SKorea launches 19 bln dlr river project despite protests

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South Korea on Tuesday launched a 19 billion dollar project to dredge and restore its four major rivers despite protests over the feared environmental impact.

Excavators started shifting soil to build temporary dams on two of the rivers after the environment ministry gave the green light following a four-month survey.

Under the plan the Han, Nakdong, Geum and Yeongsan rivers will be dredged, given new banks and equipped with dams along a total length of some 3,200 kilometres (2,000 miles).

Prime Minister Chung Un-Chan told a cabinet meeting the three-year programme will mean less water is wasted, will improve water quality and will boost the economy of local provinces.

When completed in December 2012, the government says the rivers will be opened up for transport and tourism and floods and droughts will be controlled.

It also hopes the project will create tens of thousands of jobs as the country emerges from the global economic crisis.

Critics say the river project is a recycled plan to build a massive cross-country canal once touted by President Lee Myung-Bak, a former construction CEO nicknamed the "Bulldozer".

The canal project was officially scrapped because of widespread objections.

The main opposition Democratic Party says the project is pointless and would gobble up funds for welfare, education and provincial development.

It vows to fight to scale down the project during parliamentary budget hearings.

Other critics say it would cause environmental and ecological disasters.

"We're going to see an environmental disaster. It's common sense that dammed water always worsens," Lee Cheol-Jae, director of the Korean Federation for Environmental Movement, told AFP.

"It must be noted that the survey on environmental impact from the great project was carried out hurriedly, being wrapped up just in four months."