Transitioning to Sponge Cities: Challenges and Opportunities to Address Urban Water Problems in China

Chris Zevenbergen - IHE Delft Institute for Water Education, Assela Pathirana - IHE Delft Institute for Water Education, Dafang Fu

At present, the Sponge City Concept (SCC) is gaining ground, Sponge Cities technologies are becoming more and more accepted by Chinese city governments, and the first best practices are being shared. However, there are still many challenges ahead which hamper effective implementation and upscaling. This paper presents an overview of some opportunities and constraints for the take up of this approach and has drawn upon international experiences. In China at the national level, the State Council has set a progressive target for the SCC initiative to be achieved in 2030. This target seems to be ambitious as the time needed for integrative planning and design and implementation is much longer than traditional sectoral approaches often omitting to address social well-being, the (local) economy, and ecosystem health. This particularly holds true for the existing building stock. Transforming the existing building stock requires a long-term planning horizon, with urban restoration, regeneration, and modernization being key drivers for adapting the city to become a sponge city. A key challenge will be to align the sponge city initiative (SCI) projects with infrastructure and urban renovation portfolios. Moreover, substantial investment needs and a lack of reliable financing schemes and experience also provide a huge challenge for China. This calls for an integrative opportunistic strategy that creates enabling conditions for linking the SCI investment agenda with those from other sectors. These transformations cannot be made overnight: completing the transformation process will typically take a life time of one generation. The progress in sustainable urban water management is also impacted by innovations in technologies as well as in management strategies. These technological innovations create fertile ground for businesses to adapt state-of-the-art developments from around the world and contextualize them into fit-for-purpose products. China is well-placed to play a leading role in this process in the coming decade.

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