Why go against the flow?

“Cities did not respond to riverine opportunities and challenges as one person; they were rather sites of intense competition, debate, and conflict about how to use, treat, and respond to rivers’

Castonguay and Evenden (2012:5)

In UPE, urban rivers are popular topics of discussion. A river flowing through the city doesn’t just carry water into the urban landscape; rather, these flows are ‘intentionally and recursively shaped’ according to the rationalities of urban systems (Boelens et.al, 2016:4). Hence, rivers often serve as critical entry points into cities’ political ecologies.

If you searched Google Maps today, you’d probably find nothing unusual about Keelung River (KR) meandering through the heart of Taipei. What may not be apparent, however, was that it used to curve more exaggeratedly:

An interactive map indicating the morphology of Keelung River in 1948 (in blue), superimposed upon a Google Maps layer today. Note how certain landmarks today – such as the Grand Victoria Hotel – are sitting on reclaimed land that used to be part of Keelung River!
(Retrieved from: https://alexkunztaipei.wordpress.com/2018/10/07/wie-die-begradigungen-des-keelung-flusses-das-stadtbild-von-taipeh-nachhaltig-gepragt-hat-how-straightening-of-keelung-river-has-shaped-taipei-city-as-we-know-it-today/amp/)

For Taipei, the reason for straightening KR is simple – it has a notorious flooding history, and shorter, straighter channels allow water in Taipei to drain away faster into the sea. In fact, flood mitigation in KR doesn’t stop here. Over the years, Taipei has invested heavily in various infrastructures, each of which is incredibly costly:  

Cost breakdown of various flood control measures within Taipei Basin.
Source: Boone, C. G. and M. Fragkias (2012) Urbanization and Sustainability: Linking Urban Ecology, Environmental Justice and Global Environmental Change, Springer: Dordrecht.

A look at these staggering figures above begs the question: how did such enormous expenditures become legitimised and necessary?

Taming Keelung River

Taipei’s flood risk initially originated from rapid industrialization in the 1960s. During this period, riverside areas became strategic sites for export-oriented manufacturing that fed into the neighbouring Keelung seaport (Chou and Li, 2012). As swathes of industries entered the floodplain, vegetation and topsoil are removed from it. Consequently, key economic centres – such as Nangang, Neihu and Zhongshan – became situated within flood-prone areas exacerbated by soil erosion. Taipei’s increasing precarity to floods, therefore, is fundamentally ‘socially-produced’ from institutional imperatives that systematically ignored risk avoidance (Tierney, 2005).

Map of the Taipei-Keelung city region, where the Keelung River flows through. Note the concentration of economic and industrial clusters within Taipei, all nestled closely to the riverbanks.
Source: Chou, T.L. (2012) “ANT Analysis on the River Management of Urban Taiwan: A Case Study of Keelung River in Taipei Basin”, Advances in Applied Sociology, 2, 3, 203-213.

Under such land development logics, certain approaches to flood management became favoured over others. Despite calls for preserving riverside wetlands and relocating industries to satellite towns, Taipei instead chose to rely on engineering to keep floodwaters at bay, whilst ramping up developmental pressures in KR’s floodplains. For example, the Neihu Special Area Development Plan – which involved several meander cutoffs – freed up land for the incumbent Neihu Technology Park whilst creating a more efficient channel less prone to flooding:

“…enforcement of the Neihu development project would not only reduce flood threats of Eastern Taipei, but also create a new residential and economic space for l20,000 people and related industrial developments during the city transformation process. The Neihu project is a win-win-win project for the city, government and society”

Xu Shu-der, Mayor of Taipei (1985-1988),  in Chou (2012)

Under the Neihu Special Area Developmental Plan, 237 hectares of land (in yellow) was reclaimed from meander cutoffs in the Keelung River to develop various industrial zones.
Source: Shih, C.M., C.Y. Tien and C.Y. Li (2011) “The Development of Taipei Neihu Technology Park”, International Conference on Consumer Electronics, Communications and Networks, 5365-5370.

KR’s politics of flooding reinforced the notion of ‘people beat nature’, framing the river as a threat to an economically expanding city (Chou and Li, 2012:87). As KR continues to repeatedly inundate Taipei during typhoon seasons, the city became locked into an ‘arms-race’ against KR, of which engineering breakthroughs offered the only way to stay ahead. Notably, after the devastating Typhoon Lynn in 1987, authorities responded by constructing higher levee embankments, more pumping stations, and more ways of regulating water via diversion sluiceways.

The Yuansantze flood diversion project involved the construction of a sluiceway spanning 86.4km and amounting to 60 billion NTD. During periods of high discharge, the sluice gates diverts excess water upstream of the Keelung River directly into the sea (Taiwan Straits) at a rate of 1310 m3/s.
Source: https://www.peopo.org/news/251867

Re-knowing’ Keelung River Today

KR’s story reveals how institutional imperatives cause ‘grey epistemologies’ to become entrenched in flood management discourse: between Taipei’s economic prerogative to expand and KR’s tendency to flood, engineering remains the only viable means of resolution. Here, I do not intend to lambast riverine engineering – after all, engineering measures have clearly demonstrated its effectiveness in mitigating against the immediate dangers of flooding. The broader message, however, is that authorities still conceive rivers through a disciplinary gaze, emphasizing tight monitoring and controls via techno-centric approaches:

An excerpt retrieved from the Taipei’s ‘Water Resources Agency’s’ webpage, detailing its key functions in  ‘Water Administration and Management’. Note the overt emphasis on monitoring technologies to facilitate the ‘supervision’ and ‘amendment’ of rivers, implying that rivers are errant entities that must be controlled.
Source: https://eng.wra.gov.tw/cp.aspx?n=5181

In my previous post, I argued that Taipei’s contemporary environmental discourse must be sensitive to its industrial histories. In managing KR, my contention is that ingrained ‘disciplinary attitudes’ occludes other possibilities of ‘doing nature’ today. With changing environmental rhetoric advocating for hydrophilic water relations, it seems pertinent to understand the river beyond the confines of hydrograph measurements and meteorological readings.

“Taipei has striven for the development of flood prevention, drainage infrastructure, and river remediation work… Nevertheless, in the face of the future challenges of extreme events and competition for water resources, Taipei (will today) adopt the Sponge City concept as the core of its water environment policy… we will gradually transform Taipei into a safe, sustainable, water-friendly, ecological waterfront city.”
– Wen-Je Ko (Mayor of Taipei; 2014-Present):
Source: Video Link embed in image; 1:37-2:11.

Decades of riverine engineering efforts have alleviated Taipei’s flood risk by leaps and bounds. Perhaps moving ahead, Taipei’s engineering elites should think about designing with the river – instead of against it.

(626 words)


Boone, C. G. and M. Fragkias (2012) Urbanization and Sustainability: Linking Urban Ecology, Environmental Justice and Global Environmental Change, Dordrecht: Springer.

Castonguay, S. and M. Evenden (2012) Urban Rivers: Remaking Rivers, Cities and Space in Europe and North America, Pittsburgh: University of Pittsburgh Press.

Chou, T.L. (2012) “ANT Analysis on the River Management of Urban Taiwan: A Case Study of Keelung River in Taipei Basin”, Advances in Applied Sociology, 2, 3, 203-213.

Chou, T.L. and T.C. Li (2012) “Sustainability and river management in Taipei City, Taiwan”, Journal of Urban Management, 1, 1, 77-94.

Shih, C.M., C.Y. Tien and C.Y. Li (2011) “The Development of Taipei Neihu Technology Park”, International Conference on Consumer Electronics, Communications and Networks, 5365-5370.

Tierney, K. J. (2005) “The Social Roots of Risk: Producing Disasters, Promoting Resilience”, American Journal of Sociology, 121, 2, 646-648.

3 thoughts on “Why go against the flow?

  1. This was a really interesting post. I enjoy how you recognise the ways in which a so-called natural object; a river, can in fact be constructed. I also love your interactive map of the KR! I have a question for you. So, Taiwan has spent millions of Taiwanese dollars on the hard engineering of the KR and other rivers, have they actually been effective in reducing flooding? Could they have taken a better approach such as integrating nature into engineering solutions? It would be interesting to see your views on the KR engineering solutions.


  2. Dear Nassir, thank you for your kind comments! Like most debates in UPE, the questions you raise contend with the messy politics of environmental geographies. They have no clear-cut answers, but here are some of my thoughts on this matter:

    *Are the engineering measures actually effective in reducing flooding?*

    Understandably, UPE scholars may harbour reservations about hard engineering methods, citing the futility of ‘subduing nature’ and how it occludes other convivial ways of coexisting with it (in this case, KR). For the case of KR and Taipei, however, I hesitate to discount the merits of engineered solutions. For a city often battered by typhoons and monsoons, the endeavours of well-meaning engineering experts have certainly safeguarded the citizens of Taipei from the perils of flooding. For example, following the implementation of the Yuanshan Tze floodway (mentioned in this blog post), there have yet to be a flood event that have culminated in a disaster of ‘epic proportions’ as experienced in prior typhoon events (sic: typhoon Lynn and Nari, which effectively inundated entire districts). In sum, for a city living so closely to a river, I reckon they have done a considerably good job (albeit the fact that I am not a qualified engineer).

    *Could they have taken a better approach such as integrating nature into engineering solutions?*

    Your point is valid – admittedly, Taipei’s engineering resistance against KR has been a turbulent journey, with its defenses being breached time and time again over history. In fact, I expect Taipei’s hydrology to exacerbate in the face of climate change. However, with rousing environmental awareness and desire for biophilic environmental relations, Taipei is indeed seeing a contemporary turn to integrate nature within its urban hydrologies. This is slightly outlined in the last video embedded in this post, but you can take a look at more specific initiatives in the link here (such as green roofs, retention ponds that double up as recreational parks, and permeable tarmac surfaces). I believe you will find them as interesting as I did: https://cooldesign.medium.com/breathing-highways-and-sponge-cities-c7af8a4ad158
    However, I would similarly hesitate to claim that ‘going natural’ is always a better option. After all, ‘harnessing nature’ is also somewhat a quasi-technological approach in the urban planning context, and is susceptible to the very same technical failures if not executed properly. This article last year, while unrelated to KR’s floodings, highlights how Taipei’s attempts at ‘geo-mimicry’ – specifically the installation of permeable tarmac surface – failed in the face of monsoonal rains due to inadequate planning which did not cover critical flood-prone areas https://news.tvbs.com.tw/life/1173767
    In addition, in defense of hard engineering measures, I would say that it was a necessary and justified baseline endeavour. After all, when confronted with the immediate threat of floodwaters, I believe hard engineering solutions (levees, pumping stations) presented the most swift, targeted first line of defense that had measurable functions and demonstrable effects. From a policy perspective, I believe it was most justified and provided the needed assurance that social interests could be safeguarded. In fact, I think that it is upon this baseline of safety guaranteed by engineering solutions, that Taipei could advance towards more sustainable measures as part of its masterplan today.

    *My view on KR’s engineering solutions*
    Beyond debating the efficacies of engineering/natural solutions, I believe the focus of this post is to mull over the broader hydro-politics of KR, i.e. how engineering became the primary, entrenched solution in mitigating flood risk.
    The pertinent questions to ask, I think, are: what lessons can we draw from Taipei’s development history? Why has it entrenched engineering as the only solution against floods? Here, I think the thematic focus is on institutional forces – in understanding how mainstream discourse has systematically refuted calls for satellite towns, in asking why has the industries and residential districts become so compacted near the river, in problematizing high-density urban masterplans without sufficient naturalized greenspaces. While this seems to portray economic progress as opposable to environmental protection, I beg to differ. It is through these questions that we can theorise alternative sustainable futures, and think about the following: what economic developments do not place residents at risk? What functions should riverside land perform – that allows access by public yet effectively zoned out during floods?
    Urban rivers are often regarded as the lifeblood of cities, and I’m sure you can illustrate the same for Naples as well. I think what KR and Taipei’s story offers is not a cautionary tale against riverside development, but rather a nascent reminder that rivers, just like cities, too possess agency. Urban planning projects, therefore, should consider this from the get-go – planning with prudence in order to sustain a healthy relationship with the river, instead of rushing to crowd its riverbanks, then rushing again to suppress it when it does lash back.


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