By Ju-min Park
SEOUL (Reuters) – Overflowing trash bins. Dirty toilets. Bug-infested fields.
These were some of the conditions that about 40,000 teenage scouts had to contend with in the past week at the World Scout Jamboree, sending red-faced organisers in South Korea scrambling to fix matters before a looming typhoon forced everyone to leave the ill-fated campsite.
The event, the first global gathering of scouts since the pandemic, was attended by representatives from 155 countries and presented South Korea, which has hosted both the summer and winter Olympics and the soccer FIFA World Cup, with yet another opportunity to showcase its ability to organise big events.
But planning documents and interviews with participants and government officials show that even without the challenges posed by the weather – the event was held in a heatwave – the jamboree was marred by unheeded warnings and insufficient preparation.
As far back as 2017, when South Korea won the bid to host the jamboree, the campsite on reclaimed mud flats was seen as potentially problematic, according to a Reuters review of publicly available government reports.
One of the reports showed that officials from Saemangeum Development and Investment Agency, a government organisation that developed the campsite area, had called for enough shade and toilets to be set up after visiting the 2019 World Scout Jamboree in West Virginia to learn more about the event.
“It is located in a field without trees so it is necessary to create shade and shelters to avoid the heat for the safety of participants,” the report said. There must also be enough toilets and odour control to “not undermine national credibility”, it added.
However, in reports published in 2018 and 2020, North Jeolla provincial planners found that the original plans to plant “a rich forest” at the campsite would be impossible because the land was too salty. A province official said they had set up tunnels made of vines to help cool the area but acknowledged those weren’t enough.
Shortly after the scouts arrived last week amid unseasonably high temperatures of up to 34 C (93 F), hundreds fell ill with heat-related symptoms, bug bites and other ailments. Organisers then sent in more medics, supplies and water trucks.
Matt Hyde, UK Scouts’ chief executive, told Reuters the group decided to withdraw its contingent – the event’s biggest – because toilets weren’t being cleaned, rubbish was building up, and scouts weren’t getting enough food.
“It wasn’t safe in there,” he said, calling for an independent inquiry into the event’s planning.
Unsanitary toilets were one of the biggest problems at the event, gender equality minister Kim Hyun-sook, the co-head of the organising committee, said when asked about what went wrong.
The organisers say they boosted the number of cleaning staff from 70 to 540. Because of the camp’s “poor condition”, the province mobilized 520 public servants to help clean showers and toilets, a provincial official with direct knowledge of the matter said. The official declined to be named as he was not authorised to speak to the media.
‘WHO WOULD HAVE THOUGHT?’
The public debacle, which played out in international media as participants, parents, and senior scout officials lodged complaints, comes at a sensitive time for South Korea’s government, which has gone all in for a bid to host the 2030 World Expo in the southern city of Busan.
The host Expo country will be chosen in November, and some South Koreans worry that the incident could tarnish their country’s reputation ahead of this selection process.
“South Korea has been known as a developed country so who would have thought that this country can’t fix issues like bugs or toilets?” said Hong Ki Yong, a business professor at the University of Incheon.
An official at the Saemangeum development agency, declining to be named due to the sensitivity of the issue, told Reuters that too many people were involved in preparing for the event, which probably led to “immature management” of key aspects such as sanitation and delayed fixing problems.
“We feel bad about what happened, too,” the official said.
(This story has been refiled to add the missing word ‘in’ in paragraph 2)
(Reporting by Ju-min Park and Josh Smith; Writing by Josh Smith; Editing by Miral Fahmy)