A flooded Beijing CBD, a street near Andingmen, on 21 July, 2016
A flooded Beijing CBD, a street near Andingmen, on 21 July, 2016

The flood problem in Beijing, the Chinese capital situated away from the coast and major rivers, becomes more severe in recent decades.

The cause could be multifactorial: The expansion of the urban footprint, the impermeable road pavement, the lack of maintenance and repair to the underground drainage infrastructure, and the damage done to the natural and manmade water system that historically served as a reservoir. All these contribute to the frequent flood in modern Beijing.

But Beijing was not like this before and is not everywhere in Beijing like this today.

In July 2012, a superstorm lashed Beijing that saw part of the Chinese capital inundation with dozens of casualties recorded, but the Round City (Tuancheng) at the centre of the storm was not affected by the flood at all.

The Drainage System in the Round City

The Round City
The Round City

The Round City is located in the heart of Beijing, between Northern Sea Park (Beihai Park) and Middle Sea & Southern Sea (Zhongnanhai, the central headquarters of the Chinese government).

There is no single drainage ditch on the ground, nor is any drain opening in the 276 metres long walls that encircle the Round City detected.

So why is the area not, and in fact never, flooded even for once?

The secret lies in its special pavers.

The Round City
The Round City in Beijing CBD

Each paver is in the shape of an inverted trapezoid, and the material that made the bricks has superb water absorption capacity, thus each brick acts like a mini-water reservoir.

Apart from that, there are also eleven waterholes scattered around the trees, and under each waterhole there is a vertical pit, while pits are linked with each other by brick arch culverts to form an underground drainage network.

The Drainage System in the Ancient Beijing

Map of old Beijing
Map of old Beijing

Beijing was constructed 600 years ago by the third Ming Emperor Yongle, based on the city planning model of the old capital city Nanjing and the amendments made according to Beijing’s unique geographic setting, feng shui configuration and existing infrastructure condition.

When it came to stormwater management, a comprehensive drainage system was set up right from the master plan stage.

In the inner city district, there were Inner City Moat, East Trench, West Trench and a water channel encircled the Forbidden City; in the outer city vicinity, Dragon Tassel Trench (longxugou) and Tiger Arch Trench (hufangqiao) along with Sanli River form a waterway network. All trenches were designed to allow the water naturally flows from higher terrain in the north towards the lower ground in the south, which reflects advanced land survey technology, urban design skill and infrastructure construction quality.

Besides a highly effective drainage solution in the city’s microscope, most public buildings, including the Altar of Heaven, Bell & Drum Terrace and various archways, have stormwater drainage pipes and gully pits installed, which efficiently prevented water from accumulating in the surrounding areas.

The Drainage System in the Forbidden City

A moat encircled the Forbidden City
A moat encircled the Forbidden City

As for the drainage design in the Forbidden City, that is even more sophisticated.

First of all, the site ground level falls nearly two metres from the north at Reduced Level (RL) 46.05m to the south at RL 44.28m, while the land in the middle is much higher than that in the east and in the west.

Secondly, the palace drainage system is linked to the moat that surrounds the Forbidden City, while the water in the moat is further connected to the ponds in the urban area and a river outside the city wall.

Thirdly, while the buildings are set on a multi-tiered platform that does not connect to the underground drainage ditches, such as the three major meeting halls in the Forbidden City, stormwater discharge points are installed.

The Grant Meeting Hall on a three-tiered platform
The Grant Meeting Hall on a three-tiered platform
Stormwater discharge points on the higher platform
Stormwater discharge points on the higher platform allow the water to flow to the lower platform until reaching the ground level
Decorative stormwater discharge points in the shape of a dragon head
Decorative stormwater discharge points in the shape of a dragon head

Finally, stormwater is also distributed to a drainage system under the Forbidden City through numerous culverts and pits.

The construction of the Forbidden City and the city of Beijing is indeed a great architectural miracle.

Today’s Beijing is several times bigger in scope than the city when it was built 600 years ago. But does it mean the flood water in Beijing has to be several times deeper than the ancient city each time after a storm?

Ancient Chinese Stormwater & Sewage Technology

The drainage technology employed in Beijing and Forbidden City construction was not invented 600 years ago. The latest archaeological discoveries found Chinese used drainage systems in urban areas at least 2,200 years ago.

2,200-Year-Old Qin Dynasty Sewage System in Xi’an

This is a sewage system discovered in Xi’an, Shaanxi Province, the capital city of the Qin Dynasty (221 BC – 206 BC).

These are the pre-casted ceramic units and a section of a pipeline of the First Emperor Qin’s storm and sewage system.

2,000-Year-Old Han Dynasty Sewage System in Chongqing

A section of a sewage pipe in the photo was discovered when Chinese archaeologists unearthed a Han Dynasty (221BC – 206AD) city site in Chongqing’s Yongchuan District. The remaining area of the ancient city measures about 400,000 sqm.

Chongqing is an ancient urban hub situated by the Yangtze River and built entirely on the riverside hills, while the city where the pipe is located was just part of the big Han metropolitan that lasted for a thousand years until the Song.

During the technically most advanced Song Dynasty (960 – 1279), Chongqing had 18 major water stations serving the metropolis’ water supply and drainage needs.

1,000-Year-Old Tang Dynasty Sewage System in Chengdu

A long-buried Tang Dynasty garden has been excavated in mid-July 2012 in Chengdu at a construction site.

The unearthed elements of the more than 1,000-year-old garden include 18 ancient tombs, 1 pond, 1 well, a number of Buddhist statues and ceramics articles, as well as a 90-m long drainage tunnel.

The winding drainage was built with bricks, 1,6 m in depth with width varying from about 6 m to less than 1 m.

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