Analyzing the Floods in Beijing

Well, I was going to blog about how to get a haircut(as well as the awesomeness of a Beijing ‘dry wash’) while in China, but in light of Saturday’s events I think I want to discuss some water systems planning issues as promised in last week’s blog.  I apologize for the lack of pictures beforehand.  I was not out on the night of the flood and the area we are staying in was left relatively untouched by the rains.Image

What happened?

When I came into work last Monday everybody in the Water Systems Planning Department was talking about the floods. I, being the clueless foreigner that I am, was completely unaware of what had happened until my coworkers told me about it.  I had spent the majority of the evening of the flood indoors, cursing the weather for ruining my night of potential sightseeing and all of the next day had been spent praising the rains for clearing the smog out.  Little did I know that these rains had resulted in the deaths of 77 people, required about 60,000 to evacuate their homes, stranded about 80,000 at the airport and caused approximately 1.5 billion dollars in damage.  And little did I know that this event had upset Beijingers so much.  Despite local media’s focus on inspirational rescue efforts, heroic acts, and the ‘historic’ nature of storm, Sina Weibo and Western Media had picked up on countless complaints and questions concerning the city’s lack of preparation and seeming disregard for public safety and well being.  There was anger over toll fees being charged for vehicles attempting to help stranded travelers as well as over tickets being issued to stranded vehicles on Sunday.  There were also minor complaints concerning the long wait time to get a subway or bus Saturday evening.  But most of all there seemed to be disbelief; disbelief that a city that had recently built 11 new subway lines, the second largest airport terminal in the world and 31 brand new facilities in preparation for the 2008 Olympics could struggle so much with providing a capable water drainage system.  Following the anger and disbelief there seemed to be a lot of questions. Questions concerning the quality of infrastructure being built at a frantic pace. Questions as to how poorly prepared and vulnerable other less prosperous regions and cities in China might be.  But most of all, Beijing residents were questioning if money spent on vanity projects would be better spent on basic infrastructure and improved disaster preparedness.

Why did this happen?

I didn’t dare ask my coworkers what they thought about these questions, but I did ask them logistically why this may have happened.  I got a variety of answers.  They told me that Beijing’s current drainage system is simply too dated to be effective.  It’s of Soviet design dating from the 1950’s with a design that relies on relatively small pipes rather than sewers to direct excess water. With the rapid urbanization of the city, all of the traditional storm water features such as surface canals, moats and waterways have slowly been filled in and the city has been forced to rely more and more on this outdated system as their main means of diverting storm water. I also learned that in China, these pipes generally come in three sizes to accommodate precipitation rates ranging between 36-50 mm, 50-56 mm and 56-66 mm of rainfall per hour. To reduce costs, cities will often choose the smallest available pipe that will accommodate average daily precipitation estimates and in turn estimated storm water flow.  This has proved problematic since the rains last Saturday well exceeded the 100 mm per hour mark.  One of my coworkers also informed me that along with this pipe system being totally inadequate, there its simply not enough room in many places along the waste water network to add the much needed larger pipes to the system.  Some of my coworkers didn’t really have an answer; they just shrugged their shoulders and nodded their heads, saying “Maybe…” to all my suggestions.  Perhaps they were in agreement with Zhang Junfeng, Ministry of Transport engineer when he said that no drainage system could handle the record rains experienced on Saturday. From the little knowledge I have of storm water management along with the  bit of research I’ve done, I tend to think a few other things were going on as well. The previous weeks of unusually high rainfall had left the canals and reservoirs unprepared to handle additional large amounts of downpour. In addition, a lot of the media coverage I read said that the pipes were filled with sediment due to all the construction occurring.  I also tend to think that Beijing officials were simply caught off guard by this event.  A more common problem for Beijing has always been a shortage of water.  China’s per capita availability of water is about 1/3 what it is in the rest of the world and over the last few years Beijing’s supply has dropped to roughly one-tenth of international standards. The region routinely experiences severe droughts and annual mean precipitation in Beijing has been steadily lowering over the last century.  With all these issues, planners and engineers have been much more preoccupied with finding ways to conserve  what water they get, not with finding ways to divert it elsewhere.  I also think that Beijing may be experiencing some of the same issues that we deal with in the states when it comes to infrastructure.   Every 4 years the American Society of Civil Engineers issues a U.S. Infrastructure Report Card.  The last one in 2009 gave the U.S. waste, drinking and storm water infrastructure a D- and estimated it would take approximately $2.2 trillion in investment to bring the system to a state of good repair. This is all coming at a time when government at all levels are facing substantial budget shortfalls and decreased tax revenues have left municipalities with little choice other than to increase utility rates and make deep spending cuts. According to the American Society of Civil Engineers (ASCE), the need to maintain and rehabilitate the nations aging water infrastructure will exceed local government’s ability to make the necessary capital investments, resulting in a projected $84 billion capital funding gap by 2020. Essentially, municipalities in the U.S. have simply been unable to afford necessary infrastructure upgrades and as a result have experienced events somewhat similar to those experienced here in Beijing last Saturday.

What can be done?

However, this isn’t to say that nothing can be done. The Ministry of Housing and Urban Rural Development is already developing new criteria in the 12th 5 year plan to upgrade the drainage capacity to accommodate more 50-56 mm per hour rainfalls in urban areas and is planning to spend approximately 71 billion yuan on upgrades.  From briefly researching it, most of the proposed solutions seem to be in step with what my coworkers suggested; bigger pipes…and more of them.  I have reservations about this approach though and how effective it will be. This approach will be extremely difficult as network upgrades in established urban areas are notoriously difficult and costly.  Furthermore, these are major projects that may take many years to complete.  Along with building capacity below the surface, I think a more holistic and cost effective approach also has to address what’s going on above the surface. While I definitely do not claim to be an expert I’ve outlined a few things that I hope to see happen along with infrastructure upgrades.

1.) Perform comprehensive, routine inventories of regional land cover

I don’t necessarily think all planning processes need a GIS component but when it comes to storm water management, having up to date and comprehensive spatial data is absolutely essential. I am still getting up to speed on the state of GIS and how the technology is used in China but from initial conversations with coworkers it seems that it is not a commonly used tool and data is sparse. In addition, the policy limitations on the use of data and the restrictions on data acquisitions have severely limited the industry from growing into what it has in the West. In order for planners and policy makers to set the aggressive goals mentioned in number one, they will need access to comprehensive and up to date land cover and hydrologic data as well as the ability to perform analysis.  Access and expansion of GIS can help those interested in fixing the storm water problem quickly and easily do some of the following tasks (among many, many others)

  1. Perform current land cover ( UTC is particularly important in mitigating stormwater) assessmentàcompare Beijing UTC to other cities with similar climate UTCàset aggressive targets and goals to increase UTC, especially in those areas that are prone to flooding
  2. Identify locations that can act as natural storage (low lying riparian areas, forested areas, and reservoirs and ponds) that should be preserved and left undeveloped.
  3. Determining fair and equitable fees for customers based on impervious surface (although I’m not quite sure how this would work under China’s land rights system)
  4. Model runoff flow and volume under different scenarios, i.e. different rates and volumes of precipitation as well as changes in land cover and land use
  5. Monitor progress over time

2.) Green infrastructure/climate flexible infrastructure

Implementing green infrastructure and low impact development was my instant, knee-jerk response to this issue.  I thought, if bioswales, ecoroofs, rain gardens and streetside planters are commonly used and have proven to be so effective in Portland, why not just do the same in Beijing?  Because they have ompletely different climates is why.  Beijing is rather dry for the majority of the year except in the summer months. Implementing solutions like these would likely do more harm than good as they would require irrigation during the dry months further depleting the city’s precariously low supply. However, Beijing planners should be aggressive in implementing green infrastructure solutions that would be appropriate such as permeable pavement and pavers, curb and gutter elimination, infiltration trenches and rain barrels and cisterns.  Water harvesting systems would be a particularly good solution for Beijing and Chinese researchers are already hard at work at evaluating and implementing these types of solutions.  Preservation of areas acting as natural storage will also be crucial to effective storm water management.  As demand for land in Beijing is extremely high, it is probably not possible to assign land purely for flood management purposes.  Since involuntary settlement and illegal development is such a problem here the land needs to have an alternative use to ensure that informal settlements do not appear.  Chinese planners will have to get creative in determining ways to ensure that these areas remain undeveloped.  Finally, a portion of the deaths on Saturday were not caused by drowning but by electrocution and collapsed buildings.  This highlights the need for infrastructure and housing built for the long haul.  Designing buildings to resist flood damage and ensuring that construction and design standards are strictly enforced, particularly in flood zones will be very important.  The requirements placed on municipalities to provide the necessary infrastructure to support the rapid GDP growth seen over the past 30 years have often meant that swift delivery of assets has taken priority over ensuring long-term value or service quality. Broadening the set of criteria on which projects are assessed (including consideration of procurement time, project whole-life cost, risk allocation and environmental impact) could help secure long-term stable economic growth,ensure the most effective use of public resources and assure the public that the state is providing them with the safest housing possible.

3.)     Establish stormwater management program with allocated funding and dedicate staff committed  to improving regulation and updating permitting process

In the U.S. stormwater management is often referred to as the redheaded stepchild of municipal government and planning. It typically lacks the political clout, exposure and funding given to other departments and services and is often not part of a comprehensive program.  This is often not seen as much of a problem until an event like last Saturday’s occurs and residents and officials alike are demanding a solution and they’re demanding it quickly.  But as fast as the flood waters rise and fall, the problem at hand is forgotten about and stormwater mitigation solutions are seen as a waste of money. The situation in China seems to be no different with the Ministry of Water Resources, Ministry of Environmental Protection, Ministry of Finance, MOHURD and City of Beijing all sharing certain aspects of stormwater management responsibilities but with no official department or organization existing to plan specifically for stormwater or deal with the potential disastrous aftermath. Over the past few decades, urban flooding, or ‘waterlogging’ as it is called here, has continually been a problem for Chinese municipalities yet it has not been until the last installment of the 5 yr plan that funding has been allocated to deal with this issue once and for all.  As mentioned before, the latest five-year plan boosts investment in wastewater treatment and water recycling to $71 billion and calls for achieving 100% sewage treatment. While this is great and indicates that the stormwater issue is finally being taken seriously, officials are still facing the enormous task of improving regulation, updating permitting processes and developing market based approaches for low impact development along with replacing or retrofitting a majority of the current waste water infrastructure.

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