Hwaseong Wetlands

Hwaseong, in the Gyeonggi Province of South Korea, is a fast-growing city south of Seoul. Despite its coastal location, manufacturing industries, a new town under construction, and high-speed rail access to Seoul, it also has large expanses of farmland, and some areas still feel remote and undeveloped.

Of particular interest to SAVE International is a site near the town of Namyang, west of central Hwaseong. From 1991 to 2002, the national government of South Korea built a nearly 9km-long seawall to fill tidal flats in Namyang Bay (“reclaim” them from the Yellow Sea). The seawall has enabled the conversion of former tidal flats and sea shallows into rice fields (containing a very small and disused eco-park) and a large shallow reclamation lake, with very limited water exchange with the sea controlled by sluice gates. At low tide, Black-faced Spoonbills feed on the remaining tidal flats near Maehyang Ri (village) and on the Kia tidal flats outside of the seawall; and at high tide, they cross over the seawall to rest in the reclamation lake.

Multiple manufacturing industries have located upstream of the wetland, and Hwaseong City even attracted plans for a new Universal Studios Theme Park, though the plans have been stop-and-go for more than 10 years. More recently there have been various proposals for more intensive economic development in the area, including a military airport (close to the wetland).

The wetland qualifies as an internationally important wetland but has not been designated as a Ramsar site. But there is cause for hope. Early in September 2018, an international conference was held in the area to call attention to the importance of the Hwaseong Wetlands, as they are now formally known. In autumn 2018, these wetlands were designated a Flyway Network Site under the auspices of the East Asian-Australasian Flyway Partnership (EAAFP). In the application to designate this flyway site, the Korean Federation of Environmental Movements (KFEM) and Birds Korea described the area as critical habitat for multiple species. It is a migratory stop for SAVE’s key species, the Black-faced Spoonbill, but other birds are more prominent in this area. The Great Knot (Calidris tenuirostris), for example, is an endangered bird in very rapid decline due to “reclamation” of stopover grounds such as Hwaseong, which lie along the migratory flyway between their breeding sites and their wintering sites. (For more information, see this document on the EAAFP website.)

In spite of the abundance of diverse and endemic species, there is very little ecotourism, only the most serious birdwatchers. In a recent address [late 2018 or early 2019], the mayor of Hwaseong, Seo Cheol Mo, called for the area to be designated as a Ramsar site by 2021. The mayor opposes the airport; local fisher-folk who depend upon the coastal waters likewise question the military plans.

In spring 2019, researchers from UC Berkeley’s Department of Landscape Architecture and Environmental Planning created a range of alternative plans for the Hwaseong Wetlands, as well as criteria so that the community, local government, and NGOs could evaluate the choices. The researchers synthesized and mapped the cultural and ecological information, and investigated the many rice-fields south of the bridge that mark the northern boundary of industrial sprawl, as well as the Kia Tidal Flat originally excluded from the EAAFP site designation.

The alternative plans were conceived as a Hwaseong coastal partnership for a sustainable economy, emphasizing the local economy in order to get buy-in from stakeholders. A partnership between the City of Hwaseong, farmers, fisherfolk, visitors, conservationists, Kia Motors, and other businesses would underlie the proposals for an improved agricultural and fishing economy, as well as a new tourism economy for the area.

The plans proposed improving the local water quality, and protecting the wetlands and tidal flats, for the benefit of both the fishery and wild birds. This can only be effectively achieved with Ramsar protection. The intensive activities would be pulled away from the fragile ecosystems. Like at Arcata Marsh in northern California, the new sewage treatment and wetland filtration at Hwaseong would attract many birds and become an additional bird-watching opportunity. The bird-watching structures near the primary roosting areas would be pulled back at least 400 meters from the habitat.

SAVE took the alternative plans and developed a single proposal with three main aspects: Tourism, Fishery, and Agriculture.

  • Tourism is an overlay of economic development that would feature the micro-mobility experience (see below), an agricultural history tour, wetlands hiking, bird watching in the sewage treatment plant, overnight stay in various types of facilities (hotel, home stay, agritourism bungalows), eating, and shopping, but it is not the primary industry.
    The alternative visitor transportation system would include a trail network of a service road, a “micro-mobility” route, and pedestrian-only trails in the sensitive areas. Vehicular and electric mobility is important because of the large scale of the area. It would solve the problem of visitors wanting to visit the various activities proposed, which are a greater distance apart than the average person wants to walk. We suggest a micro-mobility system that might be sponsored by Kia. This could include bikes, possibly e-scooters, segways, mini-electric vehicles, and so on. It suggests Kia expanding its tourism presence and branding, perhaps with a new Kia visitor center.
  • The proposed improvements for the Fishery would include the importance of preserving the wetlands and tidal flats, sewage treatment, and pollution control, as well as an experiment in opening in the dike for tidal exchange and fishing access. Thus this plan features wetlands which double as a sewage treatment plant to produce clean water. These proposals serve all interests rather than just those of the environmental community.
  • The plan also proposes an investment in Agriculture, including year-round agricultural production; the development of new agricultural products; value-added production, display, and sales; and a museum of the history and future of local agriculture. With improved water quality and remediated soils, the base agriculture should be improved.

A team from SAVE presented the alternative plan in Hwaseong on May 13, 2019, at the Designing for Hope: Lives, Livelihoods, and the Hwaseong Wetlands International Symposium. Since that time, Hwaseong City has signed an MOU with the East Asian-Australasian Flyway Partnership (EAAFP) to develop an Action Plan for the site. In 2020, Hwaseong KFEM gave a press briefing in the National Assembly calling for legal protection for the wetlands.

You can download the presentation (in Korean) and explanations of the slides as first drafted (in English). Please find the links on our SAVE Presents page.

Updates in Feb 2021, as reported by Dr. Nial Moores: The local government in Hwaseong has renewed its commitment to designate the whole area as a Ramsar site, but the current national laws that govern sites with reclamation-related work may make that designation hard. With help from Birds Korea and the EAAFP, efforts are underway to delineate the boundaries and develop the management plans.