The Dongguan Moon

The Dongguan moon is like a tiny boat
Carrying a flock of affectionate swordsmen
Wandering about across the gentle river

This haiku-ish text is from a very short song by Wu Tiao Ren, a Guangzhou band. With any luck, today I’ll get to meet the band and talk about a possible collaboration.

wu tiao ren

Guangzhou’s watery future

Yesterday at Observation Society, I was describing the Waterways of the Illawarra project to Anthony, Trevor and Hanting. At home, the seepage from the escarpment is a major part of the “character” of the region. It’s what creates the more than 50 creeks which make their way through the landscape into the sea.

It wasn’t something I had considered before I arrived, but a major part of the “character” of Guangzhou and the Guangdong region is the Pearl River Delta. In the delta, waterways flow in a crisscrossing matrix wherever you find yourself. Maps of the delta are beautiful and confounding – they don’t look like “normal” rivers which have a clear directionality:

pearl river delta

This map also shows the massive urban development in the Pearl River Delta over the last 30 years.

So – one thing that’s been haunting me recently is the future rise of sea levels. In the Illawarra, it seems clear that sea level rises will immediately affect the areas surrounding creeks, since these are the lowest parts of the landscape. Like in the big floods of 1998 (when the extra water came from the sky), houses with creeks running through their yards will have to think about how to protect themselves from serious land erosion and property damage.

Here’s a map I saw of Brisbane a few years ago, where the future sea level rise totally transforms the city’s useable spaces:

brisbane sea level rise
This is the first image I saw which showed future projections of the impact of sea level rises on low-lying cities, and I imagine we’ll be seeing these maps with ever more frequency now.

So what about Guangzhou?

Anthony, Trevor and Hanting didn’t know what the future prospects of the city will be. So I googled it.

Uh oh. Of all the cities in the entire world, Guangzhou is listed at number one. The most likely to be caused massive damage due to sea level rises:

In terms of the overall cost of damage, the cities at the greatest risk are: 1) Guangzhou, 2) Miami, 3) New York, 4) New Orleans, 5) Mumbai, 6) Nagoya, 7) Tampa, 8) Boston, 9) Shenzen, and 10) Osaka. The top four cities alone account for 43% of the forecast total global losses.

OK. So, what can be done about this?

In a rudimentary search, I couldn’t find much specific about Guangzhou’s plan for the future of sea level rises, but hopefully something will turn up. Meantime, here’s some research from 13 years ago: a paper called “Coastal Inundation due to Sea Level Rise in the Pearl River Delta, China” in a journal called Natural Hazards, by geographers ZHENGUO HUANG, YONGQIANG ZONG, and WEIQIANG ZHANG, from 2003. The authors mention 193 flooding events in the last 40 years (that’s about 5 per year!) and make some calculations based on the idea of a 30cm rise by 2030. Their conclusion:

The potential rise in sea level during the 21st century will pose a severe threat to the communities in the deltaic area. In order for the current and future investments and communities to be protected from potential threat of marine inundation, preventive policies need to be formulated and implemented as soon as possible.

And here’s something from 2005, where plans were mooted to upgrade the Pearl River Delta’s flood defences (no mention of climate change though in that article).

Here’s a more recent article which describes the threat to GZ from Climate Change, but without any mention of what measures could be taken to mitigate it.

This article seems to tackle the heart of the matter, and it’s more recent (2013): “A Review of Assessment and Adaptation Strategy to Climate Change Impacts on the Coastal Areas in South China“. The strategies discussed include:

  • improving the monitoring and early warning systems;
  • fortifying coastal protection engineering;
  • working on ecological restoration to buffer the effects of climate change on biodiversity;
  • and strengthening salt tide prevention to ensure the water resource security.

This last factor was one I hadn’t considered. With rising sea levels, salty water will start to infiltrate areas where fresh water had been drawn for drinking.

This jaunty piece discusses the threat to Guangzhou in connection with China’s apparent turnabout on Climate Change policy.

Even though these articles present some practical ideas, they still seems to be operating at the level of generalised recommendations.

Surely work is already underway? Surely?

It seems to me that the options for adapting to the future for GZ are the following:

  • build defenses against flood events (sea walls? dykes? will these work in the future??);
  • smarten up evacuation plans (how do you evacuate a city with more than 15 million people?);
  • begin radically re-designing the city with higher water levels in mind (what, like lift it up on stilts? what other ideas are there?);
  • start relocating the city to higher ground based on future sea level projections (abandon current Guangzhou and move it inland??);
  • Stop burning coal and oil.

Similar ideas (and some nice maps) are generated in this project which was presented in the 2011 Shenzhen and Hong Kong Bi-City Biennale of Architecture and Urbanism.

What have I not considered here?

Guangzhou Mobility Fetish

guangzhou bike umbrella

I’ve been noticing these bike umbrellas around Guangzhou. They’re round on the front and long in the back, kind of the mullet of rain deflection. The long tail is so your passenger is also kept dry – and having a passenger on the back of your bike is pretty much the norm here.

Today, as we went around the city, Hanting, Trevor and I kept our eyes out for these umbrellas. I almost bought one (a pink one with raindrops pattern!) – it was only 45 yuan – but the place didn’t have the bracket that you need to fix them to your bike.

The brackets used to connect them to the bikes are gorgeous make-do pieces of vernacular design in their own right. Like the sticky tape used to strap the cushion padding onto the seat in the image above, the key here is to make it work (not to make it “pretty”).

Here’s a typical one –

bike umbrella mount

The bottom of the umbrella is a hexagon tube which slots into the bike mounting brackets. Bolts or brackets connect to the stem of your bike, and then make an elbow turn and have a hollow tube.

And here are a few variations on the mounting brackets. These photos show electrified tricycles, but the umbrellas are used on ordinary bikes just as much.

I love these things because they extend the mobility that you might have with your bike. Back in Bulli, if it’s raining Albie and I would probably take the car, even for a short trip, and really the only reason is that the car operates as a sort of “drivable umbrella”. But with this “convertible” roof, we could take the bike out more often in the wet.

Guangzhou “Smelly Creek” Walk with Trevor

Yesterday after a long lunch with Trevor, Anthony and Hanting near Observation Society, Trevor and I decided to walk the small creek that I spotted yesterday from the window of my hotel room.

The creek runs very close to the OS gallery, it was only a matter of 30 seconds to reach it from there. I asked Trevor if the creek had a name, he said it was just generally known locally as the “smelly river”.

The waterway looks more like a canal, with stone walls shoring up the edges. Unlike our creeks in the Illawarra, it’s clearly an official recreational route, with pathways all along and people jogging and riding bikes.

To walk this little “joiner” of a creek is to realise just how vast Guangzhou is. It looks like a small distance on the map, but it took a few hours just to do less than half of it, heading north. Here’s Trevor inspecting the map as we decide how much of the river to tackle:

trevor looking at map, smelly river

The “x” marks on this map show how far we got:

annotated map

There were numerous obstacles, bridges and giant highway obstructions, as well as outflow pipes from the surrounding neighbourhood which flow into the creek, and fat hydraulic pipes spanning its breadth.

hydraulic pipe, guangzhou river

At one point we had to make a huge diversion due to a blockage of the river where it looked like a new roadway was being built. The waterway was completely blocked by a dump of rubble. This might be one of the reasons the water is not moving at all, and why it’s on the smelly side.

rubble blockage

Our diversion took us through a market selling vegetables, plastic household items, as well as live animals like eels, frogs, turtles and scorpions:

scorpions in market

Trevor lives in Hong Kong, and hasn’t had much time to explore Guangzhou beyond coming here occasionally for exhibitions, so this was as much an adventure for him as it was for me.

And although this walk was an urban exploration of sorts, getting to know the neighbourhood, it was also very much about the two of us spending time together, getting to know each other, while moving continuously through space, with “adherence to the creek” as a guiding score.

And as Trevor said halfway through our walk – after a while you don’t even notice the smell.

trevor and lucas on walk