Exploring the world’s waterways in Wuhan

View of Wuhan and the Yangtze River

Guest article by Maarja Kaaristo

At the end of October, I attended the Great Rivers Forum 2018 in Wuhan, China, which was jointly organised by the UNESCO Beijing Office, the Changjiang Civilization Museum and the Municipal Government of Wuhan. The forum is now a biannual event, which serves as an international platform of idea exchange and knowledge sharing for inland waterways experts and managers, and this year the focus was on sustainability. The location is perfect for discussing everything watery, as Wuhan has two major rivers flowing through it: China’s longest, the Yangtze, or as it is called in Chinese, Changjiang River; as well as the Han River, which is the Yangtze’s longest tributary and after which both the Han dynasty, as well as the Han Chinese ethnic group, both take their name. This metropolis of 11 million inhabitants is also known in China as the ‘river city’; yet in addition to the rivers, there are also 166 lakes in the city, making up a quarter of its territory. One of the largest of the inner city lakes in China, the East Lake (Dong Hu), is also located there, with the ‘East Lake Greenway’ area covering 88 sq. km, functioning as both a recreational area for the locals, as well as one of the city’s tourist attractions. The Greenway itself is a good example of environmentally informed and sustainable urban planning. The linear greenway around the lake only allows for sustainable modes of mobility, such as cycling, walking, and the occasional vehicle for tour groups and those with mobility issues. The Mobikes that recently left Manchester have a strong presence both on the Greenway as well as in the city of Wuhan.

The keynote lectures over the three days were held by Prof. Karl Wantzen (University of Tours), Prof. Feng Tianyu (Wuhan University), Dr. Eriberto Eulisse (Ca’ Foscari University of Venice), Dr. An Laishun (ICOM), Prof. Katri Lisitzin (UNESCO world heritage policy expert) and Prof. Yin Hongfu (Chinese Academy of Sciences) offering introductions to the respective sessions, as well as weaving the thematic topics together. Most of the work, however, was done in four parallel groups. The roundtable for the representatives of environment ministries and local governments, during which was discussed the best practice in integrating the cultural elements and environmental concerns in the management of river basins; meanwhile, the three expert and practitioner sessions focused on the natural environment, water museums, and urban waterside redevelopments.

Forum participants Abigail Wincott (University of Brighton, UK), Maarja Kaaristo (MMU), Eriberto Eulisse (Ca’ Foscari University of Venice, Italy) and Hugo Groeneveld (Water Museum of ‘s-Hertogenbosch, Netherlands)

It is important to note that the session with a more natural science focus did not only center on the biological and physical, as they discussed both the natural and cultural heritage of the waterways. Focusing on topics like river management, biodiversity and ecosystems, their work focused on finding ways on how to ‘reconcile’ the socio-cultural with the natural, trying to come up with ways of how to better manage the rivers as places. The session on water museums focused on the heritage, memory and sense of place as represented in various water museums around the world. The important role of the water museums cannot be underestimated, as these establishments are not just places for presenting water related history to the general public, but more importantly, also act as a means for awareness raising and disseminating knowledge about sustainable water consumption and management through educational programmes and various activities both off- and online. An important step towards coordinating these activities was taken in the summer of 2018 when the Global Network of Water Museums became an initiative of the UNESCO’s International Hydrological Programme. These practice-oriented issues – what can we really do in order to improve the human-water interaction – were further discussed in the session on urban planning, which asked how to reconnect cities with their rivers. This session acted as a critique upon various contemporary urban waterfront redevelopments and examined rivers as a key elements in resource management whilst also supporting a more sustainable urban development.

Maarja Kaaristo presenting

I attended the forum through an invitation from the Global Network of Water Museums, and presented in a sub-session focusing on audience engagement, museum design, eco-tourism, leisure and wellbeing. Focusing on the example of the U.K., I discussed place management and place making in terms of a ‘liquid place’ – the canal and river network. Inland waterways, as a place, have to be discussed in terms of not just its resources and materialities (even the key materiality, water), but also in terms of the mobilities and practices of both their human and non-human users and inhabitants. Another important aspect here, which many presentations, including mine (by presenting examples of visitor engagement at the National Waterways Museum) touched upon, is the fact that the waterways are also places that are increasingly digitally navigated and experienced.

While one function of the forum was giving the participants (altogether 160 from 30 different countries) a platform to introduce and discuss their work, the main focus was on facilitating further links amongst the delegates. For this purpose, the forum participants worked collaboratively in each session, identifying areas for future projects and developing an agenda for further action. One of the outcomes of the forum was suggesting developing more synergies between various existing programmes and initiatives. These include the World Heritage Convention, the World Network of Biosphere Reserves, the Geosciences Programme, the International Hydrological Programme, the World’s Large Rivers Initiative, the Ecohydrology Initiative, the Global Network of Water Museums and various relevant UNESCO centres and chairs, especially the UNESCO Chair ‘Fleuves et Patrimoine – River Culture’ at the University of Tours, France.

Wuhan’s Greenway

Another important aspect of the forum was the furthering of research, with a concentration on four main topics: the collaboration between museums and academia in better representing and mediating water related issues and heritage (including from an anthropological perspective); the importance of applied research; the attention to resource management; and collaborative management methods for strategic urban planning. The participants also called for an increased collaboration in both data collection and dissemination through participatory research strategies and for creating opportunities for co-learning for effective water and waterways management. As an especially urgent issue, the need to collect and study water-related memories from various cultures was stressed. In terms of dissemination as well as education, various plans were put in place. For example, the representatives of those water museums who were present are going to curate a collaborative touring exhibition based on comparative approaches. Another important subject was the use of new digital media to help the water museums, as well as research centres, to better engage with the public. In terms of conservation and restoration, an important point made was to avoid ‘garden’ type of ecosystems only developed to ‘look nice’; instead, real eco-engineering and nature-based solutions should be implemented. This means developing real human-waterway encounter sites in urban areas, with the focus on maintaining the biodiversity as well as providing environmental information. Again, the importance of local knowledge cannot be overstated here, as this can have very practical implications; for example, in regards of flood (as well as drought) management. Finally, training and capacity-building is vital in order to achieve everything above: the importance of facilitating exchanges between experts and managers, the organisation of field visits and on-site workshops, the use and further development of existing UNESCO-ICCROM courses and toolkits, as well as curriculum development for business schools with specific contents on the connections of water, culture and environment.

Overall, one of the key advantages of the forum was its ambition to bring together practitioners, decision makers and researchers; all the sessions had a good balance between them. For me, being able to discuss my work and ideas, and connect with the practitioners and decision-makers working outside academia, was very important, as we found out that often we do speak the same, water language. We discussed water museums, audience engagement, wellbeing, eco-tourism and leisure activities on the waterways, hydrological heritage, and the lives of the communities living near water, but also the new research perspectives on the fluvial sense of place and, most importantly, how we can better implement everything discussed in improving all lives lived by the water.