IIAS Lunch Lecture

Tackling the growing flood risk in the Pearl River Delta: urban climate change adaptation with Chinese characteristics?

The cities of the Pearl River Delta (PRD) in China are among the most exposed to flooding caused by climate change in the world. 

Guangzhou, Shenzhen, and Hong Kong, three major cities in the PRD, face severe and increasingly frequent flooding events, particularly water logging,  which stem from a rapid urban development that prioritisises real estate and infrastructural development, while neglecting the centuries-long traditions of urban design and living in harmony with the omnipresent water in the delta. This legacy and ancestral wisdom has been mostly forgotten in the pursuit of urban expansion and growth. 

At the central government level there is a growing recognition of the need to promote urban climate adaptation and actions aimed at reducing the exposure of cities to flooding. Likewise, the Chinese provinces have been preparing adaptation strategies. In cities, however, there is surprisingly little recognition of the problem at hand, and hardly any action is taken to explicitly address it at this level. 

Today, in these three cities, only sporadic and isolated examples can be found of innovative projects to tackle this problem. While some activities remain somewhat accidental, other are part of more purposeful strategies such as the recently launched national ‘Sponge City’ policy, aimed at reducing the vulnerability of mainland Chinese cities to flooding. All these actions, however, are not labelled as 'climate adaptation' and have completely different goals than similar initiatives in, for example, European cities. There are also numerous mplementation hurdles casting doubt on their eventual execution and ability to alleviate the growing flood risk.

In this lecture, the speaker, will attempt to take stock of these emergent innovations in three differentiated PRD cities, sharing some common traditions in managing and living by the water, yet operating in different governance contexts of mainland China and Hong Kong.

The lecture will focus on the tensions between the priorities in urban development, spatial planning and water management, and on the ways in which these are shaped by, on the one hand, the said departure from the historical practices that helped build resilient cities in the delta in the past, and, on the the other, the peculiarities of the current Chinese system of territorial governance and its urbanisation process taking place at break-neck speed. 

It will use the conceptual framework of the 'three I’s’ (institutions, interests, ideas) as a heuristic device. By doing this, the lecture will attempt to shed some light on the factors affecting the capacity of the PRD cities to adapt to the flood risk exacerbated by climate change.

Marcin Dąbrowski is an Assistant Professor at the Department of Urbanism, Faculty of Architecture and the Built Environment, Delft University of Technology. His educational background is political science, while his academic interests span across disciplinary boundaries of social sciences, regional and urban studies and spatial planning and include a range of topics from the EU regional policy, governance and stakeholder participation, to urban climate change policies and social acceptance of renewable energy infrastructures.

For the last three years he has been working on research, funded by the Urban Studies Foundation and also the Urban Knowledge Network Asia (UKNA), focusing on the governance and spatial planning challenges in climate change in the cities of the Pearl River Delta in China and, in particular, the comparison between the cases of Guangzhou, Shenzhen and Hong Kong.

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About IIAS Lunch Lectures

Every month, an IIAS researcher or visiting scholar will present his or her work-in-progress in an informal setting to colleagues and other interested attendees. IIAS organises these lunch lectures to give the research community the opportunity to freely discuss ongoing research and exchange thoughts and ideas.