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Detention basin solutions give reference for Yangtze River governance

Author  :  TU GANG and QIU QIU     Source  :    Chinese Social Sciences Today     2021-01-10

A part of Three Gorges Dam in Yichang, Hubei Province Photo: GUANGMING

Detention basins are a significant part of the Yangtze River flood mitigation system. They bear a major responsibility for protecting the lives and property of those in its middle and lower reaches and tests the governance capacity as it deals with multiple issues. Despite it is a local issue, detention basin construction has significant impacts to overall flood mitigation due to its complexity. It is capable of adding valuable experience to the systematic governance of the Yangtze River.

Safety assurance

One of the non-engineering countermeasures against flood, detention basins perform the core functions of stormwater diversion and peak clipping, therefore, key areas can stay safe during catastrophic flooding. First of all, detention basins are an important method to secure personal and property safety. In detention basins, flood diversion facilities designed to control can effectively diminish stormwater damage in densely populated areas.

Also, detention basins restrict population inflow and production scale within the region, minimizing the loss caused by flood storage. In other words, detention basins make physical the conceptual shift from "keep the flood away" to "give the flood way," which follows the cost-benefit principle for fixing flood problems. 

Flood detention areas are significant for lifestyles and production. Instead of functioning whenever a flood occurs, they are continuously prepared to store surplus storm water. Detention basins serve based on need. In most cases, people can still engage in productive labor in these areas. Also, multiple villages emerge in detention basins due to the flat terrain, cost-benefit considerations, and favorable agricultural conditions.

Detention basins offer a fresh approach to the ways which humans interact with nature. In terms of functionality, they circumscribe the exploitation and transformation of nature. People should be aware of the delicate balance between safety and production, as this balance stems from the uncertainty of natural disasters. The relationship between man and nature changes over time as the basin switches between water diversion and use in daily life, increasing uncertainties in human behavior. Therefore, detention basin construction and management ideally seeks a different human-nature coexistence than ever before, which can serve as valuable experience for the systematic governance of the Yangtze River. 

Realistic dilemma

Despite their crucial role, detention basins in China confront a dilemma that has resulted in their malfunction. Some detention basins have seen a constant increase in migrants and production facilities within the catchment areas due to infrequent use and the above-mentioned favorable conditions. The basins have transformed into zones for human settlement, agricultural activities, and industrial production.

In this context, detention basins' function of safety assurance may exist in name only. On the one hand, population growth will undoubtedly hold back the transfer progress and post-disaster resettlement, worsening the overall flood control situation. On the other hand, expanding infrastructure construction will thwart the transfer work and raise costs in land use, leading to climbing compensation. As a result, many detention basins can’t continue operation due to their internal development or exceedingly high costs. 

Secondly, detention basins' two functions can hardly alternate with each other and achieve sustainable development. Some can't resume production and living functions after use as water catchment. They have the right to seek development, but some factors hurt sustainability such as environmental damage caused by flooding, insufficient capability in post-disaster reconstruction, and single economic structure. Therefore, it is difficult to get production and life back on track, reducing residents’ living standards and land-use efficiency.

Also, the legal mechanisms targeting detention basins fail to cope with the demand for increasingly complex management. The Flood Control Law (implemented in 1998 and revised in 2016) and the Interim Procedures for Compensation for Use of Flood Detention Basin (enacted and implemented in May 2000) constitute the legal framework for detention basin management. Some other policies show similar regulatory effects. 

However, most of these regulations focus on the macro situation. Clarification falls short when it comes to details such as the basis for establishment, functional positioning, operation methods, safety facilities, construction standards, and governance measures. More importantly, as a subsystem of the Yangtze River's governance, detention basin management must connect with the river’s comprehensive utilization and planning.

Mindset for law-based governance

Many cases have shown that detention basin construction and management often fall into a dilemma, and it is tough to achieve a dynamic balance between safety assurance, production, and life. One of the key reasons is the failure to coordinate detention basin construction with a mindset consistent with law-based governance. Law-based governance is an important approach to governing a country. It is devoted to reasonable legislation, strict law enforcement, fair justice, and a law-abiding society, and emphasizes that the law and its implementation fully reflect the will of the people. Regarding flood detention areas, we can adopt a mindset consistent with law-based governance in the following three directions.

We can raise the legislative ranks of flood detention. A unified model at a high-level legislative rank can regulate the delimitation, management, use, restoration, and withdrawal of detention basins. Detention basin construction and management touch upon flood prevention and security as well as multiple factors such as social culture and economic development. Unified legislation can change the situation where local governments along the Yangtze River reaches manage flood detention basins on their own. Also, standardization helps to promote the systematic governance of the Yangtze River. In terms of these issues, low-rank management rules and interim measures are not legally binding. Therefore, unified legislation aims to formulate an effective legal basis for detention basin construction and governance. 

We should reinforce institutionalized governance of flood detention areas. Under the premise of a complete legislative system, strict law enforcement determines the quality and efficiency of administration in detention basins. Based on legal principles, this institutionalized governance can be further divided into two categories: entity and procedures.

As for the entity, governance should be more refined. In other words, we should refine their administration based on high-rank legislation. For instance, we can further divide the inner space of detention basins based on their functions according to flood control planning, so as to promote the use of resources. Then we should further categorize these areas based on how frequently they are used, which helps form more targeted governance. As for the procedure, we should standardize the flow and further institutionalize governance. For instance, immigration, construction of infrastructure, change of land use, and confirmation of compensation amounts, all should strictly adhere to legal procedures. 

From an external perspective, procedure standardization should also involve reflection on logical relationships of three aspects: flood detention areas, state compensation and insurance systems. Flood detention areas should strictly control immigration while encouraging emigration, to give full play to the role of compensation and insurance.

We should develop flood detention areas based on people's interests. Regarding a mindset consistent with law-based governance, people must be regarded as the foothold and goal, and rights as an important factor in terms of legislation. We can address the problem from the following angles: First, make reasonable use of compensation and insurance policies. Not only should registration and compensation procedures be made easier to access, but compensation policies which promote industrial structure adjustment could also be considered. 

By actively using fiscal and taxation policies, we can respond to the legitimate interests and reasonable demands of people in detention basins. For instance, we can try to introduce national ecological compensation policies to flood detention areas, and provide preferential policies, such as tax reduction and exemption, or land use for medium and low-risk flood detention areas to promote regional development.

Finally, we should seek support from social policies to motivate people to move out. Promoting migration out of flood detention basins, especially high-risk areas, simply by publicity, education, or administrative forces, tends to get half the result with twice the effort. Adhering to the belief that people's interests are fundamental, we should also provide support for migrants with their daily lives, household registration, education, and job opportunities. 


Tu Gang is a lecturer from the School of Law at the Hubei University of Economics. Qiu Qiu is dean of the school.

Editor: Yu Hui

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