A thirst for China's 'sponge city' projects

A thirst for China's 'sponge city' projects

Singapore companies are stepping up to help China with an ambitious - and potentially lucrative - plan to convert most of its urban areas into "sponge cities" by 2030.

These places are designed to behave like sponges, with city-wide systems to catch and store rainwater during downpours, purify it and redistribute the water to residents, especially during times of drought.

Mr Ho Chee Hin, group director of China for trade agency IE Singapore, said that while China has launched several large-scale plans, he saw the latest initiative as a serious "call to action", which firms here should answer with urgency.

He said IE Singapore is working with urban planning consultancy Surbana Jurong to put together a consortium of players to bid for projects in two cities - Jiaxing and Ningbo, both in Zhejiang province.

"We want to make use of this long-term initiative to get more small and medium-sized enterprises to go into China," he said.

Mr Wong Heang Fine, group chief executive of Surbana Jurong, said the company's involvement is expected to be wide-ranging. "Surbana Jurong is working on an integrated sponge city solution, which includes water-related policy framework advisory, masterplanning and design of a sponge city, using smart monitoring solutions to optimise its operation and providing an advisory role in public-private partnerships."

At least 10 companies are expected to come on board. One is Netatech Engineering, which designs water management solutions.

"China is ready for a storm water management project, because of the sponge city projects. Previously, storm water management demand there was not mature," said Netatech chief executive David Tan.

While China began promoting the sponge cities concept in 2013, its government sprang into action last October, stipulating that 20 per cent of China's urban areas should have modern sewer systems and infrastructure allowing for efficient rainwater absorption by 2020.

The first 16 pilot cities were unveiled last year, with 14 more cities, including Beijing, Tianjin and Shanghai, added in May. Under the first plan, cities can access up to 600 million yuan in funding over the next three years.

Much of the funding will have to come from public-private partnerships, said Mr Ho, citing the city of Zhenjiang, which has published its sponge city projects. It has estimated that costs will hit more than 2 billion yuan (S$402.6 million).

Cities which adopt the public-private partnership will enjoy additional grants. However, Mr Ho emphasised that government funding is a "very important token" to get the cities started. He added that key ministries are involved in the initiative, while pilot cities have to report to the government on their targets monthly, reflecting the political will pushing for the initiative.

Competition will be keen. Mainboard-listed China Everbright Water said in May it will be building China's first pilot sponge city in Zhenjiang, while foreign firms are eager for a slice of the pie.

Mr Ho said firms here enjoy some advantages. "Singapore has good mindshare in China," he said, noting that its Active, Beautiful and Clean waters programme has been cited in China as a benchmark.

He added that Singapore's business councils with provinces such as Zhejiang and Jiangsu are also useful platforms to navigate engagement with Chinese officials.

"It's not so easy to open doors at the district level in China, as these are regulatory agencies. IE Singapore, with the seven business councils, can more easily open doors."

The sponge cities initiative has renewed urgency, as China recently experienced its worst flooding since 1998. Its Ministry of Civil Affairs said earlier this week that flooding and rain had affected more than 31 million people in 12 provinces, causing 67.1 billion yuan in damages and a death toll of at least 173.


31m - Number of people in 12 provinces affected by flooding and rain this year, according to China's Ministry of Civil Affairs.

67.1b - Cost of damages in yuan.

173 - Lives lost.

This article was first published on July 14, 2016.
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