In Search of the Source: Sunlighting the Liugong Canal

by on Friday, 01 November 2013 Comments

Dr Chun-E Kan, a retired professor of the Department of Agricultural Engineering, NTU, has been working in hydraulics and sustainability most of his life. The completion of his lifework would be the 'Sunlighting' or the re-opening of Liugong Canal, an irrigation channel running through Taipei, which is now buried underneath asphalt or concrete. However, his magnum opus is not yet complete. It has been 12 years since he submitted a proposal for a sustainable, economically inexpensive and romantic plan to bring clean rainwater back into Taipei City, starting off with the reopening of the stretch of the Liugong Canal which flows through National Taiwan University's campus. While it had been largely accepted at the time, Dr Kan has already seen a decade of retirement pass without any real action being taken to implement the plan. Negotiating the complex city and university bureaucracies make it extremely difficult to put a large scale engineering plan into action. We met with Dr Kan in the company of Professor Elijah Chang of NTU's Department of Building and Planning and her doctoral student Wu Chen-Ting who have also conducted research projects relating to the Liugong Canal.

As Dr Kan explained to us, the problem with water in the Taipei basin is that ever since dense urbanisation of the whole basin began in the Japanese era, what the government has feared the most was the crippling inundations during Typhoons, thus governments have aimed to get the rainwater out of the city and into the river as quickly as possible. For example, underneath the wide Keelung road, there was a huge underground passageway taking all the rainwater water straight down to the polluted Songshan River - a natural resource wasted. The Chinese idiom 'bamboo sprouts spring after rainfall' (雨後春筍) is commonly used to signify things springing up everywhere. Yet if all your rainfall is immediately flushed from the city, what can grow? You are left with an urban desert, where sand is replaced by concrete, and only shrubbery breaks through. In fact almost all the ponds in Taipei, despite perhaps bringing classical Chinese teachers to a emphatic sigh of contentness and harmony, are actually connected to the city waterworks using a hugely energy consuming pump system; meanwhile, the underground canals are now mostly polluted water. Essentially after more than 200 years of using a very sustainable engineering facility, the Liugong Canal, we no longer have any natural clean water sources fertilizing the lands and communities of Taipei. 

"The question we are facing today is how we can make the water stay a little bit longer in our living environment," said Professor Chang. "In fact this is the same question as 270 years ago, except then it was irrigation canals for farming purposes. Now we are trying to irrigate our communities." She felt that any project that started from the premise that we need to reopen a long defunct canal, for nostalgic or post-modern design purposes, was no different from any other costly beautification project. "The key is finding where the water is."

The spirit of the Liugong Canal was that of searching out the source, and for Professor Chang any project which did not first solve the problem of bringing in clean rainwater to the city rather than using reservoir water, defeated the purpose. Nowadays all the clean water in the city comes down from the huge reservoir in Pinglin. But as Prof. Chang explains, with the unpredictability of changing global weather patterns it is feasible that the reservoir could at times dry up, if that happened, how would Taipei's communities acquire there daily living water needs.

It was based on this premise that Professor Kan has always worked on his 'sunlighting' project. His Liugong dream is to first bring clean rainwater back to the NTU campus, restoring the NTU section of the Liugong Canal (Fig 1). His new even more cost effective plan is to channel natural rainwater flows from the nearby Toad Mountain. By researching various other rainwater canal systems in places with far less rainfall than Taipei, such as Stratford-Upon-Avon in the UK, he has determined it is not only feasible but also economically thrifty to channel Toad Mountains rainflow. This lower starting cost of the plan makes the project less daunting to politicians, the university and other possible sponsors such as the Liugong Irrigation Association. Most importantly it is environmentally sustainable, saving much energy in the long run as it operates largely without using energy. The plan also incorporates water cleaning facilities, inside a mound of debris which comes from the extra stretch of canal to be dug up in the process of linking the pre-existing canal route to NTU's infamous Drunken Moon Lake. The cherry on top of this project is the drum tower built on top of the mound (Fig 3). The drum tower is a historical reference to the original drum tower (guting), which was constructed to serve as a guard tower warning for attacks by the local indigenous population on the Liugong Canal construction workers and farmers. It is also the namesake of the Guting area of Taipei, though the 'gu' character has since been simplified from 'drum' (鼔) to 'ancient' (古). The rain coillecting waterway which would descend Toad Mountain like a spiralling slide, also has a walking path fixed on top which both controls the amount of water to avoid flooding the campus during Typhoons, and also brings the mountain back to the community. One major difficulty with this part of the plan is that the intended mountainside is owned by the airforce, and as yet off limits to the public. Finally, the plan appeals to the imagery of a canal campus like that of Cambridge University, UK, which has been a romantic ideal for many top Chinese students since the Qing Dynasty poet Xu Zhimo referenced Cambridge in his poem "farewell once again Cambridge" while studying there in 1928. Eventually becoming a pinnacle for aspiring Chinese academics. Cambridge University also erected a stone tablet with the first and last two sentences of Xu Zhimo's poem, immortalising the poet in ROC history.

Reading the poem, one imagines Xu Zhimo spending hours staring at the River Cam and dreaming. The shadows of the trees, the duckweed and the gentle rippling of the river seemed to set off his imagination. In the second line of this stanza Xu Zhimo says "is not springwater, but a heavenly rainbow" Ironically Cambridge, despite its rainfall of only 700mm, compared to Taipei's 2800, is surrounded by natural rainwater canals. If Cambridge can find enough rainwater for a 15-metre river, then so can NTU. In the stanza of the poem below he talks of a rainbow of dreams that are hidden amongst the floating grass in the springwater:

That pool in the shade of elm trees,
is not springwater, but a heavenly rainbow;
crumbling amongst the floating grasses,
the settling rainbow seems like a dream.


See here for original and full translation by Hugh Grigg

If the world beating success of Cambridge is anything to go by, a canal campus can inspire dreams in future leaders and visionaries. Creating even better study conditions for the academic elite is perhaps a dream for nobles, but if it was just a starting point for the re-irrigation of community life, it could be a noble dream nonetheless. If Dr Kan's plan was put into action it would be an important starting point for bringing water from natural sources back into different parts of the city, starting from the particularly visible and influential base of the NTU campus. It would be a huge life achievement for Dr Kan, but also a step forward in making Taipei a more sustainable water city.

taida map1Fig 1: The preexisting underground canal route and extension to Drunken Moon Lake on the NTU campus 

taida map2Fig 2: Possible alternative waterway routes on the NTU campus

 mountain liugongFig 3: The water cleaning mountain at NTU, with the drum tower on top.


Nick Coulson (聶克)

I was born in sunny Torbay on the south western coast of England's green and pleasant lands. I'm prowling the streets, parks and ruins of Taiwan hunting for absurdities and studying the sociology of the underground. Furthermore with our nomadic arts and action space "The Hole" we attempt to challenge rigid and alienating structures.


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