5 Examples of How South Korea Meets its Water Challenges

ks-mapSouth Korea at a glance [1]

~51 million people live in South Korea, of which 82.5% live in urban areas. With much of its terrain being mountainous or hilly, South Korea is known for its population density, which is more than 10 times the global average. Occupying the southern half of the Korean Peninsula, South Korea is mainly surrounded by water, but it does share a 237-kilometer (unofficial) border with North Korea. After several decades of remarkable economic growth, today South Korea has the 11th highest GDP in the world.

South Korea’s water challenges

Fresh water makes up only 3% of the total South Korean territory of just under 100,000 square kilometers. That having been said, access to improved water sources − as well as to improved sanitation − are pretty much universal in South Korea. Some of the challenges that the country faces while trying to sustain this very high level of water and sanitation services include:

  • Ample but unevenly distributed rainfall: On average South Korea’s annual rainfall is 1,274mm (about 25% higher than the world average) but the heavy rainfalls of summer often cause flooding while the country typically experiences extended droughts in the winter. Geographically, the southern coastal and mountain regions get most of the rainfall, whereas the northern part of the country is more arid. [2]
  • Extensive industrial pollution of fresh water sources that began in the 1970s and 1980s when economic growth was the top national priority and environmental issues were swept aside. [4]
  • Marginal renewable freshwater resources per person, with certain key parameters indicating that the country is prone to water stress. [2]
  • Geopolitical tensions, with North Korea having built several dams on the Imjin river, a major waterway that starts in the north and ends to the northwest of Seoul. With no cooperation between the two countries on flood control, sudden releases of water from the dams without warning have caused flooding and loss of life in South Korea. [3]
How South Korea is responding to its water challenges

Since the turn of the millennium South Korea has been addressing its water challenges with the same strategic fervor that it applied in the last quarter of the 20th century to transform itself from a small agrarian economy into one of the world’s economic powerhouses. Here are some shining examples of how South Korea is addressing its water challenges:

  1. Building an extensive dam system to control flooding and store flood waters for use in dry seasons and in dry regions: When dams currently under construction are finished, it is expected that 50% of South Korea’s total supplied water will come from storage. [2] South Korea has even constructed the Peace dam on the Bukhan river to prevent the flooding mentioned above that originates from its hostile neighbor to the north. [3]
  2. Restoring 929 kilometers of the national river system: South Korea has spent $18 billion on the Four Major Rivers project to secure water resources against potential water scarcity, improve water quality and restore river ecosystems. The project has not only restored the rivers themselves but the 14 tributaries that feed them and, in its final phase, will revitalize many small local streams as well. [5]
  3. Desalination: Since January 2015 a $175 million desalination plant in the southern port city of Busan has been generating ~45,000 tons a day of fresh water – enough to meet the drinking water needs of 150,000 people. Around the same time a desalination plant started supplying 30,000 tons of industrial water a day to the Gwangyan mill – meeting 13% of the plant’s water needs. [6], [7] These plants were built by large Korean concerns such as Doosan Heavy Industries and POSCO, with these and other Korean companies having become leaders in the global desalination market.
  4. Smart water management technologies: The state-run Korea Water Resources Corp. (K-Water) has developed and deployed a wide range of smart water management technologies that leverage Korea’s advanced ICT infrastructure to minimize loss and optimize performance across the entire water cycle. K-Water is now actively exporting these solutions to other countries. [8] [9]
  5. Rainwater harvesting: It all started with a pilot project in Star City in 2008, where Prof. Mooyoung Han, a renowned global proponent of rainwater harvesting, convinced a contractor to install a rainwater tank in the underground parking lot of a high-rise complex under construction. Prof. Han was soon able to prove that this one tank saved 40,000 m3 of water a year. The Star City municipal government soon required that rainwater harvesting/stormwater management systems be incorporated into all new buildings. As of 2011, 59 cities throughout Korea have become “rain cities” including the capital, Seoul, and the major cities of Incheon, Kwangju, Busan, Daejeon and Daegu. [10]

South Korea’s smart, pro-active and strategic response to its considerable water challenges should be an inspiration to countries around the world as, together, we face the critical global challenge of water scarcity.


[1] The World Factbook, South Korea, South Korea Population 2016
[2] South Korea Water Map
[3] Aquastat, Republic of Korea, 2011
[4] Brett Smith, South Korea: Environmental Issues, Policies and Clean Technology, July 9, 2015
[5] South Korea’s Four Rivers Restoration, Water & Wastewater International, June 2011
[6] Korean city turning seawater to drinking water, December 2014
[7] POSCO E&C completes Korea’s first commercial desalination plant, November 2014
[8] S. Korea showcases smart water management at world forum, April 2015
[9] S. Korea, Chile agree to cooperate in smart water management, July 2016
[10] A Shining Star in Rainwater Harvesting, Water & Wastewater International, April 2011


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