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Korea: A model for development of the water and sanitation sector

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Cheonggyecheon Stream, Seoul, Korea 
Photo:  Mark Pegrum

Can a sustainable water sector be developed simultaneously with a country’s growth? Can the water sector continue to expand and achieve comprehensive coverage and financial sustainability goals to become a recognized global model for water sector management and performance? Can a country without a single sewer line in 1958 have 90 percent of its wastewater treated by 2012?

The answer is yes! The example is Korea.

The recent Korea Water and Wastewater Association (KWWA) report provides a very interesting narrative on how Korea was able to develop the water sector during the period 1960-2012 . With international support including that from the World Bank, Korea galvanized its water sector by investing in water and wastewater infrastructure. The country also established municipal water and wastewater companies and trained engineers and specialists that continue running this vital sector.

In 1962, only 18 percent of Koreans had piped water connection . The country had no managed sewers, not to mention wastewater collection and treatment facilities that appeared only in the mid-seventies. The Korean Journal of Parasitology (2006) reported that in 1971, due to poor water services and absence of handwashing practices, more than 84 percent of fecal samples contained helminth contamination, a parasitic worm whose eggs are infective and can cause severe morbidity, malnutrition, anemia and other immunological changes. 

Yongjin, Suwon, Korea
Photo:  Lig Ynnek

Also in the early 1960s, the Korean government decided to integrate the water sector into the overall economic development of the country , linking the sector to issues related to hygiene, education, housing development, and industrial transformation. This was accompanied by continuous revisions to the legal and regulatory framework together with the provision of adequate financing. In 1965, to overcome the water shortage and its intermittent supply, the Government developed a 20-year National Water Resource Plan, which was successfully modified and updated periodically to manage water demand. Subsequently, policy and institutional measures designed to address water quality issues allowed Korea to become a recognized global leader in water and wastewater management. Korea now has virtually universal water and wastewater services,  pollution is curbed, and morbidity due to water-borne diseases is simply non-existent. The so-called New Village (“Sae-Maeul”) movement resulted in a change in sanitation behavior, which led to a dramatic decrease in the problem of intestinal parasites and infection rates.

The sector development process was not easy. In the late 1980s, accelerated urbanization took its toll, and surface and underground water bodies became polluted. Majority of the rivers fell below the quality index of 3 (indicating pollution). Pollution-induced morbidity became so widespread that the national government decided to change the water quality standards. Since the early 1990s, one of key reforms was the requirement from utilities to publish tap water quality report annually under the Water Supply and Waterworks Installation Act. This report must include the source of water, pollution information, drinking water quality standard test results, and contact details of the person in charge. Since its establishment in 2002, the KWWA also publishes an annual performance report for each utility and future plans.

The government continues to provide significant financial support to the sector. While the tariffs are maintained at a level below two percent of the family income for those in the lowest income decile, the operational subsidy for the water providers is in the range of 10-13 percent of the total costs, depending on the type of investment and size of local government. Procedurally transparent and a fully accountable system of financial support from the government is provided to the sector. In addition, readily available technical and financial information of the service providers help sectoral agencies to continuously monitor progress and develop appropriate laws and regulations to meet sector targets.

In wastewater, the country gave a large role to the private sector. Between 1998 and 2008, investments more than US$800 million were financed by the private sector to construct 100 wastewater treatment plants. This trend continued and it is estimated that by the end of 2012, 58 percent of wastewater treatment plants were privately owned and managed.

Now the task is to maintain the systems, reduce inefficiencies in the form of excess capacity and promote green growth in the sector. This includes a plan to reduce electricity consumption in the sector by at least 50 percent. The Government also wants to consolidate utilities according to river basins by 2030 to achieve economies of scale and reduce the need for financial support from the government budget. This will further improve efficiency of investments and operations to provide quality support to citizens. 

To know more about Korea’s experience in developing the water and sanitation sector, please read the full publication: REPUBLIC OF KOREA — Transformation of the Water Sector (1960–2012). Can Korea’s success be replicated in other countries? Share your thoughts by leaving a comment below. 


Alexander Danilenko

Senior Water and Sanitation Specialist, Water Global Practice, World Bank

Aroha Bahuguna

Water Supply and Sanitation Specialist, World Bank

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