set, when a black mass appeared on the skyline. What must have been thousands of birds of unknown provenance and species, presumably migratory shorebirds that still fed at the remaining mudflats downstream, flew past in a shape-shifting murmuration. People’s voices dropped and the drone of wingbeats filled the silence. The flock seemed, for a moment, to take the form of a dragon.
I quickly trained my camera on the birds and started shooting. I had never seen anything like them before.
Haeju Kang contributed reporting to this story.
Cover image: A flock of great knots at Saemangeum. Approximately one-third of the global population of great knots died as a result of the reclamation project in South Korea. (Source: Nial Moores, Birds Korea)