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When the natural pendulum swings between drought and flood, a bifunctional natural drainage system safeguards a mountain village’s water security incessantly for centuries


This article showcases a long-standing water-secure village in a mountain area in China and its water safeguard system. For centuries, the village has been shielded from the adverse impacts of drought and flood and continues to be a water-secure oasis amid the water-insecure environs. The safeguard for its enduring water security is a one-of-a-kind bifunctional natural drainage system (NDS) of green infrastructures that prevents flood and harvests stormwater simultaneously during storm events and releases the stored water for subsequent, year-round use. Built by the villagers upon two ecologically wise (i.e., ecophronetic) ideas—working with the duality of stormwater and building with nature, the NDS is characterized by double highs and triple lows—high effectiveness, high robustness, low tech, low maintenance, and low impact. This extraordinary feat of socio-ecological practice is as such a strong candidate for the recognition as a time-honored example of nature-based solutions.

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  1. The Chinese historian Zhang Haiying (张海英) provides a succinct narrative of Yu Qian’s contributions to the nation and his tragic death (Zhang 2015, pp.83–88).

  2. [1] Whence did our conception of water security in the context of human settlement come? We drew from two much-cited, broad definitions. UN-Water, the United Nations’ inter-agency coordination mechanism for all water-related issues (United Nations University 2013), defines water security as “The capacity of a population to safeguard sustainable access to adequate quantities of acceptable quality water for sustaining livelihoods, human well-being, and socio-economic development, for ensuring protection against water-borne pollution and water-related disasters, and for preserving ecosystems in a climate of peace and political stability” (UN-Water 2013). Similarly, leading authors of water development and management David Grey and Claudia Sadoff (2007, pp.547–548) define water security as “the availability of an acceptable quantity and quality of water for health, livelihoods, ecosystems and production, coupled with an acceptable level of water-related risks to people, environments and economies”. [2] Throughout this article, we use the term water security, its antithesis water insecurity, and their respective corresponding adjectives water-secure and water-insecure to describe human settlements as well as places where human settlements reside in. This usage is in line with that in Grey and Sadoff (2007). [3] For a recent critical review of the conceptions of water security and the challenges to the human endeavor of achieving and sustaining water security, see Staddon and Scott (2018).

  3. [1] These “regional heavy precipitation events (RHPEs)” (Wu et al 2019, p.414) in July and August are results of the northward movement of the East Asian summer monsoon rain belt, which brings water vapor from the South China Sea and tropical western Pacific to inland areas of China (Ibid., p.420, p.418, p.424). [2] A semiarid area typically has an annual precipitation between 250 and 500 mm (Merriam-Webster 2021; Zhang and Li 1999, p.231). For a review of different indices used in delineating semiarid regions in China, see Zhang and Li (1999).

  4. [1] A river terrace is a “bench or step that extends along the side of a valley and represents a former level of the valley floor” (The Editors of Encyclopaedia Britannica 1998). As shown in Fig. 2, all the area within the 1750 boundary is on the river terrace, while later development all goes uphill. [2] A flood-related phenomenon is soil erosion in the area—when flowing over patches of scrub on the slopes, the downhill runoff easily washes away barren soil (Zhao and Che 2020, pp.68–70). Since this aspect of intrinsic water insecurity in the area is not the focus of our article, we refer readers to Fig. 2 in which the terraced farmlands and planted trees on the surrounding hills are effective measures villagers used to prevent soil erosion.

  5. The quote is a translation of the Chinese phrase “无雨是旱,有雨成涝”, the characterization of the alternating drought–flood situation in the area by the authors of Zhao et al. (2018, p.42).

  6. [1] “Drilled wells are constructed by percussion or rotary-drilling machines. Drilled wells can be thousands of feet [i.e., hundreds of meters in the metric system] deep and require the installation of casing. Drilled wells have a lower risk of contamination due to their depth and use of continuous casing” (US–EPA 2021). [2] The underground cisterns in the village have also been used to store water from the drilled wells in the recent years (Han 2021).

  7. The quote is a translation of the Chinese phrase “大雨不积水, 小雨不湿鞋” used by the villagers in describing the performance of the village’s storm drainage system. It was cited by Zhao and Che (2020, p.72) and Zhao et al. (2018, p.43).

  8. [1] There are four sources of inspiration for our NDS definition. First and foremost, the storm drainage system in Yujiacun Village itself—its underlying ideas, components, characteristics, and functions. These will be elucidated in this and next section. Second, the NDS definition by Seattle Public Utilities (2018), in which an NDS is defined as a system of engineered facilities that mimics nature to slow, reduce, clean, and use stormwater runoff close to its source (e.g., streets, rooftops and parking lots). Third, the stormwater management concept by Holm et al. (2014) which advocates a storm drainage system that uses GIs to “keep stormwater close to where it falls”, “keep it clean, slow it down, soak it in.” Fourth, the sustainable drainage systems by Grant (2016, pp.10–11) “which mimic natural drainage by intercepting, detaining, attenuating and infiltrating rainwater and promoting evapotranspiration through the use of natural features, thereby keeping rainwater out of the sewers.” [2] In the NDS definition, we use the contemporary nomenclature green infrastructures as an umbrella term for the NDS components whether they are built-with-nature by humans (e.g., sloped permeable streets, underground cisterns, retention ponds) or straightly built-by-nature (e.g., seasonal creeks). As such, the adjective “green” here means “tending to preserve environmental quality (as by being recyclable, biodegradable, or nonpolluting)” (Merriam-Webster 2022). For a succinct review of the GIs concepts, see La Rosa et al (2021, p.330). The idea of building with nature will be discussed in subsection 3.2.

  9. Historically, retention ponds (Chinese: 涝池, Pinyin: laochi) played an important role in both runoff control and stormwater harvest and served as a major drinking water supply (Han 2021; Jingxing County Government 2020; Zhao and Che 2020, p.70, p.73). They were gradually replaced by underground cisterns which are more advantageous in playing those roles. At the time of this writing, there are two remaining retention ponds that are located on the hills south of the village for irrigation purpose (marked on Fig. 2). For a definition of retention ponds and a useful comparison with detention ponds (旱池, hanchi), see Laramie County Conservation District (2016).

  10. All streets have moderate slopes, ranging from 10 to 15%, and are covered with stone pavers. This sloped permeability offers two advantages in regulating the movement of stormwater. It allows the stormwater runoff to flow without causing soil erosion and provides the time for the stormwater runoff to infiltrate when the soil underneath is unsaturated (NRCS 2021, p.2 of 2).

  11. For a review on the first flush phenomenon in urban stormwater management, see Mamun et al. (2020). For the practice of separating the first flush from stormwater runoff in ecological planning and design for water-sensitive cities and towns, see Grant (2016, p.133), among others.

  12. The use of quicklime powder in cistern water treatment is neither new nor unique. According to a 2011 national survey, there are approximately 4.5 million underground cisterns in the arid and semiarid rural areas in China; the use of quicklime in cistern water treatment is widespread (Lin 2011, p.3 of 8). It is not clear, however, when and from whom the Yujiacun villagers learnt to use this traditional chemical method.

  13. Both the adjective ecophronetic and the noun ecophronesis from which it derives were coined in 2016 by Chinese American geographer and planning scholar Wei-Ning Xiang (Austin 2018; Grose et al. 2019; Xiang 2016). Drawing upon the neo-Aristotelian conceptions of phronesis (i.e., practical wisdom), Wei-Ning Xiang regarded ecophronesis (i.e., ecological phronesis) as the practical wisdom that people acquire and use in their socio-ecological practice, and provided the following definition: “ecophronesis is the master skill par excellence of moral improvisation to make, and act well upon, right choices in any given circumstance of [socio-]ecological practice; motivated by human beings’ enlightened self-interest, it is developed through reflective [socio-]ecological practice” (Xiang 2016, p.55; parentheses added by the authors of this article). Two years later, in 2018, British theological ethicist Nicholas Austin offered “a more fully ethical and theological account of ecophronesis” and advocated “an ecological adaptation” of ecophronesis as “a guiding ecological virtue” (Austin 2018, pp.1009–1010). He wrote, “For those who locate the roots of the ecological crisis in human cupidity, pride, and technoscientific domination of nature, the holistic practical wisdom of ecophronesis, put at the service of an integral human and ecological good, offers the prospect of an attractive corrective…. Ecophronesis, then, is the practical wisdom we need to live well in what Pope Francis refers to as ‘our common home’” (Ibid., p.1009).

  14. A common threat is a danger—something or someone that can hurt or harm people—that may happen to every individual human being in a certain place (e.g., the Earth, a country, a region, a city, a village, or a community) to the extent that no one in that place is immune; a common threat can come from a natural disaster, a human conflict, or a combination of both (Palko and Xiang 2020, p.260; Xiang 2020a, p.200; Xiang 2021, p.239).

  15. [1] Cultural beliefs are conceptions about the world and human life a group of people hold as true, important, and desirable for good life (Edwards and Jarrett 2009, p.265; Greif 1994, p.915; Wong 2009, p.152). Cultural beliefs influence how people think, what they value, and how they behave and cope (Fan 2000, p.4; Greif 1994, p.915; Wong 2009, p.148). [2] For a succinct account of the six cultural beliefs and virtues Wong presented, see Palko and Xiang (2020, p.262).

  16. “Socio-ecological practice is the human action and social process that take place in specific socio-ecological context to bring about a secure, harmonious, and sustainable socio-ecological condition serving human beings’ need for survival, development, and flourishing. It is the most fundamental and arguably primordial social practice Homo sapiens has been involuntarily engaging in over thousands of years of co-evolution with nature. Socio-ecological practice includes six distinct yet intertwining classes of human action and social process—planning, design, construction, restoration, conservation, and management” (Xiang 2019a, p.7).

  17. The Chinese noun guanxi (i.e., 关系) generally means a relationship between objects, processes, or people; and here it refers to an interpersonal relationship or a web of social relationships. Guanxi practice is the reciprocal act and process of cultivating, sustaining, and employing guanxi toward mutually beneficial ends (Li et al. 2021, p.389).


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We are indebted to the following individuals who provided valuable assistance during the preparation of this article (in alphabetic order): Han Chao (韩超), Jilin Tongcheng Urban Planning and Design Institute, Changchun, China]; Gao Cuifang (高翠芳) and Yu Hui (于辉), Yujiacun Village, Jingxing County, Hebei Province, China.

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Jiang, H., Xie, W., Xiang, WN. et al. When the natural pendulum swings between drought and flood, a bifunctional natural drainage system safeguards a mountain village’s water security incessantly for centuries. Socio Ecol Pract Res 4, 117–129 (2022).

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  • Yujiacun Village (于家村)
  • Water security
  • Natural drainage systems (NDS)
  • Nature-based solutions (NBS)
  • The duality of stormwater
  • Building with nature
  • Ecophronesis (ecological practical wisdom)