( AFP ) - A 16-billion-dollar cross-country canal project pushed by South Korea's incoming president Lee Myung-Bak is drawing attention from foreign investors, an aide said Thursday.
Lee, the country's first president-elect from a business background, made completion of the project a key election pledge despite opposition from his political opponents and environmentalists.
The Pan-Korea Grand Waterway would link Seoul with the port city of Busan 420 kilometres ( 260 miles) to the southeast.
"Many foreign investors are interested in the construction of waterways and other projects" to be launched by the next government, Choo Boo- Kil , head of Lee's policy planning team, told AFP.
He said his team has already received "letters of interest" from four potential investors in Saudi Arabia, Dubai, Germany and the Netherlands. "I believe we will get more from other foreign investors."
Choo suggested the next government could complete the canal construction during Lee's five-year term, which starts on February 25.
He denied it would drain state funds, saying a private consortium involving domestic and foreign firms would manage the project.
"About half of the cost estimated at about 15 trillion won (16.07 billion dollars) will be covered by the sale of sand and rocks," Choo said.
Local builders have welcomed the project. Hyundai Engineering and Construction president Lee Jong-Soo said Thursday his company would form a joint task force with four other major builders interested in the scheme.
Lee has described the canal as "the environmental revitalisation of the 21st century" -- linking four major rivers and improving water quality through dredging and other clean-up measures.
The grand canal, he claims, would also reduce flooding, create an international tourist attraction and -- most importantly -- slash transport costs and improve the environment by taking container traffic off the roads.
But critics argue it is too expensive, technically infeasible and potentially disastrous to the environment.
On Thursday a coalition of 180 environmental groups demanded Lee cancel the project or put it to a referendum.
"The project has never been verified properly on economic feasibility or environmental impact," the coalition said in a statement.
The Korea Times in an editorial urged Lee to build a consensus on the project before initiating it.
"If he tries to skip or ignore the consensus-building process, he might face a strong backlash not only from his opponents but also from the people who supported him in the election," it said