The question many have asked in the aftermath is how a country with such advanced technology, boasting cutting-edge semiconductor manufacturing and a burgeoning space programme, could fail to manage fundamental matters like housing and drainage. Even though this year’s rains were exceptionally heavy, seeing as monsoon rains occur every year, why wasn’t the city prepared?
FLOOD PREVENTION BUDGET WAS CUT THE PAST FEW YEARS
To answer that, it is instructive to go back to the last time summer rains caused widespread flooding in Seoul. In July 2011, destructive flooding led the city to reevaluate its water management systems and confront growing climate risks.
According to the city government, rains of 30mm or more per hour can cause disasters like floods. Rains of that volume have occurred 3.4 times annually on average over the past 50 years. In 2011, there were eight such downpours, followed by nine in 2013.
To adapt to this rainier future, the city revamped its drainage and disaster prevention systems. The government added drainage pipes in low-lying areas to prevent flooding caused by surface runoff. It expanded systems of evacuation warning for households in flood-prone areas and made plans to relocate semi-underground housing units.
The policy prioritisation of buttressing the city for the effects of climate change took a different course in recent years. The city’s budget for water management and disaster prevention increased from 431.7 billion won (US$326 million) in 2012 to 616.8 billion won in 2019. The budget was then cut to 534.1 billion won in 2020 and 509.9 billion won in 2021.
Those changes coincide with political reshuffle, after left-wing Mayor Park Won- died by apparent suicide in 2020 amid accusations of sexual misconduct. He was replaced by conservative Oh Se-hoon, who had also served as mayor from 2006 to 2011.
When Oh took office, he redirected budget funds away from projects Park had spearheaded, and flood prevention was among the initiatives that lost out.