Digging deeper into Beijing’s pipes

To start things off, let’s look at a material that is a popular subject among UPE studies – water!

Flooding: a familiar foe

For most part of its history, Beijing has struggled with flooding. Surviving historical records from the Ming and Qing dynasties tell a tale of a capital prone to floods whenever prolonged or heavy rainfall occurred.

Scenes of devastation caused by flooding in Beijing during the late Qing dynasty. (Source: X)

Modern-day Beijing continues to grapple with floods, with rapid urbanisation in the past few decades being a significant contributor as it has led to lower ecosystem-based rainwater runoff reduction and inadequate urban drainage systems (Zevenbergen et al. 2018; Zhang et al. 2015). In July 2012, the heaviest rainfall the city had experienced in 60 years resulted in a major flood that killed 77 people and incited public backlash regarding the city’s stormwater drainage system.

The July 2012 floods spotlighted flaws the city’s stormwater drainage system. (Source: X)
A political cartoonist’s take on the July 2012 flood. (Source: X)

Deficiencies in the city’s drainage system have borne a large part of blame for the city’s high flood propensity. Close to 80% of the city’s rainwater drainage pipes have been found to contain sediment deposits, with half of them having extremely thick sediment layers. In 2013, a clean-up of Dongcheng and Xicheng districts’ rainwater pipelines found them to be severely ageing, with the majority built before the 1950s, some even during the Qing dynasty, causing inefficient rainwater drainage and flooding in residential areas. The situation is especially severe in traditional hutong (alleyway districts), where drainage pipelines are extremely old.

It’s not just the pipes

While it is clear that there is a pressing need for maintenance and renewal to address hard structural issue, other structural (in a different sense of the word) problems that lie beneath the city’s clogged drains provide insight into the underlying causes of inadequacies in the city’s rainwater drainage system. In the aftermath of the July 2012 flood, underinvestment in ‘crucial but “invisible” infrastructure’ such as drainage systems has been partly attributed to urban governments’ fixation on investing in projects that promote economic growth – which drainage systems seemed to not fall under. Local governments had also been forbidden from long-run financing using capital markets in most cases, leaving them with less to allocate to infrastructure spending.

UPE is particularly interested in what happens when flows of materials break: the “breaking” of the flow of rainwater through Beijing’s drainage system, then, exposes the invisible politics of economics and finance that led to the deprioritisation of investment in drainage infrastructure – the ‘socially mediated process of environmental-technological transformation’ (Cook and Sywngedouw 2012: 1968) through which Beijing’s rainwater drainage flows were (mis)handled. Without it, we are likely to stop at thinking that the management of urban drainage infrastructure is a matter for the purview of scientific and technological experts (engineers) (Graham 2010), while in reality infrastructural upkeep and upgrading is decided by those that hold the purse strings with regards to investment funding.

Another of UPE’s key concepts is that ‘nature and society … are intricately tangled in mutually constituted socio-natural assemblages’ (Cook and Swyngedouw 2012: 1965). Applying this idea to policy allows us to see how Beijing’s flooding issues could be a result of an unproductive dichotomy between nature and city (Houston and Ruming 2014) in drainage management policy. Underinvestment was explained by government officials’ perception that drainage infrastructure contributed less towards economic performance. Yet when the pipes failed and the city flooded, it was laid bare how impossible it is to untangle this metabolic circulation from the city’s economic (mis)fortunes: the 2012 flood is estimated to have cost the city a whopping £960m.

Beijing has drawn on ingenious engineering solutions for much of its history to address the issue of rainwater drainage, and investment in upgrading in more recent times is a welcome sign that the city is focusing resources on its drainage infrastructure. While we have often looked to engineering fixes as the solution to subjugating water (by channelling it to where we would like it to go) (Graham 2010), Beijing’s flooding woes surface how this is informed by underlying economic and political considerations, as well as the importance of urban governments handling nature and the city as connected entities in their policies.

List of References

Cook, I.R. and Swyngedouw, E. (2012) ‘Cities, Social Cohesion and the Environment: Towards a Future Research Agenda’, Urban Studies, 49, 9, Special Issue: Problematising Urban Social Cohesion: A Transdisciplinary Endeavour, 1959-1979.

Graham, S. (2010) ‘When Infrastructures Fail’, in Graham, S. (ed.) Disrupted Cities: When Infrastructure Fails, New York: Routledge, 1-26.

Houston, D. and Ruming, K. (2014) ‘Suburban Toxicity: A Political Ecology of Asbestos in Australian Cities’, Geographical Research, 52, 4, 400-410.

Zevenbergen, C., Fu, D., and Pathirana, A. (2018) ‘Transitioning to Sponge Cities: Challenges and Opportunities to Address Urban Water Problems in China’, in Zevenbergen, C., Fu, D., and Pathirana, A. (eds) Sponge Cities: Emerging Approaches, Challenges and Opportunities, Basel: MDPI, 1-13.

Zhang, B., Xie, G., Li, N., and Wang, S. (2015) ‘Effect of urban green space changes on the role of rainwater runoff reduction in Beijing, China’, Landscape and Urban Planning, 140, 8-16.

2 thoughts on “Digging deeper into Beijing’s pipes

  1. Hey, really interesting read. I found the piece very close to perfect. You combine pretty much everything (current events, academic sources, technical aspect, social, economic, inequalites) on a precise topic on a really well constructed piece. I don’t really see anything you could improve. Maybe to make the reading a bit more “easy” (or “newslike”), simplify it a bit a fluidify ? But honestly, it’s already quite nice to read.


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