Facing Water Challenges in the Han River Basin, Korea:A WWDR3 Case Study

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Efforts to respond to new pressures and expectations stemming from the economic success of this developed country include water sector reforms, while measures to address shifts in demand and competition between upstream and downstream interests would benefit from the presence of a central coordinating mechanism


Focus Areas

Water supply and sanitation,IWRM

Geographic Scope




Background and Significance


The Republic of Korea is located at the eastern tip of the Asian continent, where it is bounded on the north by the Democratic People's Republic of Korea. In the east it is characterized by high mountain ranges, whereas the west is composed of flat coastal plains. The annual average precipitation is about 1,200 mm, 70% of which falls during the flood season from June to September. The Han River basin, located in the centre of the Korean Peninsula (Map 2.5), accounts for 23% of the territory of the Republic of Korea and is the country’s largest river basin, covering some 23,000 km2. The Han River region is divided into the main Han River basin and the Imjin River basin; this case study focuses only on the Han River basin.1 The capital, Seoul, one of the world’s largest cities, is located in the Han River basin. The population of the basin, now 41% of the national total, almost tripled between 1966 and 2005, from about 7 million to almost 20 million. Nevertheless, urban areas account for just 1% of the basin. Forests make up 78%, cultivated areas 16%, and grasslands and water bodies 5%. The Han River basin is considered the heart of South Korea.

The Experience: Challenges and Solutions

Poor Policy Coordination

In the Republic of Korea, water management has not been adequately decentralized. Local authorities merely execute policies set by the central government. The lack of an integrated approach means each ministry works more or less in a vacuum, developing and executing work plans without much interaction. Local governments face complications in executing the national water management plan because functions and responsibilities are distributed among a number of agencies. The main problem lies in the absence of a body or a mechanism to coordinate the tasks of the organizations in charge of water resource management. To address these challenges, since 2000 the water management system has been undergoing restructuring towards a more holistic approach promoting involvement by local governments, public organizations, the private sector and other stakeholders, including local communities. Notable outcomes of this reform include formation of local and basin networks and increased voluntary river restoration efforts.

A recently proposed Water Management Act, taking the basin as the principal watershed management unit, would have provided for the preparation of a national integrated water resources management plan and established basin commissions and a national water management commission. However, the Act did not win approval in the National Assembly in 2008. A national commission such as that proposed in the Act could play an important role in bringing together the agencies responsible for water management, and thus serve as a platform for settling conflicts among different land and water users.

Sharing water resources

Two tributaries of the Han River – the Imjin River and the northern part of the Bukhan River – are shared between the Republic of Korea and the Democratic People's Republic of Korea. Although negotiations are ongoing, South and North Korea have not yet reached agreement on joint development of common water resources. Meanwhile, upstream water development efforts are having a negative effect on water availability in the south. The hydrological properties of certain parts of the basin have not been studied adequately, mainly because of the demilitarized zone between the countries. Although the potential for waterways exists in the Han River basin, none have been developed due to political and environmental problems.

Coping with water-related disasters

In the Republic of Korea, although the extent of floods has decreased thanks to continuous improvement in flood management, the economic damage has increased significantly (Figure 2.5). This is basically due to dense urbanization and encroaching development on the river’s natural flood plains. Nonstructural measures such as early warning systems have helped reduce the number of casualties, but the number of people vulnerable to floods is increasing, not only due to growth in the urban population but also because the society is aging, which means more individuals at greater risk from the impact of frequent flash floods.

Essentially, The Han River basin is considered the heart of the highly developed Republic of Korea. Given the availability of sufficient water resources, the water demand from various sectors does not pose a critical problem in terms of quantity, at least for the time being. Rather, the outstanding issues are at the national level, where a national commission is needed to coordinate the agencies responsible for water resource management and the sharing of transboundary waters. Although current water sector reforms and a possible future Water Management Act will address the coordination challenge, dealing with transboundary issues will require more effort.

Results and Impact

Lessons for Replication

Testimonies and Stakeholder Perceptions


See also

Hoekstra, A. Y. and Hung, P. Q. 2002. Virtual Water Trade: A Quantification of Virtual Water Flows Between Nations in Relation to International Crop

Trade. Delft, Netherlands, UNESCO-IHE. (Value of Water Research Report Series No. 11.) Ministry of Land, Transport and Maritime Affairs. Forthcoming. Han River Basin Case Study Report.

External Resources

United Nations Human Development Report 3


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