Beijing Deluges, Manholes And Urban Planning
    By Bente Lilja Bye | August 4th 2012 08:43 PM | 22 comments | Print | E-mail | Track Comments
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    Everytime I hear the word 'manhole' I think I have a hearing problem, or that my English is really, really bad. It sounds like a word I should understand, consisting of the two well known words 'man' and 'hole' , both of which give perfect meaning. The reason why I think 'manhole' is so weird, is that the combination doesn't give an immediate logical meaning. It is too ambiguous for that; a hole made for a man? or by a man? maybe even a certain hole in a man? For those of you who share my resistant linguistic ignorance, here is a picture showing what a manhole really is – so we all know what we are talking about in the continuing.

    Manhole in Beijing
    An elaborate manhole in Beijing could make you believe that the substantial theft of manholes was motivated by cultural appreciation. That is not the case. It is economic interests that lies in the meager sum you get for the metal they are made out of that tempt so many. Credit and copyright Guanzii.

    Manholes, discrete an anonymous as they appear are far more important than what first comes to mind. They are a pivotal part of the infrastructure that drain the water out of urban areas. Such as Beijing.

    Dining in Beijing
    It wasn't raining when we entered the restaurant. We were a bunch of scientists from the Norwegian Mapping Authority escorted by our Chinese colleagues from The State Bureau of Surveying and Mapping and the Institute of Geographical Sciences and Natural Resources Research. As always when visiting Chinese friends and colleagues we were taken good care of and had a magnificent meal. The Chinese cuisine (in China I have to add) is the best cuisine in the whole wide world. Nobody anywhere take food and eating as serious as the Chinese. The only culture that can be compared to the Chinese in this respect is the French. You don't mess with food or 'La Table' there either. At a Chinese restaurant you spend a good hour only to discuss the menu in depth, around the table, with the waiter, with the cook, with everybody, before ordering. You can imagine the rest of the rituals. But I digress. Well fed and ready for some rest after a hard day's work, a full Chinese table séance and subsequent full stomachs, we left our private dining room. Mentally we were halfway into bed already when we suddenly 'woke up' again. As we stepped out of the restaurant we were stopped by a crowd seeking shelter from a thunderstorm that had moved in over Beijing while we were dining. Mesmerized by the cacophony of sounds coming from water, traffic chaos and thunder we joined the crowd. This was the 2007 Beijing deluge. Finally we managed to snap out of it. Sleep, after all, had a higher priority than the thunderstorm. We could not see exactly where the water went from outside the restaurant, but we discovered it soon enough. As we started to drive back to the hotel we saw that the water transformed the streets into rivers, making it practically impossible to move. It was on this 'river cruise' in Beijing I started to reflect on the many functionalities and importance of manholes. That August evening in 2007 it was already obvious that the capacity of the Beijing drainage system was far from made for this kind of weather. I remember I was wondering how this could be; that a large city like Beijing, the capital of the most populous country in the world, had not built a proper infrastructure for water drainage? I'll come back to the significance of the fact that this story is from back in 2007 and not from this year, the 2012 deluge.

    This is a recording of the 2007 Beijing deluge. You'll first see the thunder and lightening outside the restaurant and then some impressions from the streets turned into rivers. (0:56). It got worse!

    Urban Planning
    Water drainage is an element of urban planning along with water, electricity, telephone, sewer etc. In cities like Beijing this infrastructure is placed underground in intricate networks of tunnels criss-crossing the urban area. Manholes are access points to this infrastructure. In Beijing 2008 you'd find more than 840 000 manholes. Not further back than in 2005 the number of manholes were only around 600 000 which brings me to a major challenge in urban planning. People migrate to cities in masses. Currently more than 50% of the world population lives in cities. Consequently cities are growing so fast that urban planning is made extremely difficult if not impossible. According to World Bank urban planning specialist Pedro Ortiz (see video here from Taiwan where Ortiz uses ancient Chinese planning as an illustration) urban planners have to simultaneously work on three spheres ; economic, social and physical environment where they have to balance particularly economic effectiveness with social justice. Not an easy task, requiring scientific and technological knowledge and capacity as well as political skills and will.

    This pair of images shows the growth of Beijing from June 21, 1978, to June 8, 2011. In these false-color images, vegetation is red and bare ground or human development (roads, buildings) are tan to brown. (NASA images by Robert Simmon). A real good look at the explosive growth is better viewed in this video.

    The Chinese State Bureau of Surveying and Mapping (SBSM) is among the many authorities that has to deal with this complex explosive growth we sometimes call urban mushrooming. The bureau can not keep up with the pace of construction and the urban development. On top of the pace itself, they also see and have to incorporate in their maps the results of both regulated and non-regulated/informal construction. The use of satellites and remote sensing are the only way to stay abreast and thus these space technologies are becoming more important and perhaps one of the reasons why International Society for Photogrammetry and Remote Sensing (ISPRS) is given high priority by the Chinese. In 2008, at the ISPRS congress in Beijing called “Silk Road of Imagery for Information from ImagerySBSM's Chen Jun was elected Secretary General of ISPRS. Today he is also engaged in other international organizations building Earth observation capacity such as The Group of Earth Observation. The question now is whether China will be able to combine their ancient knowledge with modern space technology to tackle the urban challenges.

    Beijing deluge real-time map
    Modern times mapping: Through social media this near real-time map was created during the 2012 Beijing deluge, showing the most dangerous places in the city. Source via Xinhua.

    Flood control and urban planning in Beijing
    Since China is considered the cradle of civilizations, I feel my expectations of China's capacity to build well functioning urban structures are justified. My expectations being implicit in my thoughts during our “sailing” on the streets of Beijing in 2007: Why isn't the water drainage system working in a metropolis like Beijing? Obviously, the Beijing population expect no less than me from their administration. According to Chinese media, the mayor of Beijing had to step down in the wake of the deluge and killer flood. The official number of casualties was updated from 37 to 77 a short week after the incident of the 2012 version of Beijing deluges, and the direct economic losses were calculated to more than 2.2 billion yuan (358 million USD). The event reminded the Beijing population that this was actually a recurring problem each year. As I said, my experience with a Beijing deluge was from 2007. Last year in 2011 again, Beijing had a once every 10 year downpour. Making excuses for an inadequate drainage system based on a once every 60 years event was not accepted by the population this time around.

    Removing manhole cover to make way for water in Beijing 2011
    Trying to remove a manhole to make way for the water in Beijing during the 2011 deluge. The Beijing population is not too happy about having to do this kind of work every year. Photo: Jin Shuo/China News Service

    Having a Ministry of Water Resources leaves no doubt that Chinese politicians think water management is important. This Ministry is responsible for flood control and drought relief. As a comment to the 2012 deluge, government officials indicated that new regulations concerning drainage system designs are expected to be launched in 2013. Not too soon but very appropriate one could say, 2013 being the International Year of Water!

    In Beijing it is the Beijing Municipal Flood Control that is responsible for flood management. The problem today is that the subsurface infrastructure is not built or adapted for the volume of water the region is frequently receiving. Urban constructions stop the water in the wrong places and generally hinder the water to be absorbed by the soil. Cost efficient solutions for water drainage relies on good estimates of the volume of water expected for the region. Another problem, according to the public in Beijing, is that there is little or no warning. All in all, a whole range of scientific fields and technology are necessary to find good solutions. In addition to the political aspects of course.

    Drain system
    Building a subsurface infrastructure that has the right dimensions and able to adapt to the city's future needs requires a number of different competencies. Photo courtesy of urban explorer Erik M at Section 6.

    The plethora of Chinese research institutes is incomprehensible. There are 10s of millions of scientists in China and an ever increasing number of scientists and engineers are educated every year. The politicians are highly educated as well, so one could expect also for that reason that they would be able to absorb and make use of science and technology in operational and administrative functions such as flood control and urban planning. Nevertheless, the Chinese struggle with the same challenges as the rest of the world. In this particular case: How do you integrate modern space technology and scientific knowledge when continuously building and managing an explosive urbanization?

    The most successful transfer from science to operational services is between meteorology and weather services. It goes without saying that meteorological information is pivotal, both for planning of the water drainage capacity and for early warning and risk management. My humble 5 cents to the Beijing municipality would be to check out FENGYUNCast. There they can find data from the FY satellite family and then some! In addition to seek advise in their own specialized research institutes such as China Institute of Water Resources and Hydropower Research, Beijing will surely benefit from participating in international research programs such as the ESA-MOST Dragon program. It may very well be that the Beijing municipality already knows of these organizations and programs, but at least it seems to be a good thing to encourage better integration and cooperation...

    FY of Himalayas
    China has a suite of satellites called FENGYUN. Inspired by cooperation through the Group of Earth Observation, data from these satellites are available via a portal called FENGYUNCast. (Feng=wind, Yun=cloud).

    Space and urban exploration
    Urban planning of a metropolis, or any kind of city for that matter, that goes through and explosive growth, demands both a bird's and a rat's perspective not to forget the regular 2-dimensional surface view. The bird's perspective is made possible after years of space exploration resulting in a wealth of satellite technologies. Urban exploration includes development of the cities underground infrastructure. It is a fascinating place to visit, if you do not mind encountering the occasional rat. Some visits are formally organized such as in London or the unique Beijing Underground City. While others of the informal kind requires unauthorized use of manholes. I am not encouraging people to do that, but I must admit I very much enjoy watching the recordings from such perhaps questionable visits underground.

    Urban exploration
    Urban exploration can be both exciting and beautiful, believe it or not. Photo courtesy of urban explorer Erik M. at Section 6.

    It is hard to say what the future will bring, but I am pretty confident that we will find many a new manhole in Beijing in the years to come. Let us hope these manholes will lead to larger tunnels than today, guiding the water safely away in subsurface rivers.


    Here I'll include more links, images of manholes etc. :-)

    Heaviest rain over Beijing in 61 years - Natural hazards at NASA's Earth Observatiory
    Bente Lilja Bye is the author of Lilja - A bouquet of stories about the Earth
    Manholes are not there to be removed to drain anything, you know that of course. And people do not die from water in the streets! I have seen streets turn into rivers even in Los Angeles, and LA has huge drains in the curbs where children can disappear. Not to poop too much on your fine article. I just like to add one aspect:

    China stops people from all moving to Beijing and instead tries hard to bring wealth to the remotest areas. This is much better than letting cities mushroom into slums and then having people die like roaches everytime there is a little quake or drizzle. However, these policies, for example those that stop the rural population from moving to big cities, are decried as evil in the Western media, and compromises have led to the mushrooming, hence people still die from shoddy construction that nobody can keep up with properly draining. Now you explicitly blame the administration for not providing proper drainage. You could equally thank them for all the people they effectively saved over the many years and encourage them to enforce the policies better in order to reverse the growth of Beijing.

    (PS: I find it very suspicious if people go all "China is so beautiful and the food so nice" in order to seem not anti-China, just to then blame their politics. An hour to discuss food that comes too spicey, oily, and salty to have any taste left ... insulting the French is not pro-China. I live for a long while in China. The food here is shit while in France even the cheap stuff tastes nice while being still healthy. China today is one of the safest places to live in the world because of the Chinese people having created a unique political system that allows science to enter politics and thus turns them into the world leader despite of all efforts by the West to have another middle east instead.)
    Well, Sascha, I figured you had to show that you live in China in your trademarked way! ;-) But you have no monopoly on China, I have spent plenty of time there in professional capacity and have lots of friends and colleagues from and in China. I fell in love with China a long time ago and are still working on my mandarin.

    You know of course that you misread me on several issues. That is all fine for the sake of entertainment.

    So for those readers who are not aqainted with you I will point to the following already included in my article:
    The manhole's function is already well described in the article and I will not comment further on that,
    I am not however able to force a Beijing mayor to resign, that was the Beijing people who were not happy with the local administration who did. This is properly sustained in my article with links to Chinese official media. I am not critizing China or their politics, I am merely pointing to a general problem all countries have, using the latest deluge in Beijing as an illustrative case.

    (from my article: "... the Chinese struggle with the same challenges as the rest of the world")

    Generally, water in the streets does not kill, but it does cost a lot of money. It is astonishing how fast the streets of Beijing are filled with water. It can't be like that in a capital city with so many key functions and economic interests. That simply can't be. But for the record, the official number of deaths from this year's deluge in Beijing is 77!.

    With respect to mushrooming in China I'll let your ramblings stay your ramblings.... :-)

    If you think the Chinese food is shit, I can only assume you didn't make any local friends....
    Bente Lilja Bye is the author of Lilja - A bouquet of stories about the Earth
    Well, Sascha, I figured you had to show that you live in China
    No, I don't!
    But you have no monopoly on China, I have spent plenty of time there in professional capacity and have lots of friends
    I never argue on the "I have black friends" level. That you seem to think so is insulting!
    You know of course that you misread me on several issues.
    No, I do not.
    (from my article: "... the Chinese struggle with the same challenges as the rest of the world")
    No, they struggle with very different problems than say LA. The flux of wannabe filmstars into LA feeding the porn industry and meth dealers is not comparable to the huge pressure of the huge population of rural China, jumping at any opportunity to make it to BJ or SH, not to mention the middle class in other cities, also wanting to get to BJ in order to make it or have made it.
    the official number of deaths from this year's deluge in Beijing is 77!
    Yes, which is pretty small compared to how many poor people there are in BJ. Compare that with comparable cities where slums are allowed to grow, where the official count doesn't even count all the ones who are simply not counted if they rot somewhere under the mud.
    If you think the Chinese food is shit, I can only assume you didn't make any local friends....
    Yes, righty, shoot yourself in the foot, 'I made no local friends while you are learning Mandarin', great (LOL). I am married to a Han and converse only and teach my students only in Chinese. That you think food is so nice in China simply means that you have no proper contact with real China because they succesfully shoved you into the little bubble they make around foreigners! You need to grow a little wiser in order to blast through that one, because the Chinese have perfected that art all through the years they were doing it like North Korea. You simply ain't knowing China, sorry to bust your illusion!
    Hahaha - you have absolutely no manners Sascha.

    FYI - this is what the article is about, really. The rest is story telling with some informative facts.

    "..How do you integrate modern space technology and scientific knowledge when continuously building and managing an explosive urbanization?"
    Bente Lilja Bye is the author of Lilja - A bouquet of stories about the Earth
    No manners? Look - my comment was sentence by sentence on topic. You started personal attacks like implying that I refuse to integrate by making no friends living in a foreign country and so on. Anyway - forget it.

    Generally speaking, to the few who follow and have some sense, about manners and China: This is precisely why Chinese put foreigners into that little bubble. It is annoying, yes, one feels like, "hey, I am here, I like to be your friend, why you still try putting up this illusion", but by now I understand why. 99% of Westerners tell them that their food is nice and their history so long and the art so pretty, which is like telling a North German flatlander that the Alps are beautiful, and then though being utterly ignorant and dismissive of everything that a modern, educated Chinese actually identifies with.
    I've read Sascha's comments and blog for two years and Bente's writing on Science2.0 for about a year. Yes, Sascha usually comes across as a strongly opinionated individual with a direct style of writing. However, he's not rude. So, I'm very surprised to see Bente accuse Sascha of a lack manners while dismissing his observations in an ad hominem manner. It is an unpleasant departure from civility to read the comments she wrote.

    Bente, shame on you for that.

    Regarding manholes, Sascha is correct. With the possible exception of Beijing manholes observed by Bente, manholes are generally to access underground tunnels for maintanence and repairs, not provide drainage. Properly designed modern streets are banked to cause rainwater to flow towards the separately located curb drainage holes or grates. How foolish are the people of Beijing to combine both portals to the underground? Imagine trying to effect a repair or clear debris while being flooded with rain in a Beijing manhole. Ridiculous.

    Regarding Chinese food, Bente dismisses Sascha's observations because Sascha has strong opinions. Sasha in turn writes that Bente only has experienced only a "bubble" of China. I suspect there is some truth to what Sascha writes, but the truth might be less nefarious: it's natural to introduce guests and visitors to the best restaurants and finest markets. To make a good impression on guests who visit for business to steer them away from slums, crime, and shitty food. Bente likely has benefitted from having pleasant hosts, rather than being victim of a Mao-style or Potempkin village conspiracy. Sascha likely has suffered through bad food as he's become a resident and familiar face at local restaurants, where chefs (and relatives-in law) have dropped the facade of trying to make a good impression.

    the truth might be less nefarious ... rather than being victim of a Mao-style or Potempkin village conspiracy.
    I hope I did not imply this. The reason for the bubble, apart from Chinese being used to do that (from more nefarious times), are cultural now more than political, and it is much easier today to break out of it, however, it is also very comfortable to just stay inside of it(!).

    On the food: Of course there is an impressive variety (and northerners do not like the southerners dumplings and vice versa), and perhaps a compliment can be made expressing that, though given the size of China, variety is hardly an achievement. Chinese have no problem with admitting that their cooking style is unhealthy given their present modern life (little exercise and all that). Oil, sugar, salt, spices, also in many quite expensive restaurants (say what a professor wanting to show off invites me to); they are killing themselves and it doesn't even taste good, certainly not if one is used to healthy cuisine.

    Complimenting Chinese is easy: The north (including BJ) in winter is extremely cold, yet basically nobody dies, regardless how poor. Compare this with Russia or even northern Europe, where we never have anything comparably cold and windy even in "serious" winters. Compliment them on the large number of scientists in political positions - regardless what other problems there are, that is good and what science writers always want.
     I am very sorry that you read departure from civilty into my moderate and polite comments to Saschas insults.

    I recommend both Sascha and you to read the article more carefully. I described many aspects of manholes throughout the article. Trying to correct me on this is a bit surprising and Sascha even says in his first comment that he don't want to [continue] " poop too much on your fine article."

    In my article you'll find sentences like: "Manholes are access points to this infrastructure". I also by the way, show how these access points are used to help the drainage system in extreme weather - by forces of nature. (Images from Beijing) Why there is a need to repeat this in comments as if I didn't include this information in the article is a bit strange. Very easy to interpret this as a bit condescending, Manholes, in my article, is also used as "access points" to the underground infrastructure many of us doesn't think about and take for granted. The use of science and Earth observations to build a correctly dimensioned system as well as to warn people in case of flooding is what I want people to be educated about.

    Sascha is an intelligent man, who should have been able to see what the message in the article was. I am using both the manholes and dining in Beijing as storytelling tools.

    Neither of you have any idea of what I have done in China and to what extent I know China more than as an honored guest - as you both imply. I will not even comment on that. I like the Chinese cuisine and there is no need to imply that I am stupid, naive, insult the French or whatever. That is just plain rude. I tried to comment with a bit of humor on this point - it is allowed to differ on taste in food. Then Sascha took off - in his usual manner.
    Bente Lilja Bye is the author of Lilja - A bouquet of stories about the Earth
    Sascha is an intelligent man, who should have been able to see what the message in the article was.
    That is why Sascha of course knew exactly what message you intended and therefore Sascha wrote:
    Manholes are not there to be removed to drain anything, you know that of course.
    Meaning obviously that you wrote your article very misleadingly (rather than not knowing!), and the other commenter here confirms this, and if you were not so annoyed about being called out for your cultural insensitivity and insults against me, you would also see this of course, because you are an intelligent woman.
    Then Sascha took off - in his usual manner.
    Yes - in my usual, fact oriented manner. You however have shown a quite unusually vicious and insensitive side here. Having a bad week or so?

    On the matter of 水利 (shuǐlì = water management) we Brits have been excelling ourselves (splutters in coffee, except that I am drinking tea) in recent years.

    One thing has been building new housing estates on floodplains.  Some houses have been flooded more than once.  House insurance premiums have been rising, and some houses are now uninsurable.

    Another thing is concreting over of gardens for car parking, leading to more rapid runoff than if the water had been allowed to percolate through the soil.

    But with the heavy rains we have been having April – May – June (two or three times the usual) some ground became so saturated that water was simply running off.  But at least it has replenished the reservoirs which were very low after two very dry winters, leading to hosepipe bans as early as March.

    It’s all down to the Jet Stream, so they tell us.

    Robert H. Olley / Quondam Physics Department / University of Reading / England
    Your London was early to build a sophisticated sewerage system (there is a link to the history of that in my article if you didn't already notice).

    What happens on the surface in many places, as you mention, is another story. When it comes to risk management (of flooding) it seems like people ignore facts they do not like. I mean, we don't like it to rain all the time. Not even you guys in Britain who get your fair share of the water from heaven. :-)

    Your last sentence "It’s all down to the Jet Stream, so they tell us." made my day. Actually several days. It is just so dry (no invert pun intended). It encompasses the British humor we Norwegian never get enough of. :-)
    Bente Lilja Bye is the author of Lilja - A bouquet of stories about the Earth
    How about this, from China Daily

    Obama T-shirt is sold in Beijing

    The shirt bears the famous slogan by Mao Zedong

    “Serve the People”.
    Robert H. Olley / Quondam Physics Department / University of Reading / England
    Absolutely fabulous! Nice find Robert! :-)

    So the super leaders will meet in November then, in Beijing. Well, the rain season should be over by then I believe....
    Bente Lilja Bye is the author of Lilja - A bouquet of stories about the Earth
    This year, I have started to grow some of my own Chinese food.  This is the Garland chrysanthemum, known in Chinese as 茼蒿 (pinyin:tónghāo) or 皇帝菜 (pinyin:huángdì cài = Imperial Vegetable), and in Japanese as Shungiku.

    Robert H. Olley / Quondam Physics Department / University of Reading / England
    Why go to China when you can grow China at home? hahaha

    Looks like you have 'green hands', Robert. And you cook too, then? Chinese and Japanese dishes I presume. :-)

    Bente Lilja Bye is the author of Lilja - A bouquet of stories about the Earth
    I think what I practice is best described as a sort of Fusion Cookery.

    The term seems to have been popularized in Britain by Ken Hom, which gets me thinking — “does he use a nuclear powered wok?”
    Robert H. Olley / Quondam Physics Department / University of Reading / England
    There are many things that are not built for the application they are ultimately used for because of unforseen events,like bulldozers clearing fire breaks during wildfires and in this case manholes as flood mitigators.How can we plan though for unpredictable climate change? Unco-ordinated "hit and run" action on climate change will no doubt lead to this worldwide"hit and run " unco-ordinated climate which is impossible to predict.Co-ordinated action has surely to start with scientists and Sacha cannot opt out of this because we need his scientific evangelistic flare in attracting attention to this problem.there has never been a topic like climate change that requires all scientists at all levels and areas to co-operate for the good of all men {and their food}.We need to begin with a good spirit amongst ourselves which is very difficult here since we have no way of showing the way[or spirit] we speak and so we can easily be misunderstood.

    Hi don,

    You point to an important problem, the unpredictability. The best way of being prepared for the unknown is building resilience. Meaning that whatever hits us, we are able to mitigate and recover quickly. In fact even using the disasters to come out stronger.

    I also agree with you that understanding, mitigate and adapt to climate change requires multidisciplinary approaches. And not forgetting the transfer of this multisciplinary scientific knowledge  to operational knowledge and practical use on all levels in society. The latter is a tremendeous challenge, to put it mildly.
    Bente Lilja Bye is the author of Lilja - A bouquet of stories about the Earth
    Well Bente,I have heard the way you speak on one of your blogs and your voice certainly has a soothing effect which should provide a good framework for reasonable unheated discussion,if we could all hear it.I wonder what sacha's voice sounds like and the way he says things;I think he would be better reserving his fire and brimstone for the proud,blind and unbelieving sceptics than " hurting the soothing oil and wine of enthusiasm" that our prophetic scientists often inject onto this web site.

    Thank you for the quote and the link, Bente.

    What you say Bente is very Darwenian and i think Darwin is the scientist of our time.Two fields in our environment prove Darwin's law,resilience/coming through stronger{by breeding and nurturing of offspring by genetic parents]and the sudden environmental change that can break this cycle since evolution requires gradual change.This was brought home to me when controlling bugs in power station cooling waters by chlorination.The bugs always bred immunity to increased levels of chlorination until eventually they won.It was found that breaking the cycle solved the problem.Chlorine levels were allowed to fall to zero over a 6hr period and then a sudden slug of chlorine given and chlorine levels allowed to fall to zero again.The same system was used in Jewish biblical agriculture,every 7th year no crops were to be grown giving a sudden loss of habitat for pests and diseases to breed up also to break genetic memory cycle,every 5oth year was also rested from agriculture.This mechanism could be used in antibiotics and vaccines as well.It shows though that if we wish our human species to survive climate change we must ensure it is slowed down enough for this to happen.Only by offering the poorer countries of the world a share of the riches in exchange for birth control will we avoid this sudden upsurge in industrial activity producing sudden climate change.