China bets on ‘sponge cities’ to cope with flooding and drought

(080723) -- XIANGFAN, July 23, 2008 (Xinhua) -- Pedestrians wade on a flooded road in Xiangfan City, central China's Hubei Province, July 22, 2008. A heavy rain hit the city Tuesday causing some roads flooded. The local PLA soldiers and officers have thrown themselves into the fight against the floods.   (Xinhua/Yu Xiang)  (ly/wcy)

by Coco Liu, E&E Asia correspondent

SHENZHEN, China, June 16, 2015 — The plaza outside Shenzhen’s Mass Sports Center looks like any you can find in Chinese cities. But if you look closely, you can still see a critical difference.Unlike most infrastructures in China, the plaza here has no drains.
When rain falls lightly, the water either filters down to the underground through permeable pavements or is soaked up by gardens designed to catch rain. Almost no rainwater flows into street gutters around this plaza. During a period when many big cities — most recently Houston — are experiencing extreme rainfall and major flooding, the innovations show in a small way the kinds of preparations that may be needed.The plaza is one of the showcases for China’s ongoing efforts to redesign its cities.
The country used to rely on drainage systems to remove rainwater. But as extreme weather events increase, Chinese city planners have begun to give equal attention to new climate-resilient urban designs. Rain map chinaChinese cities are suffering from floods more often than most. A quick Google search can lead to striking images of floating cars on the streets in big cities such as Beijing and Shanghai.

Experts say that climate change has played a role in the increase of urban flooding, producing more rainfall during shorter periods. Besides that, rapid urbanization has outpaced stormwater removal.

Although China’s drainage networks extended to reach 288,838 miles as of 2013 — 20 times longer than that of 1981 — it still can’t catch up with the fast expansion of Chinese cities.

At the same time, many cities in China face a serious water shortage. Of 657 cities assessed by the Ministry of Housing and Urban-Rural Development, about half are considered water scarce or severely water scarce, according to the standards of the United Nations, state-owned media Xinhua News Agency reported.

The need to confront both water shortages and urban flooding has created a huge headache for Chinese city planners. But it also has became an opportunity to introduce a new urban design.

Known as “sponge cities,” the new design aims to build up infrastructure to collect excess rainfall and integrate flood control in urban planning. As a result, cities will not only be able to deal with too much water, but also reuse rainwater to ease their thirst when there is not enough water.

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