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 Dam construction history in Korea

All of the 4 main civilizations developed in the area of great rivers. The rivers not only provide constant supply of water, the source of life, but were frequently a challenge presented by the force of nature needed to be overcome. Fortunately, the mankind learned how to live in harmony with water. The solution was to build facilities to control the flow of water such as levees or dams.
A dam refers to “man-made structures made with soil, rock or concrete for the purpose of block the flow of the river and use the reservoir for agricultural, industrial, power generation, flood control and other purposes (specific purpose),” whereas a levee or a dyke refers to “a structure constructed with clay, wood, stone, etc., along the river in order to protect and maintain the smooth flow of water.”
The oldest existing dam in the world is Sadd-el-Kafara dam built in BC 2550 in the eatern bank of the Nile in Egypt known as Wadi Garawi region. The presumed purpose of the dam is flood prevention.

A cross-sectional view of Sadd-el-Kafara

The oldest dam in Korea is Byeokgolje (Gimje, Jeonbuk, completed in AD 330. Height 4-6m, length approximately 3km) which is older than the oldest dam-type reservoir, Sayama Ike, in Japan.
Currently, there are approximately 18,000 dams in Korea with the highest dam being the Dam of Peace (height = 125m). About 98% of these dams are fill dams such as soil or rock-fill dams.

(a) Front view

(b) Jangsaenggeo floodgate
View of Byeokgolje and Jangsaenggeo floodgate

*Period of the Three Kingdoms

Due to the influence of the monsoon, our nation received heavy rainfall that led to early development of rice crop farming which requires constant supply of water. Therefore, water management was the main focus of the development of agricultural water and records show that the first resevoir to be ever built in Korea is Byeokgolje. The records in 「The Chronicles of the Three States」 suggest that Byeokgolje was built by the Silla Dynasty but the general consensus among historians is that it was constructed by Baekje as the Three Kingdoms (Silla, Baekje and Goguryeo) were against each other in AD 330.
Other reservoirs known to have been built in the Three Kingdoms Period include Byeokgolje in Gimje, Nulje, Hwangdeungje, Shije, Uirimji in Jecheon, Daejeji, Susanje and Gonggumji in Miryang and Cheongje in Yeongcheon.
No records related to water reservoirs exist between the mid-6th and the 8th centuries. This is the period during which the Three Kingdoms were at war for territorial expansion. Goguryeo and Baekje were defeated by the unified forces of Tang and Silla Dynasties followed by the struggle of Unified Silla to drive out the Tang Dynasty. This shows the correlation between a nation's rulership and water reservoir projects. This is because building water reservoirs were national projects whose success or failure depended on the strength of the ruling power.
After the Three Kingdoms Period, dams were used as the main form of water reservoir which blocked the water flowing out into the plains from mountainous areas or around the swamps or ponds. Water drawn in from the narrow creek must have been used for irrigation but the method of taking advantage of river water in dams for the purpose irrigation was not generalized. It was technically difficult to draw water into the land from the river due to the difference in the levels of the surface. Whereas many dams including Byeokgolje, Nulje, Hwangdeungje and Hapdeokje have lost their original purpose, Uirimji still serves its purpose as a water reservoir.

Nulje (Jeongeup-si, Jeollabuk-do)

Hwangduengje (Iksan, Jeollabuk-do)

Hapdeokje (Dangjin-gun, Chungnam)

Uirimji (Jecheon-si, Chungbuk)

*Goryeo Dynasty

Goryeo unified (918) the late Three Kingdoms and focused on establishing state-owned land system in the beginning. At the same time, efforts were put into land development and water management, reflecting on the fact that the fall of Silla Dynasty was in the fall of centralism resulting from the failure of the state-owned land system and the landlords gaining strength.
During the later years of Goryeo Dynasty, constant invasions by the north and foreign armies along with the incessant internal civil wars made it difficult to look after the water reservoir construction projects.
Since the Three Kingdoms Period, Korea's agricultural production has suffered a crippling blow due to constant invasions by floods and droughts. Floods can sometimes bring an abundant harvest for some regions at the expense of other regions but droughts were hard on everyone. As with the Joseon Dynasty, Goryeo Dynasty was particularly vulnerable to droughts due to the lack of water reservoirs. It is evident from the fact that there are numerous records of rituals calling for rain in the 'The history of Goryeo' and that the Sancheonbibodogam was established in 1198 (first year of Shinjong) in order to protect the mountains and the streams. As such, the idea that the laws of nature should be obeyed rather than overcome was prevalent during the Goryeo Dynasty and any form of land development based on modifying nature was not popular.
A new phenomenon during this period was reclamation projects. In order to secure food for the military and civilians that were fighting against the invading Mongolian army in the 14th century, seawalls were built along the coasts while efforts were put into land development. This was a new phase in the history of water reservoir projects. Reclamation projects were vigorously pursued in the west coast even during the Joseon Dynasty.

*Joseon Dynasty

The Joseon Dynasty had keen interest in irrigation administration because agriculture was the nation's biggest industry at the time. Based on the records which show that there already was water reservoir under the management of government administration of Goryeo Dynasty (the 15th year of Seongjong), it can be assumed that our ancestors focused on irrigation for agricultural development. Records show that the water reservoirs built in the early Joseon Period played an important role in the irrigation administration for the Joseon Dynasty. However, it was difficult for the government agency to bring the irrigation projects back on track after the Japanese invasion and the responsibility was transferred to Bibyeonsa in 1683 (9th year of Sukjong) before finally being transferred to an affiliate institution of Bibyeonsa in 1731 (7th year of Yeongjo). Bibyeonsa was the Office of Border Defense established in 1547 in order to fight frequent invasions. From today's perspective, endowing irrigation administration to this powerful military institution is quite similar to separating forest administration from the Ministry of Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries and endowing it to the Ministry of Public Administration with police power.
The leader took the responsibility of direct supervision of the irrigation facility and the responsibility was shared by the controller as the second authority as well as by the reservoir administrator. Therefore, at the time, the overall management of the irrigation administration was dependent on the effort of the leader.
In particular, during the early stages of its foundation, Joseon promoted water reservoirs and irrigation projects at the national level in order to expand national finance and strengthen power. The interest in agriculture was fueled by Confucianism, which was the national ideology at the time.

*Modern Era

During the Japanese invasion, Korea's flood control projects were carried out as a part of the rice production expansion plan and protection policy for public facilities such as the roads or the railroads.
Upon realizing the need for river improvement projects, the Japanese Government General of Korea ordered the first survey of 14 rivers including Daeyoung River, Cheongcheon River, Daedong River, Jaeyeong River, Yeseong River, Imjin River, Han River, Geum River, Yeongsan River, Seomjin River, Nakdong River, Yongheung River, Seongcheon River and Mangyeong River which took 14 years (between 1915-1928). This was followed by the survey of 11 rivers until 1939 which included Amrok River, Duman River, Anseongcheon, Sapgyocheon, Dongjin River, Hyeongsan River, Anbyeonnamdaecheon, Seongcheonnamdaecheon, Suseongcheon, Geumjin River and Seocheonnamdaecheon. As a result, a total of 25 rivers had been surveyed through the first and the second surveys.
As the first survey of rivers was coming to an end around 1940, the Japanese has almost finished constructions on the major parts of the main rivers such as Mangyeong River where the damages due to flood were frequent and could impact food supply. Flood control projects were carried out for a total of 715 rivers between 1925 and 1945 until the fall of the Japanese regime.
A survey on resources was also conducted for hydropower - the first survey was conducted between 1911 and 1914 and the second survey was conducted between 1922 and 1929. A third survey was conducted for Amrok and Duman Rivers after 1936 for a 6-year project under the title of 'electric power statistics survey' which included 154 hydropower plants covering 6,436,600Kw.
By August 1945 (at the time of Independence), Japan had already developed 1,744,800Kw of hydro power (29 plants) corresponding to 27.1% of the total hydro power in Korea and 1,346,700Kw (10 plants) corresponding to 20.9% was in construction. A total of 48.0% of hydro power was either already developed or in the progress of being developed. However, the problem was that more than 80.0% of all hydroelectric resources was concentrated in the northern area and even the newly developed or in the progress of being developed resources were all in the north.
Such concentration of hydropower in the north led to what is known as the Namnong Bukgong Policy and resulted in a severe power imbalance after Korea's Independence. The dams for hydroelectricity generation built under the Japanese colonial rule were concrete gravity dams such as the Bujeonho dam for Bujeon River (height 76m, 1929), Galjeon dam for Jangjin River (height 55m, 1936), Myemul dam (height 20m, 1936), Yeondupyeong dam for Heocheon River (height 100m, 1940), Hwangsuwon dam (height 60m, 1940), Naejungri dam (height 43m, 1940), Sachopyeong dam (height 86m, 1944) and Unam dam for irrigation near the Seomjin River (height 26m, 1928).
In modern times, land improvement projects implemented for increasing food production have led to the construction of many dams for irrigation. There are a total of 48 and 15 irrigation dams in South and North Korea, respectively, with 63 of them having a height of over 15m. There are 87 concrete gravity dams with a height of over 15m that were built in South Korea during the Japanese colonial rule for irrigation, one of which is the Dae-ah-gu dam (height 33m, 1922).
There are only about 10 dams built in the modern era for general water supply including the Beobgi dam (height 25m, 1939, concrete dam) whose main purpose was to supply water to the residential area for the Japanese.


Dams are managed by different institutions depending on the purpose of construction. For multi-purpose, drinking/public water, hydropower dams and estuary barrages, even if they have the same purpose, different institutions are responsible for management as the managing institution at the time of construction was different for them. Multi-purpose and flood control dams are managed by the Korea Water Resources Corporation while irrigation dams and seawalls are managed by the Korea Rural Community Corporation. As for the management of 1,200 great dams, Korea Water Resources Corporation manages a total of 30 dams (2.1%) including 15 (4 of which are in construction) multi-purpose dams, 15 drinking/public water dams and 1 flood control dam (3 are in construction) while 20 dams (1.6%) are managed by the Korea Hydro & Nuclear Power Corporation and the regional development corporations. The Korea Rural Community Corporation primarily manages 796 irrigation dams (65.6%) and the rest 367 dams (30.2%) are under the management of the municipal government.

Table. Dams in Korea (by managing institution and time of construction)
(unit: site)
Managing Institution / Time of Construction Before 1945 '46~'59 '60~'69 '70~'79 '80~'89 After 1990 Total
Korea Water Resources Corporation 0 0 4 5 6 15 31
Korea Hydro and Nuclear Power 4 1 2 3 1 9 20
Korea Rural Community Corporation 1,461 625 533 330 187 176 3,312
Municipal si·gun·gu 8,093 1,416 3,079 1,209 356 175 14,328
Total Sites 9,558 2,042 3,618 1,547 550 366 17,681
Ratio 56.5% 9.9% 21.5% 8.4% 2.5% 1.2% 100%

Of the 14,570 small dams managed by the relevant municipality, over 80% is distributed throughout Gyeongbuk, Gyeongnam, Jeonnam and Jeonbuk provinces covering more than 70% of the total effective storage capacity.

Records show that Korea has used embankment to prevent floods and reservoirs to secure water supply for farming since the Period of the Three Kingdoms. In the modern era, irrigation dams and dams for development were construction in part in addition to the river repairs for flood control during the Japanese colonial rule.
After Independence, the basis for water supply policy of the first and the second Republic of Korea was building single-purpose dams mainly for irrigation such as hydropower, drinking/public water supply and the development of agricultural water supply for the expansion of irrigation. The water resource policy at the time is well-reflected in the fact that the department of irrigation, which mostly handled water development and hydropower development, belonged to the Ministry of Internal Affairs.
After the 1960s in the third Republic era, the engineering bureau of the Ministry of Internal Affairs became the office of territory in Economic Planning before finally breaking off and becoming an independent department of construction. The development for water supply was promoted in conjunction with other land development projects while the newly established water supply office planned and implemented dam construction policy. Also, the development of single and multi-purpose dams began with the promotion of 「5-year plan for economic development」 which started in 1962. During this period, significant improvement was observed in the quality of the technology as well as the physical number of the dams. In line with such development, the River Act, in the nature of regulations for river management focused on flood control, was first enacted in 1961 and is still playing an important role in river management and water resource development with a few revisions.
In addition, the first multi-purpose dam in Korea was constructed during this period for the Seomjin River while conducting a large scale watershed surveys for the 4 major rivers including the Han River in collaboration with overseas technology in order to facilitate the integrated development of water resources. These data on water resource status by watershed were used as the foundation for establishing a basic plan of the government's water resource development as well as for selecting construction projects for multi-purpose dams.
Meanwhile, the 「10-year water resource development plan (‘70~’80)」 was established in September of 1965 for a comprehensive development of the 4 Rivers and the "Specific multi-purpose dam act" was enacted as a measure of system maintenance plan for the successful implementation of the plan. Based on this plan, several multi-purpose dams such as the Andong dam, Daecheong dam and the Soyang River dam, which is considered the largest multi-purpose dam in Asia at the time, were constructed in the 1970s.
The major provisions of the “Specific multi-purpose dam” purports to 「promote the development of national economy through a rational development and utilization of water resources and facilitate the construction of multi-purpose dams by regulating special cases of the River Act on the construction and management of multi-purpose dams, aspects relating to dam migrant support and the recovery and use of the construction investment」, and was brought to effect on April 23, 1966 as Act No. 1785.
In accordance with the government's plan to construct large-scale multi-purpose dams for irrigation and flood control, water resource development in the 1970s and the 1980s focused mainly on agricultural and drinking/public water supply, flood control and hydroelectricity. It was only in the 1980s that the need for water quality management was highlighted in water resource management and the foundational works in water quality management began in early 1980s with the establishment of an Environmental Office in Community Services.
The importance of water quality management for rivers and water reservoirs was reflected in the water resource policy which first added the importance of water resource management and conservation to the Comprehensive Long-Term Plan for Water Resources (1991~2011) established in the 1990s. Into the mid-1990s, the government policy switched to constructing mid-sized dams with the main purpose of irrigation, flood control and environment conservation. Also, as the need for environment conservation became widely recognized in the society, the Environmental Office in Community Services became an independent Ministry of Environment and the role of the ministry gradually became emphasized in national water resource management.
In addition, the Environment Conservation Act required major public projects to conduct environmental impact assessment from the 1981 but the regulation was merely followed as a formal procedure. In the 1990s, environmental issues were more emphasized in new construction projects with the expansion of the target businesses, surveying civilian feedback and the introduction of post management along with the enactment of Environmental Impact Assessment Act in 1993.
In the wake of the 1991 Nakdong River phenol incident, the responsibility of the Ministry of Construction for sewage treatment plans and drinking water management was transferred to the Ministry of Environment followed by the transfer of the entire drinking water management responsibility from the Ministry of Construction to the Ministry of Environment with the water quality controversies in early 1994. However, the responsibility of prevention of natural disasters, which was closely related to flood control works at the time, was also transferred from the Ministry of Construction to the Ministry of Internal Affairs leaving the Ministry of Construction with the responsibilities for general river management, multi-purpose dams and regional waterworks development. Towards the end of the 1994, a major reorganization of the government fused the Ministry of Construction, who was in charge of the water resource management, with the Ministry of Transportation while the Environmental Office formally became the Ministry of Environment. However, regardless of such reorganization in the government, the water supply for agriculture, which accounts for the 2/3 of all water supply, was still under the management of the Ministry of Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries while hydropower was being managed by the Ministry of Trade and Industry.
As such, there has been continuous development in the structural changes on water resource development/management policies of the government as well as in the policies for dams. Starting with the river surveys for water resource development under the Japanese colonial rule in the early 1910s, surveys on water resources and development projects have been continued for about 90 years with changing water resource development projects. The period of development can be divided into 4 stages.

· Stage 1(~1960) : Single-purpose dam (for agriculture and development) construction period for flood control and river improvement
During this period, surveys were conducted on the rivers that were not well-known out of the 14 rivers in the Korean peninsula. Based on the surveyed data, river improvement plan was established on which the river improvement projects were based and carried out until 1940. Of the major accomplishments achieved during this stage is the "Joseon River Surveys" published in August 1928, which is still valid and useful in the present.
With the start of the World War II in the 1940s, rivers were partially used to industrial development due to the increased demand in hydropower, irrigation and drinking water supply and flood control. At this stage, rivers became useful for purposes other than flood control such as hydropower and water supply which were almost untouched because of the priority that had been placed on flood control. However, water resource development at the time focused on a single purpose and was carried out without regional or local planning and carefully planned adjustments.

· Stage 2 (1960s) : Construction period for early multi-purpose dams for comprehensive water resource development
A new technique of watershed development was introduced during this stage. During this period, watershed survey projects were launched in the direction of a comprehensive and long-term development for the construction of multi-purpose dams, which were central to the water resource development of watersheds, in order to achieve both irrigation and flood control. The preliminary surveys on the rivers Han, Nakdong, Geum and Yeongsan (Seomjin) were conducted in comparison to the surveys of the 4 rivers by 500 foreign and domestic technicians over the period of 6 years. The scope of the survey was a comprehensive one that unified water systems for the watershed of the 4 rivers including all aspects of water resources.
Based on the proposal for the comprehensive development for each watershed, the government established what is known as the Four Rivers Basin Comprehensive Development Plan (1970-1981). For the successful implementation of this plan, the 『Specific Multi-purpose Dam Act』 was enacted in 1966 and the Korea Water Resources Development Corporation was founded in 1967. The Four Rivers Basin Comprehensive Development Committee was formed in August 1970 to successfully achieve project goals through the general management, coordination and control.

· Stage 3 (1970 ~ 1980) : Large-scale multi-purpose dam construction period
Large-scale multi-purpose dams were constructed during this period in order to meet the rapidly increasing demand for water due to population growth and industrial development as well as to prevent the damages due to floods. Due to the lack of general management, coordination and control of the projects in the Four Rivers Basin Comprehensive Development Committee since the 1981, water resource development projects were promoted at the department level. The major accomplishments for this stage are the completion of multi-purpose dams proposed in the previous stage as well as the promotion of regional waterworks projects with the multi-purpose dams as the water source.

· Stage 4 (after 1990) : Transition period to mid-sized multi-purpose dams that consider harmony with environment
The construction of large-scale multi-purpose dams that were once popular in the 1970~1980s had stopped due to reasons such as decreasing land for such dams in the 1990s, complaints from residents for the isolation of the area of the dam, increase in the compensation following the increase in the value of land and increased awareness on the environment. As a result, government policy switched to the construction of mid-sized dams for irrigation and flood control which were constructed in Buan, Miryang, Yongdam, Hoengseong, Jangheung and Gunwi. Currently, more dams are in construction in Buhang, Seongdeok, Yeongju and Bohyeonsan.
Particularly, the construction of new dams became even more difficult with the presence of the municipal government who often saw it as being disadvantaged for supplying water to the neighboring city and the government had to establish legal measures to support the region surrounding a dam.
Also, to this day, dam construction projects are necessary for supplying water and prevent floods in addition to generating hydropower. However, construction of large-scale dams affect the environment and there has been concerns raising over multi-purpose dam development and its impact on the environment. There are many positive effects of dam construction but the negative effects were disproportionately emphasized making future dam construction very difficult without resolving this issue. Also, the effect of river life conservation must be taken into account in addition to the negative impact on the environment surrounding a dam. More than ever, it is required to establish a clear concept of water resource development that considers environmental impact with the recognition that nature is not infinite but limited so that it can be understood that dam construction does not destroy the ecosystem but rather creates and recovers it.

Before 1960s:
Period of water resource development mostly for irrigation for agriculture and hydropower
Single-purpose dam construction
Period of multi-purpose dam construction for water resource development
Re-launch of the development of Nam and Seomjin river dams
Survey on the 4 rivers conducted
Land Expropriation Act (1962) : Regulations for land expropriation and use
10-year plan established for water resource development (1965)
Specific Multi-purpose Dam Act (1966) : Regulations on construction and management of multi-purpose dams
Establishment of the Korea Water Resources Development Corporation (1967)
Period of large-scale multi-purpose dam construction for irrigation and flood control
Regulations for supporting the surrounding area of power plants (1989) : Measures for supporting the surrounding area of power plants
Transition period to mid-sized multi-purpose dams which consider irrigation, flood control and environment conservation
Mid-sized dam construction in Buan, Miryang, Tamjin, Hoengseong and Yongdam
Water Supply and Waterworks Installation Act (1991): Construction standards for waterworks and waterworks protected area support projects
Local Tax Act (1992): Local development tax regulations for balanced regional development and water conservation
Specific Multi-purpose Dam Act (1993, revised) : Dam area compensation and support projects regulations
Regulations for dam construction and supporting the surrounding area(1999) : Management of dam construction, environmental measures, local residents support measures
Period of promoting dam construction policies that consider the region and environment

Changes in the dam construction policies

Table. Construction status by year (including those in construction)
Category Multi-purpose dam Public/drinking water dam Industrial water dam Irrigation water dam Flood control dam Total
19 63 21 1,114 1 1,216
1910~1940 - 4 1 31 - 36
1941~1945 - 3 2 94 - 99
1946~1955 - - - 52 - 52
1956~1965 1 5 2 222 - 230
1966~1975 1 13 2 181 - 197
1976~1985 2 13 4 247 - 266
1986~1995 5 20 4 187 1 217
After 1996 10 5 6 100 - 111
※Data source: Adopted from Dams in Korea (Korea Water Resources Corporation, 2000.7)

Table. Construction status based on basin and water capacity (including those in construction)
Category Multi-purpose dam Public/drinking water dam Industrial water dam Irrigation water dam Flood control dam Total
Total 19 63 21 1,114 1 1,214
By basin Han river 3 5 10 112 1 131
Nakdong river 9 5 7 293 - 310
Geum river 2 4 2 129 - 137
Yeongsan river - 9 - 63 - 72
Seomjin river 3 1 1 98 - 103
Others 2 39 1 419 - 461
By water capacity ~1 million m³ - 19 1 811 - 831
1 million m³~10 million m³ - 18 14 268 - 300
10 million m³~100 million m³ 8 20 15 35 - 63
100 million m³~1 billion m³ 11 6 1 - 1 18
Greater than 1 billion m³ 2 - - - - 2
※Data source: Adopted from Dams in Korea (Korea Water Resources Corporation, 2000.7)