Feet Inside Troubled Waters

‘Water is a brutal delineator of social power which has at various times worked to either foster greater urban cohesion or generate new forms of political conflict’

Gandy, 2004:363

Welcome to Beitou!

A district in Northern Taipei, Beitou is renowned for its geothermal springs and idyllic countryside landscapes. The above picture depicts Beitou stream running through the local park, where communities often congregate for relaxing foot-dips in its sulfur-rich waters. Come, let’s join them too!

…Wait, why are you stopping me? I already took off my shoes! Oh – you mean that sign? But…

Today, Beitou stream is cordoned off from the public via metal fences. This particular signpost reads: “Let’s care for Beitou stream and protect its Hokutolite (a constituent mineral compound found in its bedrocks). Please do not enter the stream to soak your feet”.
Source: http://shuchuananan123.blogspot.com/2018/07/blog-post.html

The ‘Bewitching’ Water Town

As I grudgingly re-wear my shoes, it is perhaps timely to revisit Beitou’s rich water histories:

In Taiwan’s indigenous Ketagalan language, Beitou refers to ‘female shamans/witches’. This is derived from the sulfurous, steamy fumes emitted from its geothermal springs, imbuing its landscape with a mystical hue. During Japanese colonial rule,  a grandiose bathhouse was built for its kamikaze pilots to go for relaxing dips before their perilous missions. This bathhouse will later become inaugurated as the Beitou Hot Spring Museum, and serves as an icon of grassroots identity today (Boucher, 2016).

Ahh… so bewitching

Today, water narratives still percolate Beitou’s everyday practices. For example, Boucher(2016:15) explored the ‘hot and noisy’ socialities that come alive in public bathhouses, affirming water’s role as a social medium for ‘deepening cultural behaviors, taboos and interpretations’. Beyond the neighbourhood, water also connects Beitou to distant geographies – circulating in the imaginaries of Taipei urbanites anticipating a weekend getaway, or loved ones of tourists who have received sulfur souvenir soaps. Clearly, as water flows and becomes metabolized, its biophysical properties become entwined within socio-cultural networks, upon which Beitou’s hydro-social landscape is produced (Schmidt, 2014).

Now, back to the stream: how did water – such a cherished socio-natural aspect of Beitou – become displaced from its communities?

Protecting Water from Whom, for Whom?

As Beitou’s popularity increased, so did its tourist hotels and posh restaurants. These businesses carelessly released untreated sewage into Beitou stream, causing its waters to turn milky-white, foamy and oily. Local park users likened this to soaking in ‘second-hand hot spring water’, frustrated that upstream hot spring villas are desecrating their beloved waterway.

In this photo provided by a local resident, white discharge is haphazardly released into Beitou stream from the local Atami hotel
Source: https://e-info.org.tw/node/227400

In response, the government declared Beitou stream as a protected natural area, cordoned it off from the public, and introduced fines – prohibiting both sewage release, and park users from setting foot into it. Without stringent enforcement, however, polluters proceeded business-as-usual. And the park users? Clearly, they are also unfazed by the law:

Despite physical barriers and official warnings, communities continue to dip their feet in Beitou stream. The sign reads: “Dear visitors and friends: The Taipei government has demarcated Beitou stream as a protected nature reserve. For your safety and the protection of this natural habitat, please cooperate by not entering the stream. Thanks.”
Source: https://news.ltn.com.tw/news/local/paper/857630

Beitou stream reflects how impassive politics reinforce the production of unequitable encounters with water. Instead of addressing the weak metabolic links in its sewerage system, the authorities’ false guise of ‘conservation’ allowed community interests to remain sidelined while commercial pollution go unchecked.

Since protecting nature is not about severing human connection from it (Foo, 2018), the authorities should instead affirm Beitou’s historical affinities with water, and recognise pollution as emergent from its flourishing cultural appeal and economic growth. Moving forward, it should instead envision alternative metabolic structures that fulfills both ends – re: What infrastructures are needed to treat/contain sewage upstream? How can we harness civic desire to better safeguard water resources?

“Humans walking in the stream doesn’t destroy it. If you will create an environment where people can come close to the water, open (the stream) up to people, more people will understand that this is our community treasure and want to protect it for the next generation. So for example, if somebody comes to pillage the stream, we will swiftly report them to the police”
– Interview excerpt of Beitou resident (0:45-1:00; Video link embed in image)

A Beitou resident expressing his disagreement with current conservation measures and his desire for community-centric water relations

Today, Beitou’s holiday resorts continue to promote serene nature getaways, while locals contend with ‘second-hand hot spring water’. À la UPE, we may ask: whose rights to water(nature) remain unaddressed? Unlike Beitou stream, the answer is crystal clear.

(561 words)


Beitou Hot Spring Museum (2020) “Welcome to Beitou Hot Spring Museum” (WWW) Taipei: Beitou Hot Spring Museum (https://hotspringmuseum.taipei/News_Content.aspx?n=7F7676C34AC3FCF9&sms=CDFD835559552999&s=14090D7DD708233F, 31 Oct 2020).

Boucher, N. (2016). “Water proxemics and connectivity in hot springs of neoliberal Taipei”, Research Report: Montréal.

Foo, C. H. (2018) “Review, Rethink, and Reconsider Human-Nature Interaction in the Urban Context”, inViana, D. and Garcia-Morote, F. A. (eds) New Perspectives in Forest Science, London: IntechOpen

Gandy, M. (2004) “Rethinking Urban Metabolism: Water, Space and the Modern City”, City, 8, 3, 363-379.

Liberty Times Net (2015) “北投石保护区论[泡脚尺] 民怨市政府不管” (WWW) Taipei: Liberty Times Net (https://news.ltn.com.tw/news/local/paper/857630, 31 Oct 2020).

Schmidt, J. J. (2014) “Historicising the hydrosocial cycle”, Water Alternatives, 7, 1, 220-234.

TVBS News (2016) “【TVBS】 北投溪[废水多] 泡脚民众恐浸[二手温泉]” (WWW) Taipei: TVBS News (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=L6uOjFghTew, 1 Nov 2020).

东森新闻 CH51 (2016) “北投溪列保护区 – 拉封锁线游客照泡脚” (WWW) Taipei: 东森新闻 CH51 (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=rB7vKB-K5i4, 31 Oct 2020).

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