27. July 2012 / Jessica Bridger
Big Rain: Infrastructure and the bottom line
The recent heavy rain in Beijing, China has completely overwhelmed the city, causing catastrophic flooding which has killed 77 people, as of Friday, 27 July 2012. Images of the city underwater have crested on the internet and in the usual news outlets. Setting aside the fact that we might be somewhat inured to images of crises unfolding in the landscape due to our overabundant information cycle and unique point in history, this latest crisis brings something very much to the fore. It is at the scale of the infrastructure that we can best react – and must react - to the clash between our built environment and environmental forces.
Photos of the Beijing floods of July 2012 from China's social networking site Weibo, via businessinsider.com
Urban areas always present a barrier to the normal cycle of rainfall by preventing surface percolation and saturation. Concrete is simply not a good drainage medium. Storm water systems must be able to handle peak volumes irregularly, and have the capacity to carry millions of liters of water over long distances for discharge or storage. While seemingly a simple design problem of hydrographic and topographic conditions in relationship to climate, storm water management requires a scale, investment and ultimately foresight that makes the simple achingly complicated.
Short-term economic gain from real estate development unfortunately all-too-often trumps more long-term investment in infrastructure - even though infrastructure certainly boosts economic growth. This has certainly been the case in Bejing where record rates of urbanization have caused the city to expand in population by 44.5% in the ten-year period between 2000 and 2010, to a total population of some 19.6 million people today. Though per capital spending on infrastructure is relatively high in China in comparison to other rapidly urbanizing Asian countries ($113 per capita in China in comparison to only $17 in India, see here), the floods following the rainstorms during the week of July 23rd, 2012 demonstrate that Beijing still has a lot of ground to cover – and to drain.
The state-owned newspaper China Daily, an English language news outlet published out of Beijing was reporting as of 27 July that an investment of 10.4 billion Yuan (USD 1.63 billion) will be pumped into the development of better sewer systems in the capital and surrounding urban conurbation. This is most likely only a drop in the bucket of the total infrastructure investment needed in Chinese cities to deal with increasing urbanization, especially in the face of continuing – and increasing - severe climatic events worldwide.
In the end, the event cycle which we’ve become so accustomed – floods, earthquakes, droughts and so on is something that we can design for. Careful management of infrastructure will become of ever-increasing importance as the world population continues to concentrate in urban cores and dispersed peripheries, leaving a vast gulf between heavily urban and rural territories. For the half of the world population that now live in urban contexts, half still do not, and both have specific infrastructural needs. Increased attention to infrastructure of a prophylactic nature in both contexts is becoming more and more urgent.