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October 17, 2016

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Can Dutch-promoted ‘sponge cities’ be the answer to frequent flooding in urban China?

EDITOR’S note:

IN recent years, frequent torrential rains in China have put drainage systems in the country to severe tests. Things are worse in summer, when urban flooding brought by typhoons and rainstorms becomes an embarrassingly frequent sight.

Amid heightened public calls to act, Chinese authorities are planning to introduce a scheme known as “Sponge City” that is expected to improve drainage facilities and build up flood control measures. The concept is that cities should be able to capture and store rainwater like a sponge.

A little help from abroad might ensure the success of this endeavor. The Dutch, for one, are well-known for their water management skills, with their dykes and canals winning them lots of credits for the country’s effective water control measures.

What experience does Holland have to offer China in terms of building a better water management network, or indeed, adopting an integrated urban planning strategy to deal with heavy rainfall that is posing an ever bigger threat to our cities?

To answer these questions, Shanghai Daily reporter Ni Tao spoke to Mrs. Lidewijde Ongering, Secretary General of the Ministry of Infrastructure and the Environment in the Netherlands, who was in Shanghai recently for a seminar on sponge cities and Sino-Dutch cooperation.

Q: Since when did Holland start to build the infrastructure as part of its own “Sponge City” scheme?

A: Being a Delta, the Netherlands have for centuries seen water management as an integral part in the development of their cities. Canals were built as a way to drain water and were used for transport as well.

For a certain period, we used to fill up the canals to create more room for modern transport.

Now the reverse is happening: we realize that our drainage capacity is not large enough to cater for more rain and heavier rainfall due to climate change and have to enlarge the drainage capacity.

Q: Dutch and Chinese cities differ wildly in hydrological and climatic conditions. To what extent can Dutch experience in flood control be replicated in Chinese cities?

A: Apart from the big difference in scale — in population and built-up area — between Chinese and Dutch cities, the big difference is the intensity in rainfall: The Netherlands has a mild climate, whereas the intensity of rainfall in China is much, much higher.

However, the Dutch are accustomed to working abroad and adapting their expertise to the local context, for example, big waterworks and urban development projects. We are involved in Jakarta, New York, Yangon, The Mekong River Delta, Toronto and also in China. One of the key elements of the Dutch approach is integrated planning and developing cities. When developing or redeveloping cities, you need to take into account many different aspects at the same time.

It’s not just the construction of buildings and infrastructure, or making room for water storage: it’s about creating a safe living environment in which water plays an extremely important role.

It is about integrated planning. The creative dimension of developing the sponge city is quite important. Dutch urban and landscape planners have great experience in this.

Q: Which is more important in the construction of sponge cities, technology or public policies?

A: In the Netherlands we say hardware and software are both necessary. Building a well-functioning sponge city requires adequate and modern technology. We have made progress in this field. New sewage techniques, new methods of waste water treatment... new concrete for fluvial management can be applied.

But apart from technology, you need software. There is more to it: an integrated approach — spatial planning and water management — in which multi-functionality of areas is a key aspect.

For example, combining recreation, housing and water storage. And for cooperation and good organization you need adequate policies.

For a livable sponge city you need to combine organizations from different disciplines, different levels and different backgrounds, a way of working that Dutch people are used to.

Q: What is the current state of Sino-Dutch cooperation on sponge cities in both the public and private sectors?

A: The Netherlands and China have a long tradition of cooperation. In the first quarter of the 20th century Dutch engineers worked here in Shanghai in the Pudong river. Recently the (China’s) Minister of Water Resources, Chen Lei, and our Minister of Infrastructure and Environment Mrs. Schultz van Haegen, renewed the almost 20-year-old MoU (Memorandum of Understanding) in which cooperation between the two countries is regulated.

And sponge cities was one of the subjects of the joint water seminar and a key topic at the Sino-Dutch sponge city development seminar.

Under the MoU, there is more concrete cooperation with, for example, Nanjing Hydraulic Research Institute in which sponge city is an important element. Dutch companies are also working in China on sponge cities (concepts).

A good example of that is the recently opened eco-wetland park in Deyang (Sichuan Province), where Dutch companies and the regional water authority assisted. The engineering company Arcadis is working in the implementation of sponge city concept in Wuhan (Hubei Province). Kuyper Compagnons is working in Ningbo (Zhejiang Province), Deltares is working with the government of Shanghai.

Q: What part of Dutch practices in its sponge city experiment would you like to see promoted and employed in China?

A: We have many choices. Take, for example, the city of Nijmegen where we created space along the river by digging an extra channel; this improved flood safety while at the same time boosted economic development and livability. This project is part of the river policy.

Another good example of integrated planning is the water plaza in the city of Rotterdam. This plaza is normally used as a playground but it is also a place where water is collected in basins during extreme rainfall.

Or check out the Wadis (dry river channels) that are integrated in new housing developments. That is a nice example of integrating sponge city technologies at neighborhood level.


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