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:
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.
‘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.
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.
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.