Lessons from Seoul: How to Revive a River and Manage a Landfill

Seoul can teach Delhi a few things on how to revive the Yamuna, clean the Mughal-era nullahs and convert dump yards into eco-friendly zones.

Seoul (South Korea): The recent controversy over the Art of Living (AOL) event on the banks of the Yamuna has once again highlighted the need to revive the dying river and protect its fragile eco-system. With Prime Minister Narendra Modi and Delhi Chief Minister Arvind Kejriwal attending the grand event, there is no doubt that it had political backing. The crucial question now is if strong political will can emerge to find a robust solution to revive a river faced with a slow death.

What political will can do was revealed during a recent visit by this correspondent to South Korea’s capital, Seoul. In a span of over two-and-a-half decades, the Seoul Metropolitan Government put undertook some path-breaking ventures in river and waste management, models that the Indian capital can certainly learn from. Seoul’s problems were not far different from those facing Delhi today – reviving the Yamuna, cleaning the Najafgarh drain and its tributary nullahs that crisscross the city, and dealing with the mountains of waste at the Ghazipur, Bhalswa and Okhla open landfills.

Revival of the Han river and Cheonggyecheon stream

Like the Yamuna, the Han flows through Seoul city. After the Korean War (1950-53), the river became synonymous with pollution. Much like the Yamuna, the Han too saw a budding industry and a disadvantaged public use it as a convenient shaft for industrial and urban waste.

Like the Delhi government had plans to clean the Yamuna by keeping aside budgets exclusively for it, the Seoul government too discussed the need to revive the Han and worked out a budget. But the similarities end here.

The lack of political will is evident where reviving the Yamuna is concerned, even though the ‘mission’ is currently in its third phase with multi-crores already spent by successive Delhi governments.

Han river. Credit: Wikimedia Commons

Han river. Credit: Wikimedia Commons

In contrast, the Seoul government spent the allocated money by sponsoring a series of result-oriented environmental efforts spread over a decade. The results were soon evident, so much so that during the 1988 Summer Olympics in Seoul, the Han was the site of the Olympic rowing regatta. The lost opportunity of using the Yamuna during the 2010 Commonwealth Games, even though it was in close proximity to the CWG Village, illustrates the difference in approach.

Now, when you travel from the Incheon airport to go to Seoul, what you see of the Han is an enviable sight. The city government has developed walkways, bicycle paths, parks and restaurants alongside the river. The river, with many bridges arching over it – they connect the Gangnam part of Seoul with the old city – is a charming site, particularly when lit up at night.

Apart from the Han, Seoul has Cheonggyecheon, a stream that runs across the city for nearly nine kilometers. Like the Najafgarh drain falls into the Yamuna, Cheonggyecheon too merges with the Han. The revival of the stream – long considered dead – is an even better example of what a government that cares for the environment, and public health and well-being can achieve.

Like the Han, Cheonggyechen too is embedded in Korean history. For centuries, the stream that flows from the west to the eastern part of South Korea through the present-day downtown Seoul has been a part of the everyday life of the people. The first refurbishment project of the stream to build a drainage system took place during the Joseon Dynasty, which ruled Korea for five centuries (from 1392 to 1897), at a time when it was called Gaecheon or open stream. Cheonggyechan was so named by Japanese colonisers who tried very hard to suffocate it by covering it up, but could not gather enough funds to do so.

After the Korean War, more people, including those who migrated from North Korea, began to settle alongside the stream by setting up shabby makeshift sheds on stilts. Over the next few years, the weight of a large population living by it made the stream an eyesore. What the brutal Japanese colonial power could not do was achieved by the Korean government in 1968 when it constructed a 5.6 km long elevated highway over the Cheonggyechan. The ‘cover-up’ succeeded in making the area an example of post-war rapid industrialisation and the modernisation of Seoul city.

However, in mid-2003, the then Seoul mayor, Lee Myeong-Bak, initiated a project to remove the highway and restore the stream. The $281 million project became a humongous urban renewal act, attracting massive public criticism, and protests by residents and traders from the area. However, a proper rehabilitation project for those displaced was undertaken.

Cheonggyecheon stream. Credit: Wikimedia Commons

Cheonggyecheon stream. Credit: Wikimedia Commons

When Cheonggyechan opened in 2005, locals and tourists were left in awe. The manager of the museum that exhibits the restoration project of the stream tells this correspondent that tourists from at least 30 countries visit it every year. Thanks to the project, the average temperature of the area has dropped by 3.6 degrees in comparison to other parts of Seoul. It also helped revive the traditional pedestrian route of the city by connecting the stream with the old resource areas like Bukchon, Namchon and Daehangro. The demolition of the highway also led to a 2.3-degree decrease in the number of vehicles entering downtown Seoul, and an increase in the number of bus and subway users.

Flaunting artworks and graffiti on the walls that line the stream, open-air gyms and walkways, separate areas for picnics, fishes swimming in the stream, birds and insects in the air, the Cheonggyechan area has become the prime recreational hub for the residents today. Every year, the city hosts its lantern festival alongside the stream.

The city government not only succeeded pacifying critics but also gave to the Asian region a successful example of how to use restoration as an instrument of urban development. The restoration project looks particularly attractive when you think about the possibilities around the network of Mughal-era nullahs lying half-dead under many overbridges and roads built across Delhi. But the vital question surfaces again – is there strong political will for it?

Waste-area management projects

Seoul is also a great example for Delhi in waste management. Take Seoul’s Nanjido for example. Chun Young Ja, an official of the city government associated with the project, says Nanjido was constructed as a dyke in the late 1970s to make it Seoul’s official dumpsite. It began receiving 3,000 truckloads of waste every day, finally ending up as a pyramid 34 times larger than the Great Pyramid of Giza, becoming perhaps the world’s tallest garbage dump.

Like Delhi, Seoul began to expand with a rising population. After 15 years of use, Nanjido reached its saturation point, like Ghazipur, Bhilaswa and Ohkla have. In 1993, the city government realised that it needed that space to accommodate more people and closed the open landfill. By then, the area accumulated layers of dump. With Seoul chosen as one of the venues for the 2002 football world cup, the government decided embarked on a Nanjido clean-up project and turned the area into five different theme parks. It gave space to the sporting event near Nanjido and converted the methane produced by the waste into electricity to provide heating to the stadium and the surrounding residential areas. Fourteen years later, the residents there still use that methane for central heating and pay half the price for it than the rest of Seoul. Every year, the eco-park, now known as Nanjido Worldcup Park, receives nearly 10 million visitors.

Nanjido World Cup Park. Credit: Tomntins.com

Nanjido World Cup Park. Credit: Tomntins.com

There were other advantages too. Chun says a local frog specie that vanished from the zone due to waste dumping has returned, as have some birds and insects. At the top of the mountain, local farmers are allowed to grow hay. Besides, cyclists and hikers regularly use the parks.

The Delhi government has certainly thought in terms of generating energy from the accumulated methane (16 megawatt of electricity is produced at the Okhla landfill, and the Ghazipur and Narela energy plants are likely to produce 12 and 24 MWS respectively), but so far nothing has been planned to find a permanent solution on making these sites healthy and habitable.

If the capital of South Korea – that country that reportedly has the highest rate of per capita garbage production in the world, at 2.3 kg per person – can achieve the feat of river and waster-area restoration, Delhi can certainly do it too. It has comparatively less work at hand; the 50-feet tall Ghazipur landfill covers only 70 acres and Bhalswa is apparently only of the size of four international soccer stadiums.

But the pesky question pops up again: is there strong political will?

Sangeeta Barooah Pisharoty travelled to South Korea at the invitation of Korean Cultural Centre, New Delhi.