Nature For Water In China & HK

By Prof. Wu Che, Dr. Frederick Lee, Dr. Michael Lau 22 March, 2018

Happy World Water Day! This year it's all about nature & nature-based solutions. Hear from 3 experts

Nature-based solutions can help with rising global water & climate challenges; plus, they can be cost-effective
At the core, sponge cities respect nature; meanwhile, JC-WISE is reconnecting rivers - also, join their 1st Fun Fest
Plus, wetlands, not just muddy but also flood alleviators
Prof. Wu Che
Author: Prof. Wu Che
Prof. CHE Wu is a professor of Beijing University of Civil Engineering And Architecture. He is also a committee member of Green Building Council (China GBC), and a committee member of the Committee of Landscape Architect of China GBC. His main research areas are urban rainfall and flood control and utilization, sponge city, water environment protection and restoration, and new drainage systems. In recent years, he has published more than 100 academic papers in different areas, such as the public-private partnership (PPP) for sponge city projects. In addition, he participated in various large project design and implementation in Beijing and Tianjin, accumulating lots of excellent case studies on sponge city projects. In the early years, CHE studied in Karlsrule University in Germany, and worked and conducted research in BASF’s Wastewater Treatment Plant. He has won the Beijing Science and Technology Award, and owns two national invention patents and utility model patents.
Read more from Prof. Wu Che →
Dr. Frederick Lee
Author: Dr. Frederick Lee
Dr. Frederick Lee is Director of the Water Governance Research Programme and an Associate Professor in the Department of Geography at the University of Hong Kong. His current research projects include regional environmental governance and cultural heritage management. On the former topic, he is examining the institutional constraints hindering cross-boundary cooperation, between Hong Kong and its neighbouring jurisdictions, in managing region-wide environmental externalities in the Pearl River Delta region. He has published in international journals such as The China Quarterly, Journal of Contemporary China, World Development, Environmental Politics, Third World Planning Review, International Development Planning Review, and International Journal of River Basin Management. He has co-edited Asia’s Environmental Movements: Comparative Perspectives (M.E. Sharpe) and Cultural Heritage Management in China: Preserving the Cities of the Pearl River Delta (Routledge).
Read more from Dr. Frederick Lee →
Dr. Michael Lau
Author: Dr. Michael Lau
Michael first joined WWF in the 1980s, working at Mai Po Nature Reserve. After obtaining his Ph.D. at the University of Hong Kong, he re-joined WWF-Hong Kong in 2011, becoming the Director of Wetlands Conservation. Michael also heads the Watchdog Team and is a member of the Advisory Council on the Environment, the Lantau Development Advisory Committee, and several other specialist groups.
Read more from Dr. Michael Lau →

It’s World Water Day again and this year’s theme is “Nature for Water”. It’s a reminder that while water-nomics and  changing business models are key to tackle water risks, nature is also important and can be used to overcome water challenges.

Nature-based solutions (NBS), from planting trees to replenish forests to rainwater harvesting, is according to the UN, a “sustainable and cost-effective way to help rebalance the water cycle, mitigate the effects of climate change and improve human health and livelihoods.” So to celebrate this World Water Day, we caught up with experts to find out how NBS is being implemented in China and Hong Kong.

First off, we sat down with Professor Che Wu from the Beijing University of Civil Engineering and Architecture to learn more about “sponge cities” – a sustainable urban development model which includes flood control, water conservation, water quality improvement and natural eco-system protection (see our article on sponge cities here). How are sponge cities related to nature? Are they taking off in China?

China Water Risk (CWR): China designated “sponge city” pilots in 2015 and 2016.  Does nature play a role in these? How have the pilots gone?

Prof Che Wu (CW): The core ideology of sponge cities is to respect nature and protect the natural water cycle; therefore the methodologies, technologies and practices of the pilots are mostly based on the natural water cycle and processes. So yes, nature does play a role in sponge cities.

“The core ideology of sponge cities is to respect nature & protect the natural water cycle…”

China designated 16 cities in 2015 and 14 cities in 2016 as sponge city pilots. These two rounds of pilots have since been implemented vigorously. Government departments in charge of the pilots have followed the projects closely and despite some difficult challenges ahead, the initial results appear to be positive. At the moment, the pilot sponge cities are busy preparing for assessments by expert teams on progress made so far.

CWR: Hong Kong is also looking to become more climate-ready.  Could becoming a sponge city help with this? What measures would you recommend?

CW: The basic aim of a sponge city is to manage the multi-faceted impacts that rainwater can bring to cities, including mitigating the catastrophic damage from floods, storms and climate change.

“For sponge cities to be successful, they need to widely apply & combine a range of techniques…”

For sponge cities to be successful, they need to widely apply and combine a range of techniques: “seep, delay, store, save, clean, use and discharge”   (渗、滞、蓄、净、用、排). When these methods are implemented in sync, floods and pollution in urban waterways can be controlled.  “Low-disruption development” technologies and green infrastructure should also be promoted and the latter can be merged with grey infrastructure when appropriate. It is also key to manage urban water from its source to processing to end-of-life holistically.

All these measures together should go some way towards easing the impacts from storms under climate change scenarios.

CWR: If you could have a wish for this World Water Day, what would it be?

CW: I wish that through this year’s World Water Day, we can better promote knowledge sharing on water issues globally and share successful case studies from different countries more widely.

Rapid urban development has meant that many rivers are no longer connected to its floodplains and have become channelised. Next up we talk to Dr Frederick Lee, the project co-investigator of the Jockey Club Water Initiative on Sustainability and Engagement project (JC-WISE), about the importance of rivers closer to home in Hong Kong.

CWR: Hong Kong is home to many rivers and tributaries yet they go largely unnoticed among the citizens. In your opinion, does this need to change? If so, why?

Dr Frederick Lee (FL): To prevent flooding, many of our city’s waterways have been tamed and channelised. Natural rivers and streams were transformed into concrete channels, with their ecological and aesthetic values diminished or totally destroyed. As a consequence, the multiple values of rivers have been overlooked by the general public.

“To rectify this situation, we need to re-connect our community with our city’s rivers.”

To rectify this situation, we need to re-connect our community with our city’s rivers. Rivers in Hong Kong are precious social, cultural, ecological and economic assets.  For example, Sheung Yue River plays a crucial role in local agricultural production as its water is used to irrigate adjacent fields. The estuary of Shan Pui River and Kam Tin River–the Deep Bay—is a Ramsar site, a wetland of international importance.

The multiple values of rivers need to be fully recognised and wholeheartedly embraced by our community, and a water-friendly culture effectively nurtured, before we could collectively aspire to achieving larger water sustainability goals.

JC-WISE image

CWR: You are at the forefront of the JC-WISE project, which aims to raise public awareness and attain long-term water sustainability for Hong Kong (see more here). There is a river component of the initiative; can you share its key components and any ways for people to get involved?

FL: Under the “My River, My Community” scheme, we have organised a series of public education activities:

  1. [email protected] database:  The first interactive and open-access database about rivers in Hong Kong, with the application of Geographical information system (GIS);
  2. Documentary and drone videos: A series of drone videos of local rivers have been produced and they are available for viewing on the [email protected] database. The Scheme’s first documentary, focusing on the theme of “Rivers and Community”, will be released in March 2018;
  3. Train-the-trainer programme: This programme is comprised of a series of professionally designed and guided field-trips. Each itinerary, centred on one river basin, highlights a river’s multiple dimensions, including the ecological, social, cultural, and environmental. This programme is designed to help enhance the participants’ knowledge of, and their emotional connections with, our city’s rivers; and
  4. River tour:The guided tours to local rivers are designed to enhance the general public’s understanding and knowledge of rivers. Guided tours to Lam Tsuen River will be held on March 31 and April 21, 2018

CWR: If you could have a wish for this World Water Day, what would it be?

FL: In celebration of “World Water Day” (March 22, 2018), and to promote the importance of water sustainability for Hong Kong, the first JC-WISE Water Fun Fest will be held from March 24-25, 2018, featuring Hong Kong’s rivers and the Water Footprint concept.

“…the first JC-WISE Water Fun Fest will be held in HK from March 24-25, 2018”

The JC-WISE Water Fun Fest 2018 will be jointly organised by the Faculty of Social Sciences, the University of Hong Kong and the Hong Kong Science Museum. A wide array of multi-media infotainment exhibits and interactive activities, including 3D Interactive Rivers Drawing, Fisherman Experience Game, AR Intelligent Sandbox, Illusion Art and Interactive Photo Booths and Educational Videos and Exhibitions of Local Rivers, will be offered at the Water Fun Fest. Through this celebratory event, we hope the public’s awareness of the importance of water sustainability would be substantially enhanced.

Another important NBS is wetland conservation and reconstruction. WWF is leading in this regard, especially in Hong Kong and China. We got to speak to the director of wetlands conservation at WWF-HK, Dr Michael Lau, to learn more about their work.

CWR: When people think of wetlands, many think of biodiversity, endangered birds and a lot of mud; but how about water? Where does it fit in?

Dr Michael Lau (ML): Water is as integral part of wetlands as wetlands are areas where land meets water. The interactions between land, water and the animals and plants that live there are highly dynamic and they influence each other. Hence, wetlands play vital roles such as cleansing water and the water cycle.

“Wetlands play vital roles such as cleansing water & the water cycle…

…some are important in alleviating floods”

Due to their capacity to store water, some are important in alleviating floods. Last year Hong Kong was hit by Super Typhoon Hato on 23 August 2017. The storm surge caused the high tide to rise an extra 2.4m and caused flooding and damages in the city.

In the Mai Po Nature Reserve which WWF-HK manages, our wetlands were flooded and some of the bunds and sluices were damaged. However, the commercial fish ponds on the landward end of the reserve were spared from the exceptional tidal water because our wetlands absorbed the water.

CWR: WWF has been at the forefront of conserving wetlands. Could you quickly outline the key aspects of this in Hong Kong and China?

ML: WWF-HK has been managing the man-modified ponds in Mai Po Nature Reserve since its establishment in 1983.

Our goal is to manage the reserve for migratory water birds, to promote education and to use it as a model site for water bird conservation, deliver education to local students and the general public, and to build up the capacity of regional practitioners.

We have been able to experiment with different management practices and create new wetland habitats such as high-tide roost for shorebirds and freshwater marsh in this small reserve. Coupled with monitoring and encouraging research, we are able to gain a wealth of knowledge and experience on managing different habitats, vegetation and invasive species.

We use this knowledge and experience to train up officials, wetlands managers and educators along the East Asian Australasian Flyway so that there will be a safe wetland network for the migratory birds to travel.

CWR: If you could have a wish for this World Water Day, what would it be?

ML: Clean, refreshing and abundant water for the people, rivers, wetlands and wildlife.

There is still much research needed for nature-based solutions

To wrap up, there is still much research needed for nature-based solutions. One of its issues, for instance, is scalability. Nevertheless, our panel of experts have shown that, from sponge cities, to rivers, to wetlands, nature can certainly be an answer to our water challenges.

Further Reading

  • Sponge Cities: An Answer To Floods – Floods have cost China close to RMB2 trillion between 2000-2014. Today, with 641 cities in China are prone to flood risk, the government has turned to sponge city pilots. Do they work? How much do they cost? China Water Risk’s Xu reviews
  • Securing Water For Hong Kong’s Future – The Jockey Club Water Initiative on Sustainability & Engagement (JC-WISE) aims to secure long-term water sustainability for Hong Kong. CWR sat down with Dr Frederick Lee of the University of Hong Kong
  • China’s River Chiefs: Who Are They? –  River chiefs were first implemented in 2007 following a pollution incident. Now, by 2018 all of China’s rivers/lakes will have river chiefs. How will this work & what do they do? China Water Risk’s Yuanchao Xu expands
  • Rivers Flow In Me: Reflections From Zhejiang – China Water Risk’s Feng Hu shares his childhood experiences with rivers in Zhejiang and laments the pollution that has occurred since; but as government and business marry economic decisions with water, things are looking up