By Alex Kirby
BBC News Online environment correspondent in Seoul, Korea
South Korea will inevitably complete a highly controversial project to reclaim a huge area of coastal mudflats used by migrating birds, a scientist says.
The bar-tailed godwit undertakes amazing journeys
Dr Peter Bridgewater, secretary-general of the international wetlands treaty, said he was certain it would go ahead.
Dr Bridgewater said he believed the Korean government would try to make the project environmentally acceptable.
Ornithologists say the mudflats, at Saemangeum on the Yellow Sea, are vital to about two million migrating birds.
Dr Bridgewater, who heads the Ramsar Convention on wetlands, made an official visit to several ministries here on 1 April, including the ministries of foreign affairs and environment.
Try to act
He told BBC News Online: "They all said Saemangeum was well advanced, and they had plans to complete the key design feature of closing the estuary by the end of 2005.
"They said they'd listened to people's concerns, and that the project would be eco-friendly as a result.
"I pointed out to them that while it was excellent to design wetland systems into the proposed reclamation, these resources might not be available to migrating birds.
"I offered to provide further advice if it would help, and urged the idea of nominating new Ramsar sites to the north and south of Saemangeum so as to make an integrated approach to conservation and development.
"I was impressed at the way they listened to my suggestions and feel they are striving for the best solution for a project which is now so advanced it will inevitably have to be completed.
"It will certainly go ahead, but there are ways to make it more environmentally acceptable and I think they will try to act on the ideas."
'Time to lead'
The South Korean government says it needs the land for farming and supplying fresh water. The 33-km embankment central to the scheme will be the world's longest sea dyke.
Conservationists say Saemangeum is an essential place for birds to feed and rest on their migrations between the Arctic and the South Pacific.
Nial Moores, a British ornithologist living in South Korea, is one of the founders of WBKEnglish (Wetlands and Birds Korea English), a conservation group.
Korean monks came to the UK in January to protest about the plans
He describes Saemangeum as "simply the most important site for shore birds in the whole of east Asia, on present knowledge".
He told BBC News Online: "South Korea's a global leader in terms of its economy and social influence.
"It's time for it to live up to its responsibility and become a regional leader in conserving its wetlands and other shared natural resources."
Some of the birds which visit Saemangeum each year undertake spectacular migrations.
A knock out
Mr Moores said: "Most of the birds which pass through breed in Siberia, and some in Alaska, and they spend the northern winter in south-east Asia, Australia and New Zealand.
"The bar-tailed godwit is an unspectacular bird, about the size of a pigeon. Going south, they've been known to fly non-stop from Alaska to New Zealand in four or five days.
"Coming back they fly from Australia to the Yellow Sea, where they stop to feed at Saemangeum.
"If the scheme does go ahead, it will knock out from 10% to 30% of the world's population of great knots, because there's no equivalent habitat anywhere else in South Korea."
The government has not declared Saemangeum a Ramsar site, though Dr Bridgewater said last year it richly deserved to be listed.