Chapter 1. Characterising the Water-Energy-Land-Food Nexus in Korea

This chapter outlines the trends of, and pressures on, Korea’s water, land and energy resources in the context of economic and social development. Distinctive pressures in each of the four main river basins are documented. The chapter concludes with an assessment of the capacity of Korea to respond to pressures and tensions, and the need for future-proofing the water-energy-land-food (WELF) nexus.


1.1. Pressures on the water-energy-land-food nexus in Korea

The water, energy, land and food (WELF) nexus concept is an ideal vehicle for improving understanding of the linkages across these sectors (Figure 1.1). It is useful to identify measures to reduce the pressures and trade-offs, and enhance synergies among the sectors (Ringler et al., 2013).

Figure 1.1. Conceptual framework of the WELF nexus and its drivers of change

Source: Adapted from Ringler, C., Bhaduri, A. and R. Lawford (2013), The nexus across water, energy, land and food (WELF): potential for improved resource use efficiency? Current Opinion in Environmental Sustainability 2013, 5:617–624.

This section outlines the main pressures on water, land and energy resources in Korea. However, it is important to note that heterogeneity between and within river basins is large, with each river basin facing a unique portfolio of water- and nexus-related risks.

1.1.1. Water resources

Korea is among the few OECD countries under medium-high water stress. However, information on freshwater resources and abstractions is fragmented and could be improved, particularly regarding groundwater resources.

In Korea, precipitation is concentrated over the period from June to September, with large variations by year and in each of the four major river basins - the Han, Geum, Nakdong and Yeongsan/Seomjin River systems (Figure 1.2). This poses a major challenge for water management. Steep topography and rapid urbanisation exacerbate the consequences of frequent drought and flooding caused by rainfall patterns (OECD, 2017 a, b).

Figure 1.2. The four major river basins of Korea and the quantity of water resources in each

Source: (MOLIT, 2017), The 4th Long-term Comprehensive Plan of Water Resources (2001-2020) 3rd revision plan.

Water scarcity

As of 2014, the amount of water abstraction reached 33% of total available water in Korea (MoLIT, 2017), significantly higher than all other OECD countries (OECD, 2017b). Hotspots at high risk for water scarcity are present in each of the four major river basins. Scarcity is particularly acute in coastal areas of the mainland and the islands of Korea (Figure 1.3). The volume of total water use exceeds the amount of normal water runoff (which is measured during the off-flood season). As such, flood runoff needs to be captured in reservoirs for later use, desalination is necessary to supplement dam water supply and inter-basin transfers are required during periods of drought. These water management options are expensive, energy intensive and have high carbon footprints.

Figure 1.3. Water scarcity risk evaluation 2020, Korea

Note: High water scarcity (demand exceeds supply >20 million m3); Medium water scarcity (demand exceeds supply >0-20 million m3).

Source: MoLIT (2017), The 4th Long-term Comprehensive Plan of Water Resources (2001-2020), 3rd revision.

Surface water use in Korea amounted to 25.1 billion m3 in 2014 (MoLIT, 2017). Agriculture is the dominant user of water, accounting for 61% of water use in 2014, a decrease from 80% in 1980 (Figure 1.4). Water for domestic purposes accounted for 30% and industrial usage for 9%, in 2014 (MoLIT, 2017). Household per capita consumption in Korea is high compared with most European countries. At 282 l/head/day it is twice that of England and Wales, and more than double (UK Environment Agency, 2008) that in the Netherlands (131 l/h/d), Germany (115 l/h/d) or Belgium (107 l/h/d). Ten percent of available water is designated as river maintenance water and is considered part of total water use, although it is not abstracted from rivers for intentional use (OECD, 2017a).

Recorded groundwater use and the number of groundwater wells have increased significantly (by 140% and 200% respectively) from 1996 to 2013. Groundwater consumption in 2013 was 4071 M m3 (Lee and Kwon, 2016). Agriculture has led the increase in total groundwater use. This has been largely due to: i) recent multiple and prolonged droughts leading to groundwater exploitation in an effort to secure water resources; and ii) the fact that groundwater use for agriculture is exempted from water charges under the current policy to improve agricultural productivity and farmers’ welfare (Lee and Kwon, 2016). As groundwater use has increased, related problems such as overexploitation and pollution has also increased, resulting in groundwater-level decline and abandoned wells susceptible to contamination (Lee and Kwon, 2015; Jung et al., 2012). Furthermore, increasing rainfall variability and periods of drought caused by a changing climate have reduced groundwater recharge conditions. Thus, effective investigation of groundwater levels and quality, and a holistic approach to secure sustainable groundwater resources are important issues for Korea.

Figure 1.4. Water use by sector
Hundred million cubic metres, 1965-2014

Source: MoLIT (2017), The 4th Long-term Comprehensive Plan of Water Resources (2001-2020), 3rd revision.

The total volume of freshwater abstraction is expected to increase by 4% by 2020 compared to 2007. The greatest increase in water use by 2020 is expected from industry (52%). A modest increase is expected in domestic consumption (4%), together with a modest decrease in agricultural water use (3%), by 2020 (OECD, 2017a).

Droughts have become routine in the spring, putting supply systems under stress. Climate change is likely to increase the frequency and severity of droughts, making Korea more vulnerable to water shortages. Furthermore, the Ministry of Environment (ME) is requesting additional water for environmental flows in river basins, which implies trade-offs will need to be made. It is not clear how this will be achieved given current societal demands for water, or how future water demand will be met.

There appears to be a general perception that droughts are manageable; a risky complacency given the almost total reliance on reservoir storage and recent experience in Australia, Brazil and South Africa. Responses to drought are ad hoc, on a case-by-case basis. K-water can obtain water from KRC reservoirs and streams, at a cost and if physically possible. Municipalities can charge special tariffs and penalties for overuse in times of a drought but they are rarely implemented. In December, 2017, MOI announced the introduction a of tariff system that allows for the flexibility of water rates to be reduced or increased based on the water consumption in the event of a drought. Drought action plans are currently being drafted. Inter-basin transfers and desalination are additional responses to drought, but cannot quickly be brought into production during a drought; they are part of a broader suite of options which robust resilience planning would identify.

Given the already high water stress and consumption of total available water resources, Korea will need to make substantial gains in water use efficiency to meet these future water demands and maintain economic growth; water supply augmentation alone will not be sufficient. Without more sustainable management and long-term planning of land and water resources, there will not be sufficient water supply for demand in the future which will potentially limit economic growth. This is already the case with surface water being fully allocated and the capacity for additional reservoirs exhausted in each of the four major river basins.


Korea’s vulnerability to flooding is higher than that of other countries (Figure 1.5), at 6.85 casualties per million people exposed, and in recent years there has been significant financial impact and numbers of people affected. Over the last decade (2006-15), flood damages totalled KRW 4 899.5 billion (Han River basin: KRW 2 047.7 billion) and affected almost 200,000 people (Han River basin: 135 900) (OECD, 2017b).

Figure 1.5. Human vulnerability to flooding, Korea and other selected OECD countries
Number killed per million exposed, 2004

Source: UNDP (2004), Reducing Disaster Risk: A Challenge for Development. United Nations Development Programme, New York, USA.

Over 100 regions of Korea experienced water inundation more than twice in the 2000s. Since then, the government has put in place a plan to refine rainwater exclusion capabilities, such as expansion of water control capabilities by 2025 (OECD, 2017b).

The Korea Meteorological Administration projects higher precipitation and more frequent and intense rainfall events, exposing particularly densely-populated cities to a greater risk of flooding from overloading of sewerage and drainage networks and from over-topping of river flood defences. Thirty areas have been identified as high-risk of flooding. MoLIT is setting up a comprehensive plan for flood protection measures in downtown areas which have a high risk of flooding.

Smart water management is a speciality of Korea. It is a real-time water management information system which aims to help secure the stability, safety, and effectiveness of water by combining various devices and ICT technology. There are a number of low impact development (LID) pilot projects that are being tested and applied through diffuse source pollution reduction support projects. Together with green infrastructures, groundwater storage, wetland restoration and land use planning, LID can reduce building more liabilities exposed to increased flood risks. The question remains on the capacity to disseminate and scale-up these innovative projects and solutions.

Water pollution

Korea recognises the importance of water quality for sustained growth and healthy freshwater ecosystems. Improvements in biochemical oxygen demand and total phosphorus have been achieved in the four river basins with the introduction of the Korean Total Water Pollution Load Control System (Korean TMDL, Korean TMDL, the equivalent of a total maximum daily load programme) in 2004 to control point source pollution (Figure 1.6).

Figure 1.6. Changes in water quality in Korea’s four major river basins
Left: Biochemical Oxygen Demand (BOD); Right: Total phosphorus (TP), 2006-2015

Source: ME and KEI (2016), River Management Funds for the Four Major River Systems, Korea Environmental Policy Bulletin, No. 44, Vol. XIV, Issue 4, 2016.

However, some challenges remain in water quality management:

  • Diffuse pollution from agriculture is now the predominant source of water pollution, given the significant advances made in municipal wastewater treatment and an increase in livestock production (ME, 2015). In 2014, 93% of the population was served by wastewater treatment services, compared with 71% in 2000. In addition, 83% of the population benefits from advanced (tertiary) treatment - a remarkable increase from almost nothing (1%) in 2000 (OECD, 2017a). Livestock production increased from 15% to 43% between 1970 and 2015, mostly at the expense of rice production (OECD, 2018).

  • Korea has the highest nitrogen balance and the second highest phosphorus balance in the OECD, even though the use of chemical fertilisers has declined (OECD, 2017a; 2018). Whereas most countries have succeeded in reducing their nitrogen balance, it has increased in Korea from 213.1 kg/ha in 1990-92 to 249 kg/ha in 2012-14. Over the same period in the Netherlands it fell from 309 kg/ha to 148 kg/ha as a result of manure quotas and manure application limits. Both nitrogen and phosphorus balances are the highest in Gyeonggi province which has the largest dairy industry and the second largest swine industry in Korea (Figure 1.7). The main sources of pollutants affecting nutrient loading include livestock manure and fertilisers.

  • Nutrients in lakes, rivers and coastal waters are a significant problem, leading to eutrophication, algal blooms and increasing water treatment costs.

  • Diffuse pollution is also a concern in urban areas where localised flooding results in sewer overflows from combined sewer systems.

  • Historical water pollution incidents and contamination of tap water (e.g. Nakdong accidents 1991 and 1994) have resulted in a low public trust in drinking water quality with the majority of citizens using bottled water and home water filters.

  • There remain issues related to permitting, compliance, monitoring and enforcement of point source discharges from industry and municipalities.

Other polluting substances (e.g. organics, metals, and emerging pollutants) do not appear to be routinely monitored in such a way as to drive action, so the true pollution picture is not known. Each of the four major river basins has damaged aquatic ecosystems due to water pollution, loss of connectivity from reservoirs and low residual flows. Degraded surface water quality has resulted in an increase in groundwater use as an alternative water source. As groundwater use increased, related problems such as overexploitation and contamination of groundwater has drawn public attention.

Figure 1.7. Estimated nutrient balance by province in Korea, 2014

Source: Kim et al. (2015a), Directions for Introducing Total Maximum Nutrient Loading System of Cultivated Land, p. 91, Korean Rural Economic Institute Research Report.

There are an array of fragmentised initiatives and pilot projects to increase eco-farming, best management practices, and buy-back riparian land to improve water quality but they typically rely on voluntary approaches (i.e. are not regulatory) and come at a high cost in comparison to other potential policy solutions, particularly those that utilise the Polluter-Pays Principle. The government is also striving to improve its nutrient balance and reduce land acidity by increasing reuse of manure and effluent, and reducing chemical use of fertilisers. The role of land use planning and management will be critical for water quality and resource management. There is room for improvement in engagement with citizens, industrialists and farmers to raise awareness, increase trust and reach solutions in partnership.

Korea has plans to rearrange sewerage infrastructure by 2025 by having full separation of foul sewage and rainwater runoff, enabling it to better cope with 30-year flood risks. Thirty priority areas have been identified. Options include low impact development (LID) in new cities, underground storage, constructed wetlands and other green infrastructure solutions in existing built environments.

1.1.2. Land resources and food production

Korea is a relatively small, mountainous peninsula with over 3 200 islands and a total land area of about 100 000 km². Forests accounted for 64% of the land area in 2013, a much higher share than the OECD average of 31%. The area of agricultural land is reducing, even though there are regulatory restrictions on the conversion of high quality farm land. The area of agricultural land decreased from 22% to 18% of total land area between 1990 and 2014 as the demand for development land and public reclamation projects increased (OECD, 2017a).

Korea faces rapid urbanisation and deterioration of natural ecosystems (Figure 1.8). Over 70% of the population lives in urban areas, well above the OECD average of 49% (Basic Statistics). Built-up, urbanised areas have expanded by 51% between 2002 and 2014; a rate that has far surpassed the population growth (6% over the same period). This reflects rapid industrialisation and urbanisation; 70% of the population lives in urban areas, well above the OECD average of 49% (OECD, 2017a). Over the same period, the area of grasslands decreased by 24% and of wetlands by 61% (OECD, 2017a). Lost agricultural and forest land was mainly converted to artificial surfaces, leading to habitat fragmentation and biodiversity loss, in particular in rice paddies, which host various ecosystems and about 527 species, and whose area has shrunk by 17% since 2003 (MOLIT, 2016, 2015; ME, 2014; MAFRA, 2015).

Figure 1.8. Urbanisation in Korea is inducing land use change

Note: a) International protected areas (UNESCO biosphere reserves, Ramsar wetlands and World Natural Heritage sites) are included in the IUCN categories. b) The exclusive economic zone (EEZ) stretches from the baseline out to 200 nautical miles from the coast.

Source: OECD (2017a), OECD Environmental Performance Reviews: Korea 2017, OECD Publishing, Paris.

Land use for agriculture is dominated by rice; paddies accounted for 55% of the cultivated area in 2014, although down from 61% in 2003 (MAFRA, 2014, 2015). Livestock production rose by 18% from 2006 to 2016 (FAO, 2016). Organic farming represented 1.5% of agricultural land in 2012, compared with the OECD average of 2.2% (OECD, 2017a). The observed gradual shift in the production of paddy rice to more value-added livestock and greenhouse products reflects Korean consumers' preferences. Aging farmers could perpetuate this land use change as they retire from small scale rice farming. Changes in agricultural production from rice to upland livestock and greenhouse crops may impact the timing, seasonality and volume of water consumption as well as water pollution and energy consumption. Such changes may lead to an increased reliance on groundwater. A trend towards more intensive livestock production and associated diffuse water pollution will pose a risk to surface and groundwater quality, despite efforts at managing domestic and industrial wastewater discharges.

Korea’s farming model is highly intensive, with negative ramifications for water and energy use, and land and water pollution. Land acidification is worsening with climate change and agricultural production is expected to decline in both quantity and quality due to climate change and subsequent increase in disease and pests (ME, 2014). The intensity of commercial fertiliser and pesticide use is among the highest in the OECD, and livestock density is the second highest after the Netherlands. Nevertheless, apparent consumption of nitrogen and phosphate fertilisers and pesticides decreased more than crop production, resulting in a relative decoupling. However, livestock-related surpluses of nitrogen and phosphorus have risen with increased livestock production (FAO, 2016; OECD, 2013; MAFRA, 2015) and the management of diffuse source water pollution is a challenge for Korea.

More than 65% of Korean farms are less than one hectare in size, and 59% of farmers are over 65. This fragmentation of land occupation and the farming demographic increases the difficulty and complexity of raising awareness of the need to improve agricultural practice to reduce environmental impacts.

Korea remains one of the largest providers of producer support for agriculture in the OECD (OECD, 2018; 2016). Producer support, as percentage of gross farm receipts (%PSE), is almost three times higher than the OECD average and consists mostly in market price support, a category of support with potentially environmentally harmful effects (OECD, 2018). The agriculture sector does not pay energy taxes and only partially pays water charges (OECD, 2010). The 60% of rice lands in larger schemes under the management of the Korea Rural Community Corporation (KRC) have been exempted from agricultural water charges (excluding mandatory labour levies) since 2000. The smaller schemes outside KRC domain, managed under the oversight of local governments by Irrigation Associations (IAs) or by individual farmers, remain largely responsible for covering all their capital, O&M and labour costs (OECD, 2010).

Given the above trends, effective land use planning will be critical for water quality and quantity management. Potential tensions over water allocation volumes for agriculture compared with municipal and industrial use will need to be identified and resolved through rigorous supply-demand planning. A key challenge will be to increase farmers' willingness and ability to adjust to best environmental practices as the nature of food production changes.

1.1.3. Energy resources

Korea’s economy is among the most energy intensive in the OECD. This is despite that Korea has no oil resources and limited natural gas reserves; it produces small amounts of anthracite (high quality coal). Thus, Korea is highly dependent on external energy sources. Net imports account for 87% of total primary energy supply, more than triple the OECD average of 25% (IEA, 2016). Fostering energy supply autonomy and reducing greenhouse gas emissions from the sector is a driver of energy policies and an element of Korea’s green growth strategy.

Korea’s share of renewables in the energy mix remains the lowest in the OECD and the country has fallen short of its intermediate renewables targets (OECD, 2017a) (Figure 1.9). With its mountainous topography, contested and militarised waters and high population density, it may face greater challenges to renewable energy development than other countries, particularly with regard to hydropower generation; hydroelectric power generation accounts for less than 1% of total power generation in Korea.

Figure 1.9. Korea’s current and future planned energy mix

Note: a) TPES: Total primary energy supply. Breakdown excludes electricity trade.

Source: OECD (2017a), OECD Environmental Performance Reviews: Korea 2017, OECD Publishing, Paris.

The electricity consumption of Korea increased from 76.7 TWh in 1990 to 423.2 TWh in 2013 (Kim and Cho, 2017) (Figure 1.10). This was associated with an increase in industrial production and electrification of the industrial sector, and in response to low electricity prices and a distorted energy price system (Kim et al., 2015b; Kim and Shin, 2016). The industrial sector is the highest electricity consumer group (87%; 2013 figures), and is expected to remain so as the economy grows (Kim and Cho, 2017). The energy use intensity of the Korean industry remains high due to the lack of a price signal and incentives to improve energy efficiency (ibid). The agriculture sector does not pay energy taxes, and energy-intensive industries such as cement and steel are exempt from the bituminous coal tax (OECD, 2017a).

The power reserve ratio reaches dangerously low levels (<5%) during summer heat waves when power consumption increases for air conditioning (Kim and Cho, 2017). The sudden blackout in 2011 caused major inconvenience and costs to the industrial sectors (ibid).

Figure 1.10. Energy use and intensity of use by sector, 1990-2013

Source: Kim, K. and Y. Cho (2017), Estimation of power outage costs in the industrial sector of South Korea, Energy Policy, Vol. 101, Feb 2017, pp. 236-24.

There remain opportunities to exploit. The government is pushing for wind and solar photovoltaic power to become core pillars of Korea’s new and renewable energy mix, and is also promoting strong growth in solar thermal and geothermal energy (Invest Korea, 2015). Efforts in both support for renewables and energy demand management need to be significantly scaled up if the country is to meet its long-term target of 11% renewables in total primary energy supply by 2035, already pushed back from 2030 (Figure 1.9) (OECD, 2017a).

Whilst water consumption by the energy sector is small in comparison to other sectors, water efficiency in the energy sector can still make a significant difference. There are opportunities for water recycling for cooling power plants, advanced cooling systems that use less water, and there is potential to partner with other sectors to increase water use efficiency and lower water stress. Although limited land area in Korea means that the scope for biofuels is restricted, any biofuels production will need to be managed carefully to reduce trade-offs associated with increased water and land use, water pollution and reduced food production.

There are also opportunities to reduce energy consumption in the water sector. For example through energy capture from wastewater treatment plants, energy-efficient pumping systems, decentralised water services and improvements in water leakages, which improve water supply and reduce energy demand. Designing water infrastructure to the right size for future needs will also increase efficiencies. Desalination is a particularly energy-intensive and costly way of augmenting water supply and will need to be managed carefully. There may be opportunities to unify hydropower dams and multi-purpose dams to improve water resource management. For example, when the hydropower dam in the Han River is converted into a multi-purpose dam and operated in real-time, it can secure a flood control capacity of about 240 million cubic metres and an additional water supply capacity of 540 to 880 million cubic metres.

Korea has a high energy-water risk relative to other countries in the Asia-Pacific region. One study mapping the water consumption for energy production around the Pacific Rim determined that watersheds at energy-water risk represent 59% of all basins in Korea where water is used in energy production (Tidwell and Moreland, 2016). Energy policy must consider land and water impacts, and trade-offs must be understood and explicit water demand from the energy sector needs to be accounted for in water allocation regimes. Drought planning is necessary to ensure water for cooling in order to prevent black-outs. Thermal pollution from water used for cooling needs to be considered in water quality and aquatic ecosystem management. Once built, power plants have a very limited ability to shift between different sources of water supply, so their location with respect to the availability of water is a critical consideration. The water resource must be reliable and the flow must be sufficient to provide the thermal capacity to receive the cooling water discharge without adverse impact on the ecology after use and discharge. Droughts can result in a number of simultaneous problems: river flows reduce so water may not be available for abstraction, the flow may not be sufficient to safely absorb the heating effect of the warm discharge water, and electricity demand can surge because of air conditioning demands.

In a water-stressed country such as Korea, with numerous competing pressures on its water resources, the water-energy nexus is an important consideration. Thermal generation technologies which involve significant water loss through evaporation will increasingly become less viable during droughts, either because of lack of water for effective cooling or because the lost resource is unsustainable. Similarly, the operation of hydropower plants may become increasingly contentious where unacceptable impacts on users and communities, river flow regimes and the river environment (in particular on fish passage) may occur. These tensions within the nexus will require clear policy thinking to establish priorities and an energy strategy which considers water impacts. Renewable energy options – in particular wind and solar – may become more attractive as a result.

1.1.4. Upstream versus downstream disparities

Population and industrial growth in Korea have placed increased pressures on limited available water resources, creating water use conflicts between stakeholders. A legacy of absent land and water use planning and restrictions at the basin level has created tensions between land development for economic growth and environmental impacts. This has typically manifested as water pollution with subsequent tensions between upstream and downstream users. Conflicts have also taken place over the environmental suitability of dam construction sites and over the decision-making process for national water resources plans. A lack of public consultation and stakeholder engagement on water resource planning, infrastructure development, and policies related to water rights and pollution management has not helped the situation (Choi et al. 2017). Examples of conflicts over water quantity and quality in Korea are presented in Table 1.1.

Table 1.1. Examples of conflicts over water quantity and quality, Korea

Type of conflict


Water quantity

Opposition of Imsil County (Imsil-gun) to using Owon stream for non-agricultural water supply to Jeonju-city

Conflicts among local people (Gochang), golf field owners (Anseong), and KRCC (Korea Rural Community Corporation) over supplying agricultural water to golf fields

Opposition from the local people of Gamsu-ri, Danjang-myeon and Milyang-city to construction of a bottled water factory due to concerns over groundwater depletion and potential impacts on water availability for farming and domestic use.

Conflicts between farmers and government over water rights in the Seomjingang Dam and Seongdeok Dam, and the conversion of agricultural water supply to multiple-purpose water supply

Disputes with K-water over water use rights, for example with Gyeonggi providence over the water use right of the Paldang Dam, with Chuncheon city over the water use right of the Soyanggang Dam, and with Seoul city over the recognition of vested water use rights.

Regional conflicts between the downstream region of the Geum River and the Jun-Ju region receiving trans-basin water from Yongdam reservoir.

Conflicts over the environmental suitability of the Yeongwol Dam and Hantan River Dam projects due to impacts on landscape and ecological resources, as well as the threat of water pollution.

Water quality

Frequent conflicts between local governments over water quality deterioration in the early 1990s, which led to a new measure for environment-friendly river basin restoration.

Frequent conflicts over the responsibility for water quality management among up-, mid-, and downstream stakeholders along the Han River basin.

Requests from local people for the closure of fishing sites in the upper flood stage area of the Chodang reservoir due to water contamination.

Sources: Choi, I-C, et al. (2017), Water Policy Reforms in South Korea: A Historical Review and Ongoing Challenges for Sustainable Water Governance and Management, Water, Vol. 9, 717; Labadie, J.W. et al. (2007), Decision Support System for Adaptive River Basin Management: Application to the Geum River Basin, Korea, Water International, Vol. 32:3, 397-415; Moon et al. (2012), A Study on Advancement Policy of Water Usage Recognition, Korean Environment Institute (KEI); Song, Y-I. et al. (2010), Strategic environmental assessment for dam planning: a case study of South Korea's experience, Water International, Vol. 35:4, 397-408.

There are also disparities between urban and rural communities in Korea. Rapid industrialisation in urban areas, and the migration of young generations from rural to urban areas, have led to rural areas being economically left behind and an expanding income gap between farms and urban households1. Off-farm employment opportunities are limited in rural areas, in particular for the aged population (almost 60% of farmers are more than 65 years old) (OECD, 2017a). Diffuse source pollution, particularly from livestock farming has become the main source of water pollution and has caused conflicts over water rights between local governments in upstream versus downstream regions and urban versus rural communities (Choi et al., 2017).

Promoting sustainable use of land and water resources, and increasing preparedness to climate change, is an important policy agenda to assure long-term growth in agriculture and in cities. For example, opportunities exist to optimise land use and value-added food production, and to re-orient agriculture production subsidies away from direct producer and price support towards support encouraging, or conditional on, the provision of environmental services (e.g. water management, flood buffering, biodiversity protection), and spatially targeted and tailored agri-environmental payments. Such an approach may be agreeable with Korean consumers who are increasingly interested in environmentally-friendly agriculture and products. Broader stakeholder engagement is required in planning and decision-making of policies related to water resource planning, infrastructure development and policies related to water rights and pollution management.

1.2. Distinctive WELF issues in the four river basins

There are distinct tensions within the WELF nexus at different scales in Korea, which reflect local economic, social and environment conditions. This suggests that the nexus needs to be addressed in different – although coordinated – ways in each basin (for a map of the basins, see Figure 1.2). Key characteristics of each of the four major river basins in Korea are outlined below. This information was received as part of the OECD background report provided by ME for this project.

The Han River – the most northern basin – serves over half of the population of Korea. It has a higher level of protection of water sources to secure safe household and industrial water supply for Seoul city. Despite this, water pollution, high water demands and ageing water infrastructure remain key issues for the basin. Diffuse pollution and toxic effluent discharges, including from abandoned mines, have increased. The frequency of algal blooms has also increased. There is demand for community involvement, environmental awareness and water-related recreation.

The Geum River – the smallest and most western basin - serves 12% of Korea’s population and has the largest proportion of land use dedicated for agriculture (28% of the basin area). Key issues in the basin include water scarcity, algal blooms, high rates of water pollution incidents and degraded aquatic ecosystems in comparison with other basins. Measures of securing alternative water resources in preparation for droughts are inadequate. The Geum River Basin has slightly lower Water Use Charges (KRW 160/m3) than the other three river basins (KRW 170/m3).

The Nakdong River – the largest and most eastern basin – serves about one-quarter of the population of Korea. Key issues include an increase in algal blooms and toxic water pollution from inadequate management of diffuse agricultural pollution and point source pollution from industry, and ageing water infrastructure and associated costs for improvement. It is estimated that 70% of water pollution in the Nakdong River comes from diffuse pollution, of which livestock emissions are the largest source. There are concerns about lack of compliance, monitoring and enforcement of industrial discharge permits and a lack of restrictions on land use in the Nakdong basin. There are tensions between upstream and downstream water users and polluters, particularly over the quality of surface water available for, and flooding of, downstream cities. Effective water management, policy coherence and stakeholder engagement will be critical for reducing water conflicts, and improving water quality, ecosystem functioning and resilience to climate change in the Nakdong basin.

The Yeongsan/Seomjin River – the most southern and water scarce basin – serves 8% of Korea’s population and has over one-quarter of its land dedicated to agriculture. Key issues in the basin include water scarcity, an increase in algal blooms, diffuse urban and agricultural pollution and toxic point source discharges, and declining aquatic ecosystem health. Water transfers from other basins and desalination is necessary to meet water demands in the Yeongsan/Seomjin basin. There is also concern that the ability of ageing infrastructure to deliver quality water services and respond to heavy rainfall and flooding is inadequate.

In each of the four major river basins, there is limited management of water in tributaries, despite tributaries accounting for approximately 30% of rivers. Discharge standards and emission permits apply but these are not routinely monitored or enforced. Tributaries are excluded from the Korean TMDL. Small coastal catchments are also excluded from monitoring and regulation at central level. Municipalities are supposed to manage the tributaries and small coastal catchments but with no upstream and downstream coordination among them, and with no or limited links to other levels of water governance (basin, region, national).

The National Groundwater Information Centre collects information on groundwater quantity, quality and abstraction in Korea. Under the 1994 Groundwater Act, a database is being developed to gather groundwater quantity and quality data. Some artificial aquifer recharge has occurred by municipalities as a drought risk reduction measure but there is little evidence of robust data and appropriate comprehensive policy to manage abstraction and pollution of groundwater at the national or aquifer levels. The two main issues for groundwater are improving understanding of groundwater quality and implementing management strategies (i.e. allocation regimes reinforced by permitting and monitoring) for each groundwater unit.

1.3. Capacity to respond to pressures and tensions

1.3.1. Coordination across institutions

Korea’s institutional framework for water management is multi-layered and multi-faceted to accommodate the different water uses in the country: drinking water, irrigation, industrial supply, hydropower and cooling, and environmental needs. However, the number of government institutions, agencies and other bodies (Table 1.2) involved in water management at central, basin and local levels attests to a fragmented institutional landscape that has high inefficiencies. While these institutions may allow for fast policy making and response to crises, they raise important coordination challenges for the development and implementation of integrated, coherent and inclusive water policy and the sustainable management of the WELF nexus.

The fragmentation of responsibilities for water amongst different ministries has also resulted in a multitude of water management plans. The main water plans and programmes are presented in Table 1.3. The ME has created 35 water-related plans, and is trying to streamline the four main ones into the Water Environment Management Master Plan for water quality and ecosystem health and the National Waterworks Master Plan, which includes tap (drinking) water policy.

The recent water governance reform through the adoption of the revised Government Organisation Act, June 2018, merges responsibilities of water quantity and quality management under one ministry (ME). This merge is a step in the right direction for improved policy alignment and coherency. However, improved coordination does not come automatically; ME will need to develop and implement a water quality and quantity “coordination” strategy for effective merging of responsibilities at national and sub-national levels (see 0).

Table 1.2. Overview of government roles and responsibilities for water in Korea



Government ministries

Ministry of Environment (ME)

Local waterworks management, drinking water management, sewage policy, water quality management, aquatic ecosystem health. Development and coordination of plans for the conservation, use, allocation and development of water resources, multi-regional water supply and river basin management. Long-term water resource planning and water control planning for river basins. Water infrastructure development, and coastal and river reclamation.

Ministry of Land, Infrastructure and Transport (MoLIT)

Land management, river maintenance, and planning related to construction of cities, roads, etc.

Ministry of Agriculture, Food and Rural Affairs (MAFRA)

Securing stable food production, agricultural water development and management, including irrigation dam management.

The Ministry of Strategy and Finance (MoSF)

Economic and fiscal policies, public expenditures, taxes, tariffs and public fund management, including for the water sector.

Ministry of the Interior (MoI)

Oversees decentralisation and the interactions between central and local authorities. Contributes to planning the tariff strategy for drinking water and sanitation service provision.

Ministry of Trade, Industry and Energy (MoTIE)

National power development, including hydropower.

Ministry of Public Safety and Security (MPSS)

Public safety and disaster prevention.

Office for Government Policy Coordination

Directing, adjusting and overseeing central administrative authorities underneath the Prime Minister's Office (PMO). Managing, analysing and assessing policies in regard to social risks, conflicts and pending problems, including water-related conflicts.

Government institutes and committees

National Disaster Management Research Institute (NDMI)

Practical disaster management capacity building, including guidance, information, analysis and technology. Works under the Ministry of Public Safety and Security.

National Institute of Environmental Research (NIER)

Research on total water pollution load control, water quality standards, water-environmental engineering, aquatic ecosystems and integrated water quality management and evaluation processes (e.g. water quality predictions, etc.). Works under the ME.

National Water Resource Management Committee

Co-ordination of water-related stakeholders and agencies across levels of government.

River Management Committees (RMCs)

Deliberation on, and mediation of, important issues and disputes on river management. There are two types of RMCs: 1) Central RMCs, which exist under the ME (until recently, they were under the responsibility of MoLIT); and 2) Local RMCs, which operate at the basin level and sit under local governments.

River Basin Committees (RBCs)

Deliberating bodies that unite all stakeholders from each river basin district. Under the remit of ME. RBCs manage the River Management Funds which support upstream water quality projects.

Water Tariff Committee

Deliberation on water charges (for dam water and multi-regional water).

State-owned corporations

Korea Water Resources Corporation (K-water)

Operation and management of water resources facilities, including bulk water supply to municipalities and industries through dams and multi-regional water supply systems. Acts under the authority of ME.

Korea Environment Corporation (KECO)

Operation and management of local waterworks through consignment contracts with local governments. Supports policy making and implementation for water, sewage and water quality management. Acts under the authority of ME.

Korea Rural Community Corporation (KRC)

Implementation of development projects in farming and fishing villages, and operating agricultural water and agricultural irrigation facilities. Acts under the auspices of MAFRA.

Korea Hydro- and Nuclear Power (KHNP)

Operation of ten hydropower plants under the authority of MoTIE.

Research institutes

Korea Environment Institute (KEI)

Science-based policy advice for government, public sector and civil society, including on water quality. Review of environmental impact assessments for major development projects.

Korea Institute of Civil Engineering and Building Technology (KICT)

R&D to improve public safety and the quality of life, including advice on government policies and strategic plans regarding water resources, flood damage, drought control, waterway surveys, subterranean water mapping and climate change.

Korea Research Institute for Human Settlements (KRIHS)

Research on spatial policy, territorial development and competitiveness, and green growth, including water resources and river basin management.

Source: Summary from OECD (2017b), Enhancing Water Use Efficiency in Korea: Policy Issues and Recommendations, OECD Studies on Water, OECD Publishing, Paris.

Table 1.3. Main water plans and programmes

Ministry in charge

Plans and programmes


Timeline and purpose


The Framework Act on Water Management

This new Act establishes a master plan for water management at the national level and for the four major river basins based on the concept of integrated water management. A national management committee and basin committees will promote sustainable and integrated water management.

To be enacted in June 2019

The Water Management Technology and Industry Act

This new Act aims to enhance quality of life through the development of water management technology and promoting the water industry.

To be enacted in December 2018.

River Act

Operation of river facilities, such as dams, reservoirs and floodgates. Water allocation including use, management and adjustment in use of river water

Water Environment Management Master Plan

Water Environment Conservation Act

(Art. 24 of 234)

Ten-year plan to achieve water quality targets and create an ecologically healthy water environment

2006-15, 2016-25

Long-term Comprehensive Plan for Water Resources

Act on the Investigation, Planning, and Management of Water Resources (Art.17)

Twenty-year plan for stable security and effective use, development and preservation of water resources

2001-20, 2006-20, 2011-20 (revision)

Comprehensive Water Control Plans for River Basin

Act on the Investigation, Planning, and Management of Water Resources (Art.18)

Ten-year plan for development and appropriate use of river basin water resources, river environment improvement, river basin flood prevention and flood damage minimisation

National rivers: 2005-15 (established by the MOLIT)

Local rivers: varies (established by local governments)

Comprehensive Mid-term Plan on the Ecological Stream Restoration Project

Water Environment Management Master Plan

Restoration of damaged rivers by removing artificial disturbances, maintaining integrity of ecosystem

2011-15, 2016-20

National Sewage Master Plan

Sewerage Act (Art. 4)

Ten-year plan for development and implementation of national sewerage policy

2006-15, 2016-25

National Waterworks Master Plan

Water Supply and Waterworks Installation Act (Art. 5)

Ten-year plan for development of national waterworks policy, effective water use and stable tap water supply

2006-15, 2016-25

National Water Reuse Plan

Promotion of and Support for Water Reuse Act (Art.5)

Ten-year plan for promotion of water reuse and facilitation of related technology development


Basic Plan for Soil Conservation

Soil Environment Conversation Act (Art. 4)

Ten-year plan for prevention of soil contamination, restoration and purification of contaminated soil and provision of soil-groundwater nexus


Water Demand Management Plan

Tap water saving through effective water demand management

2000-06, 2007-16

Long-term Dam Construction Plans

Act on Construction of Dams and Assistance, etc. to their Environs

(Art. 4)

Ten-year plan to develop water resources in an efficient and environment-friendly manner


Groundwater Management Master Plan

Groundwater Act

(Art. 6)

Ten-Year plan for appropriate development and use, and the efficient preservation and management of groundwater


Basic Plan for Waterworks Installation and Management (Multiregional and industrial)

Water Supply and Waterworks Installation Act (Art. 4)

Ten-year plan to install and manage general and industrial waterworks in a proper and reasonable manner

2012-25, 2015-25 (revision)


River Act

Construction and maintenance of flood control, construction of river facilities (e.g. dams, reservoirs, floodgates). River Information Management System.

Special Act on the Compensation of Land Incorporated into River

Compensation to property owners for loss of transferred land for river management

Natural River improvement programme

River Act

Restoration of river channels to near-natural state to improve aquatic habitat and amenity services

Special Act on the Eco-friendly Conservation and Utilisation of the Area around Dams

To conserve and manage the environment, and develop economy around the dam is for balanced and sustainable development of country


Comprehensive measures on diffuse source pollution

Control of diffuse pollution sources (agricultural fields, livestock facilities, urban areas, roads, etc.)

2004-11, 2012-20


Rural Water use Rationalisation Plan

Rearrangement of Agricultural and Fishing Village Act (Art. 15)

Ten-year plan for efficient development, use and preservation of rural water


Comprehensive measures to combat drought in the agricultural sector

Effective management of agriculture water use to minimise the impact of drought

December 2015

Source: OECD (2017a), OECD Environmental Performance Reviews: Korea 2017, OECD Publishing, Paris.

The following points outline the main water governance issues identified from the OECD fact-finding mission:

  • Five ministries, several director generals, multiple directorates and divisional units each manage certain aspects of water, and commonly in silos. There are additional costs from such a silo approach. A staged approach towards policy integration is being considered, first merging water quantity, quality and ecosystems; and then combining with disaster management for floods and droughts, urban planning, and agriculture. Even with the recent institutional merging of water responsibilities to ME, integration of water quality and quantity management calls for structural changes within ME, as well as motivated, incentivised and capacitated staff to make integration successful.

  • There appears to be a dislocation between centrally formulated policies and their implementation at a local scale.

  • Korea has a largely reactive (as opposed to preventive) response to water crises, which comes at a high cost. The increasing frequency and severity of droughts in particular are exposing system failures and a lack of resilience planning to water-related shocks. Preventive river maintenance and the installation of emergency spillways and spillway expansions are helping to reduce flood risks in high-risk areas of Korea.

  • There are 77 laws that deal with water which are not necessarily consistent with one another nor factor in unintended consequences from implementation. For example, in 2017, the ME decided to introduce ecological flows without a clear vision of how they affect the rights of other users, and without guidance on how to implement them in practice. While e-flows are an essential constituent of sustainable water management in the Korean context, this way of proceeding may potentially expose and increase tensions between water users.

  • As heard during the fact-finding mission "There is a plan for every thing, but not A plan for Everything". ME has a 20-year Water Resources Plan (previously under the responsibility of MoLIT), revised every 5 years, and a 10-year Water Environment Strategy. With the transfer of water resources responsibilities from MoLIT to ME, it is envisaged that these plans will be coordinated in the short term, but at their next iteration they should be merged. MAFRA has a 10-year Water Use Rationalisation Plan for the efficient development and management of agricultural water, and there are multiple 10-year plans by government research organisations under MoTIE. However, there is little link or coordination between each of the plans and only about 10% of plans actually translate into action.

1.3.2. Capacities to adjust policies to local situations and coordinate across sectors

Korea’s capacity to adjust policies to local circumstances is limited. As investigated in the OECD (2017b) report Enhancing Water Use Efficiency in Korea: Policy Issues and Recommendations, three economic instruments formerly under the remit of MoLIT contribute to water quantity management and could potentially promote water use efficiency in Korea:

  1. 1. A river water use fee is levied on water users (energy generators, industry, and domestic users) who abstract water from a river;

  2. 2. A dam water tariff is a uniform volumetric tariff levied on water users who abstract water secured in a dam via a contract with K-water; and

  3. 3. Multi-regional water tariffs are two-part tariffs set nationwide to partially recover the costs of supplying water through multi-regional systems; different tariffs apply to different water quality grades (raw water, settled water, purified water).

In addition, a water use charge under the remit of ME partially overlaps with the river use fee. The water use charge is paid by downstream urban residents and industries based on consumption of water and used for River Management Funds (RMFs) which support projects for managing and improving water quality upstream. Charges are similar in each basin and based on previous years financing demand from local governments, and not future needs. The various water charges and who is responsible, pays and exempt are outlined in Table 1.4.

Table 1.4. Charges on water abstraction in Korea

Water Charge

Charge, 2016 (KRW/ m³)

Who collects

Who pays

Who is exempted

River water use fee


Provinces and metropolitan cities

Municipalities, industries

Irrigators, etc.

Dam water tariff



Municipalities, industries

Irrigators (they seldom use K-water reservoirs), etc.

Multi-regional water tariff


Municipalities, industries

Raw water


Settled water


Purified water


Water use charge

Downstream municipalities, under remit of ME

Downstream municipalities, industries (end-users)

Irrigators, upstream water users

Han, Nakdong and Yeongsan/ Seomjin River Basins


Geum River Basin


Source: Adapted from OECD (2017b), Enhancing Water Use Efficiency in Korea: Policy Issues and Recommendations, OECD Studies on Water, OECD Publishing, Paris.

None of the above economic instruments are designed to promote water use efficiency or address increasing scarcity (already the highest amongst OECD countries). Charges are not differentiated by basin and therefore do not reflect local water security issues and financing requirements. Furthermore, they do not generate sufficient revenue required to maintain and extend existing water infrastructure at the basin level. Irrigators are largely exempt from water abstraction charges (OECD, 2017a), despite the agriculture sector being the greatest user of water.

Low cost-recovery of water supply and sanitation services reduces the funding available for effective operation, maintenance and upgrades/replacements of infrastructure: a significant risk given that national infrastructure assets are ageing, with all components of a similar age. Infrastructure in multi-regional supply systems over 20 years are expected to reach 49.6% by 2020 and 79.6% by 2025 out of total facility capacity (Table 1.5). Furthermore, the working age population (aged between 15 and 64 years old) is expected to decline by 15% between 2010 and 2040. Together with slowing economic growth, this will result in a reduced ability to publically fund water infrastructure.

Table 1.5. The proportion of aging water infrastructure over 20 years

Water infrastructure




Multi-regional water supply system




Local water supply system




Source: OECD (2017b), Enhancing Water Use Efficiency in Korea: Policy Issues and Recommendations, OECD Studies on Water, OECD Publishing, Paris.

Ineffective water management policies in Korea manifest in the following ways:

  • The prevailing water allocation regime fails to allocate water where it is most useful. The capacity of water allocation regimes in Korea to deliver sustainable water management and allocate water where is creates most value is hampered by the coexistence of water entitlements acquired before and after the construction of dams. It is not clear whether water is over allocated or overused; abstraction limits are not routinely monitored for compliance or enforced (OECD, 2017b).

  • Leakage and non-revenue water are high (average 20.6%) in water supply networks to households and industry. The target is to reduce leakage to 15%. Some areas are being prioritised because of the scale of this nationwide challenge (some areas have leakage as high as 50%).

  • There is low public awareness of the degree of water scarcity in Korea. Industrial water use is geared towards economic production rather than water efficiency. Low water charges provide little incentive to reduce water consumption, in particular where water is scarce, the opportunity cost of using it is high or augmenting supply is expensive. Per capita household use is among the highest in the world, at 282 litres per person per day (l/p/d).

  • KREI recognises water use inefficiency within the agriculture sector. It has a research project on how to increase water use efficiency and demand-side management. The question remaining is how any saved water will be reallocated and used.

  • Dams that have lost their function have been under the spotlight, particularly those that have led to deterioration in water quality and aggravated conflict between upstream and downstream communities. MOSF are planning for two additional hydropower dams.

  • Groundwater resources could be faced with problems caused by over-abstraction and pollution. In coastal areas, there is concern about saline intrusion. Groundwater - primarily used for irrigation and greenhouse farming because of its superior water quality in comparison to river water - is neither properly monitored nor regulated, and is at risk from agricultural and industrial pollution.

With limited freshwater resources to harness, and with droughts and floods becoming more frequent and severe, the focus of the future is turning towards improvements in water use efficiency and demand management, or the reuse of wastewater2. There are opportunities to manage water resources and existing infrastructure in a coordinated way (OECD, 2017b). Decisions on how to operate dams and how to share water amongst agriculture, energy, industry, municipalities and the environment can be improved in Korea in generate more value from water. It will be critical to address the public’s lack of awareness of water scarcity risk; their focus is on water quality despite repeated droughts. A popular saying in Korea is that when something is wasted “you use it like water”.

1.4. A need for future-proofing the WELF nexus in Korea

The WELF nexus faces dramatic changes in Korea, and the past is a poor predictor of future risks, uncertainties and opportunities. Recent droughts across the world have highlighted the fact that historic weather records are no guide to today’s rainfall patterns. Even where climate change predictions suggest that, on average, rainfall in the future may not be very different to that experienced in the historic record, they ignore the risk of more frequent, longer duration and more extreme events. It is extreme events which test water supply systems to their limits.

Traditional assumptions about the reliability of a rainy season, and the certainty of reservoirs refilling each year, are likely to be misplaced. Since the turn of the Millennium, prolonged droughts in Australia, California, Brazil (Sao Paulo) and South Africa (Cape Town) have exposed the vulnerability of supply systems which rely heavily on reservoir storage and the flawed thinking that storage capacity equates to water supply security. It does, but only when the reservoirs are full. The lessons learned from these recent droughts elsewhere are particularly relevant in the Korean context, for four reasons:

  1. 1. They demonstrate that it is essential to have drought plans in place before a drought develops, so that the triggers for actions are agreed in advance, negotiations over compromises and trade-offs have already been settled, and roles and responsibilities are clear.

  2. 2. They show that a structured approach to water resource supply planning can reduce the likelihood of emergency measures being required during a drought. All but the most extreme events will have been considered as part of day-to-day management, and investment and operational processes will be in place to manage drought on a routine basis.

  3. 3. They all impacted supply systems which relied heavily on reservoir storage, with very few alternative sources; very similar to the Korean situation.

  4. 4. They all exposed the dangers of relying on an approach to water supply planning and underlying assumptions about the reliability of sources based upon historic norms and a continuation or extension of business as usual.

Korea is not immune to droughts. A recent series of spring droughts has mainly impacted agricultural production, but each has brought the risk of wider disruption to water supplies. In early 2018, in South Gyeongsang Province, emergency measures were needed to maintain supplies. Municipalities in South Jeolla Province have also been impacted: reservoirs supplying Sinan-gun were at only 18 percent of capacity, and they sought 87 billion won (USD 76 million) in emergency funds from the central government and provided 16 billion won from their own reserves to divert water from flowing to the ocean (Ko Dong-hwan, 2017).

The government recognises the risk from drought, and have prepared a comprehensive countermeasure against drought at the committee under the direction of the Office for Government Policy Coordination (drought is a cross-departmental issue). It seeks greater resilience through more connectivity across water supply systems, the use of treated effluent for irrigation and industrial water supply, and better demand management. However, Korea relies heavily on a disaster response mechanism, including drought warning systems and compensatory payments issued by the interagency Drought Task Force. Disaster prevention, through scenario planning for land use and investment does not receive similar attention.

Future scenario and investment planning will be essential to assess: the potential range of climate change impacts and costs related to water availability and water supply security; the effect of demographic changes on water demand; different economic scenarios for water demand and water quality; and land use, food and energy production scenarios for water demand and quality. Future scenarios will need to look further ahead than 20 years, to drive land use, urban and infrastructure development, as well as non-infrastructure options such as demand management and behaviour change. Responses need to be prioritised, reflecting effectiveness and cost-efficiency, now and in the future.


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← 1. The relative level of average farm household income declined to 65% of average urban household income, which is low when compared to almost all other OECD countries.

← 2. The Korean Construction Code now requires the use of reclaimed water for large greenfield projects.

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