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UGA Tifton Scientist Impressed with South Korean Resolve During November Visit

Dr. George Vellidis, an agricultural engineer at the University of Georgia’s Tifton Campus, spent the week of Thanksgiving (2010) in South Korea consulting on a project with that country’s Ministry of Environment (MOE).  Vellidis’ visit, unfortunately, coincided with the North Korean attack on Yeonpyeong Island in the Yellow Sea.  When asked how this affected his trip and the people with whom he interacted, Vellidis replied that he was “most impressed by the calm and resolve of the South Korean people during this crisis.”  He also stated that even though there was concern on the part of his South Korean colleagues, they were able to make a great deal of progress on the project.

The South Korean government, and especially the MOE, is in the final stages of planning the development of the largest land reclamation project in history.  This massive undertaking is known as Saemangeum.

Aerial view of Saemangeum.

Until recently, Saemangeum was a tidal estuary at the mouths of the Dongjin and Mangyeong Rivers on the southwestern end of the Korean peninsula.  The estuary, an important fishery for the locals, also serves as a resting area for migratory birds and habitat for hundreds of thousands of shore birds.  Understandably, the decision by the South Korean government to dam, and partially drain, the estuary to create new agricultural, residential, recreational, and industrial areas was hugely controversial.

Construction of the 21-mile long dam, commonly referred to as the seawall, began in the 1980s.  After several legal delays, the seawall was completed in April 2010.  The Saemangeum seawall encloses an area of 99,000 acres of which 77,000 acres will be converted to reclaimed land while the remaining 22,000 acres will be converted into a freshwater lake.  77,000 acres is slightly less than half the size of Tift County.

The water level in the estuary is controlled by opening, during low tide, sluices (basically, giant gates) located at two points along the seawall.  This allows the water flowing into the estuary from the Dongjin and Mangyeong Rivers to empty into the Yellow Sea.  This technique has been perfected over the past several centuries by the Dutch, who are considered the world’s foremost experts in land reclamation and seawall management.  In fact, nearly 20% of The Netherlands is made up of land reclaimed from the North Sea.
 
Dr. Vellidis (second from left) and other international experts at the Saemangeum estuary.  Mud flats are already exposed by receding waters - South Korea, 23 November 2010.

Dr. Vellidis, two Dutch experts, and a Japanese scientist studying the effects of a reclamation project in Japan were invited by the MOE to provide technical advice on how to manage water quality.  Dr. Vellidis provided technical advice on how to reduce the level of pollutants in the two rivers flowing into Saemangeum so that the quality of the water will be suitable for drinking, recreation, fishing, and irrigation.

Dr. Vellidis applied knowledge gained locally from studying how streamside forests or riparian buffers maintain water quality.  He and colleagues at UGA-Tifton have conducted numerous experiments over the past 20 years. Results have shown, definitively, that riparian buffers trap pollutants, like excess nutrients and sediments leaving agricultural and urban lands, and prevent them from entering streams and rivers.  Riparian buffers are one of the primary reasons that South Georgians enjoy relatively good water quality in local rivers and streams.
Riparian forests, however, are completely absent from the watersheds of the Dongjin and Mangyeong Rivers as they flow into Saemangeum.  In those watersheds, land is farmed to the edge of the streams and rivers and with every rain, soil, fertilizers, and other agricultural chemicals are washed into the streams. 

Among other things, Dr. Vellidis recommended that the Korean government provide financial incentives for local landowners to establish riparian buffers along the streams and rivers.  The incentives would be used to compensate landowners for income lost from the area used for buffers.  Experience from many parts of the United States has shown that using public funds for incentives to prevent pollution is a much cheaper alternative to cleaning polluted water in lakes and reservoirs.

Dr. Vellidis (second from the end on the right) enjoying a traditional Korean meal with local officials and international experts.

Dr. Vellidis was pleased that the South Korean government was using expertise and knowledge from around the globe to improve the design of the Saemangeum project.  He believes that international cooperation and transfer of knowledge is the key to achieving global peace and prosperity.

Project Leader: George Vellidis
Contact Info:
yiorgos@uga.edu
Affiliation: University of Georgia
P.O. Box 748
Tifton, GA 31794
(229) 386-3377