Uncooperative Water

Water flows downhill. This is a simple fact that has been pretty well mastered by the average 8-year-old. Yet somehow it seems to elude Chinese civil engineers. I speak, of course, of the deplorable condition of drainage engineering in Hangzhou. That “the things we take for granted back home just don’t apply here” is a tired, worn-out cliche, but we’re talking about the most basic principles of physics here. Water flows downhill. Place drains in low points, and the water will “magically” drain into them. Is that hard? I don’t know, maybe it actually is. But looking at the drains around my campus, they seem to be almost randomly placed. You know something is wrong when huge puddles and big thirsty drains live side by side in perfect harmony.

Here are some good examples of uselessly placed drains:

Pictures of water on the ZUCC campus not flowing anywhere:

Granted, none of the puddles are really deep. The pavement is reasonably flat. But it doesn’t really drain. If there is an absolute deluge, then the water will find the drains. That seems to be the guiding principle, though, instead of good old “water flows downhill.”

The greatest part is how the stubborn puddles are taken care of. Grounds maintenance staff sweep them into the drains. Yes, they sweep the water. With a broom. (Sorry, I didn’t manage to get a picture of that.)

Come on, China, you’ve got a space program now, for crying out loud. Let’s see a little better display of your mastery of gravity.


John Pasden

John is a Shanghai-based linguist and entrepreneur, founder of AllSet Learning.


  1. That Newton guy was on to something. My campus has similiar drainage problems. The biggest problem is the water that collects in the hallway of may apartment building because there is no drain. Anyway, thanks for giving voice to what I’m thinking everytime I step through puddles.
    doom | Email | Homepage | 11.21.03 – 9:42 pm | #

    Actually, laying concrete that drains properly is not the as easy as understanding that water flows downhill. Asphalt can be even trickier. Teaching the crew that has been hired because they have nothing to do and would disrupt the peace of a whole country if they continued with nothing to do is even harder.
    Tim H | Email | 11.22.03 – 12:10 am | #

    This is the funniest blog entry I’ve read in a long time. The pics of the lonely drains are priceless.
    Da Xiangchang | Email | 11.22.03 – 12:50 am | #

    I would blame shoddy construction. You tell a 200yuan/mth worker to build in a 5deg slope in the pavement and see what happens. Outside my apartment they’ve been working on some underground pipes for the last 2 weeks. It’s a mess outside, but what kills me is I see them fill a ditch oneday only to redig it another day. No one seems to think about the task as a whole. From what I can see, it looks to be about a 2-3 day job for a western construction crew, but like I said they’ve been here for 2 weeks. Isn’t a developing labor force great for business!
    Matt (nanjingren) | Homepage | 11.22.03 – 4:56 am | #

    I think one is supposed to use wicker brooms to SWEEP the water into the drains.

    I’ve been meaning to buy one for my bathroom, actually.
    trevelyan | Homepage | 11.22.03 – 5:44 am | #

    哦哦哦~ 我看见了波导股份有限公司 哈哈
    Michelle | 11.22.03 – 9:06 am | #

    I think there must be something more to it. For instance, my hometown New Orleans has the same problems with drains and street floods after even minor rains. It may have something to do with the water tables. Any civil engineers that can shed some light on this?
    Prince Roy | Homepage | 11.22.03 – 9:50 am | #

    The Big Salami is right – this is a classic blog entry, John.

    The money quote: “the water will find the drains”. So Zen and so true!

    Tim H. amd NJ Matt nailed it down. It’s a labor quality problem.

    But just for shits and giggles, let me introduce a conspiracy theory: the labor gangs are all migrant men, the sweepers are always migrant women. Perhaps the migrants are a little more “clever” than they are given credit for. By precisely placing the drains just outside the natural watershed, it creates employment for migrant women in the form of “water sweeping” jobs. So they can bring their wives and girlfriends here.

    Nah, I didn’t think so either.
    chuck@china | Email | Homepage | 11.22.03 – 10:38 am | #

    Hey Chuck! Long time no talk, no see. Glad to have caught you. Those pix bring back vivid cultural shock experiences. I bitched and moaned about the gutters and the drainage problems at ZUCC – I had to buy waterproof boots because I could no longer stand coming home from classes and walking through a huge unavoidable puddle, and having the water seep into the socks – cold feet no likey.
    Wilson | Email | Homepage | 11.22.03 – 5:31 pm | #

    Don’t forget that the cutting corners on materials, cheap labour (already mentioned) etc all play a part in shoddy Chinese construction..

    Up here in Dalian the hottest selling housing are the buildings that are made of imported construction materials and foreign workers who work on them..a good idea i think! If you can afford it..
    Dezza | Homepage | 11.23.03 – 3:33 am | #

    In Canada (Toronto at least) drainage is rarely a big problem, not to say that we’re masters of urban developement or anything.. Actually, most parts of (suburban) Toronto go about drainage in a slightly different way..

    basically, many sidewalks and roads the attract puddles have some of their barriers removed and so that allows the water to spill of and be absorbed partially by the grass. Besides the soggyness/muddiness, it works pretty well for such a cheapass solution
    pketh | Email | Homepage | 11.23.03 – 12:53 pm | #

    Have you forgotten your Florida roots? Remember that some of the drains here aren’t as efficient as they could be. In fact, in some areas, the excess water is expected to evaporate.

    In some towns, like Hollywood, FL, there are stell grid BRIDGES bolted by butterfly nuts to posts. During rains, people are expected to unbolt the bridges, lower then across the water flowing boardly along the curb, and walk over the water. I’m not sure who puts them back up & resecures them to the posts w/ the bolts. Displaced water sweepers, possibly?

    We do have pretty good drains, but, then again, we have pretty good rains — especially in the afternoons. I remember getting out of work at 4:30PM, just after the almost daily 4:20 PM shower/deluge, and having to try to jump over the water flowing/puddled along the curbs at the corners — & usually not being able to jump that far.

    I agree, tho, that it looks like they need a littl work there. Maybe the could lay a hunk of pipe from the puddle to the drain & then POUND on it to make a slight groove that would then channel the water to the drain?

    If they can’t handle the engineering or the construction, they need a little creativity. Gotta admit tho, sweeping the water probably also serves to sweep the streets.
    Tim | 11.23.03 – 3:30 pm | #

    Speaking of drains…The drain in the bathroonm of the apartment above me has been leaking forever..right onto me and my bathroom. I wish China had a plumber’s union (a real one, not an adjunct of the party) so that there would be a supply of qualified plumbers.
    hatch | Email | 11.24.03 – 3:56 am | #

    This is hilarious!
    Reminded me of the first time it rained in our new place in Meizhou. It just poored in our place–first from our open balcony that went “downhill” into the living room under the door, then from around the closed windows, then finally down the main stairwell from the roof and under our front door.

    Nothing a bit of caulking and a bit of chiseling out a channel on the stairs didn’t fix – which could have easily been taken care of in the engineering of the 8 story bldg. And spaking of 8 stories, we noticed in our city nothing was over that height… we figured they’d fall over if they were any taller. But that myth was laid to rest when we travled to bigger cities like Beijing and Guangzhou…right?
    undertree | Email | Homepage | 11.26.03 – 12:32 pm | #

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