China Builds ‘Sponge Cities’ to Soak Up Heavy Rainfall

This summer, torrential rains have caused severe floods in China, killing more than 100 people, forcing 1.7 million to relocate and racking up more than 61.8 billion yuan ($8.8 billion) of direct loss. In many cities along the Yangtze River, houses are submerged, cars afloat, and bridges have been washed away.

Fighting floods in China is an old tale: Stories of heroic human triumph over nature have populated Chinese literature and history for millennia. China’s traditional response to floods and other natural disasters was, as Chairman Mao put it, “Make the high mountain bow its head; make the river yield its way.”

For many years, China attempted to control floods with engineering projects such as dams and levee construction. Nearly 34,000 kilometers of levees have been built along the Yangtze River. The Three Gorges Dam on the Yangtze, which cost 200 billion yuan (about $24 billion at that time) and was built over 12 years, was primarily for flood control.

The controversial project, completed in 2006, forced 1.4 million people to relocate. Officials and experts hoped it would be able to withstand the worst floods, those only seen every 10,000 years. However, confidence in its ability has diminished. The Yangtze basin still faces frequent water damage and the river continues to be the source of the deadliest floods in the country.

In recent years though, China has realized fighting nature should give way to respecting nature when facing disasters. In the National Climate Change Program released by the State Council in 2007, China acknowledged the increasing challenges climate change poses to it and said the country should pursue sustainable development. China’s flood control methods shifted towards more nature-based solutions, like restoring flood plains for floodwater retention.

China has increased its hydrological monitoring, such as obtaining streamflow data for forecasting flow conditions and assessing water availability. These efforts have helped the country to respond more quickly to disasters and to reduce damages.

China has also restored thousands of square kilometers of floodplains and spent hundreds of billions of yuan to fund tree planting and to avoid farming destruction in mountainous areas. In 2015 China launched the sponge cities initiative, which aims to have 80% of its urban land become capable of absorbing or reusing 70% of stormwater. Sponge city measures include plant-covered rooftops, scenic wetlands to store rainwater, and permeable pavements.

Liu Junyan, climate and energy campaigner at Greenpeace East Asia, says although the Chinese government has identified climate change as a looming threat and has made general guidelines on how to respond, implementing these into day-to-day practices is still a challenge.

“As the climate crisis intensifies, we are at a new phase that requires us to think ahead in flood control,” says Liu. “In recent years floods also occur more often in traditional dry regions, so it requires the government to prepare not only according to experiences in the past, but also weather patterns of the future.”

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In This Story: China

China is the third largest country in the world by area and the largest country in the world by population. Properly known as the People’s Republic of China, the political territory of the country includes the former nations of Tibet and Hong Kong.

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