Chinese cities are using water cannon to clean their air

Beijing’s Tiananmen Square during “dangerous levels” of air pollution in February 2014. Image: Getty.

In the summer months, Chinese cities don’t just get hot: they get smoggy, too. Beijing has long been known as the country’s pollution capital, but data released in March showed that, in 2013, nine other cities suffered more days of smog than the capital. The news prompted Chinese premier Li Keqiang to “declare war” on pollution.

And that war is being fought using cannon.

Over the last few months, pictures have emerged showing giant, hair dryer-like machines, mounted on trucks in the streets of several Chinese cities. These can blow water vapour up to 200 feet into the air: the idea is that water droplets from these “mist cannons” stick to pollution particles, and pull them to the ground.  They come with a hefty price tag: most cost city governments between 700,000 and 900,000 yuan (that’s $113,500-$146,000).

The cities that have made greatest use of the cannon seem to be those of Heibei, the province south of Beijing, where many of the cities with the worst pollution are located. Here’s one in Zhangjiakou:

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Image: Xinhua.

Unfortunately for city governments and their war on pollution, Pan Xiaochuan, an environmental expert from Peking University, told Xinhua last month that the cannons aren’t actually very effective. The machine can reduce pollutants for a short time after the water is sprayed, he said – but “its effects don’t last long”. And then the cannon moves on, to another location: it offers, at best, a moment of relief.

Despite this, the cannons are still being used: Chongqing started using one just last week, though city officials say it was hired to fight “summer heat”, not smog.

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Chongqing’s new cannon. Image: People’s Daily.

In other words, they’ve basically spent around 750,000 yuan ($121,500) on a movable sprinkler to keep the city cool. Can’t argue with that.

 
 
 
 

Could twin towns bring Britain back together?

An unlikely pair. Image: Wikimedia Commons.

Twin towns: an irrelevant novelty to most of us, a peculiar name on a village’s welcome sign. But could linking one British town to another – a domestic reinterpretation of this long-standing European practice – help bring Britain back together in a time of national crisis?

Born in the aftermath of World War II, town twinning aimed to foster cooperation and solidarity across Europe. Communities entered formal alliances, nurturing friendships and shared histories. Coventry forged links with Dresden and Volgograd, then Stalingrad, marking the devastation faced by their citizens during the war.

The democratisation of Greece, Spain and Portugal during the 1970s led to a new wave of twin towns across Europe, as did the fall of the Soviet Union a decade later. Since its inception, the focus of town twinning has been on uniting people through relationships. It is a testament to the initiative’s success that many of these remain to this day; Coventry recently enjoyed a performance at the city’s cathedral by Volgograd’s children’s choir.

While European relations have improved since the 1940s, unity at home has received less attention. As a result, Britain is riven with deep economic, political, educational and cultural divides. These fault lines are increasingly determined by geography, with a growing gap between our big metropolitan cities and almost everywhere else.

In comparison to other European countries, we face staggering levels of regional inequality; six of the ten poorest regions in northern Europe can been found in the UK. As outlined by Alan Milburn, the government’s former social mobility tsar, “the country seems to be in the grip of a self-reinforcing spiral of ever-growing division. That takes a spatial form, not just a social one.”

These divisions are poisoning our body politic. As Adam Smith argued in The Theory of Moral Sentiments, putting yourself in someone else's shoes is vital for developing a moral compass; in doing so "we conceive ourselves enduring all the same torments, we enter as it were into his body, and become in some measure the same person with him..." But this is difficult when we have little interaction or experience of those with opposing views.

This is increasingly likely in geographically polarised Britain, with the places we live dominated by people who think alike. Our political leaders must commit time and energy to bridging these divides, just as the leaders of Europe did in the aftermath of the Second World War. By forging links between different parts of the country, a new era of domestic town twinning would do just that.


School exchanges between sister towns would offer an opportunity for children to be exposed to places, people and perspectives very different to their own. This would allow future generations to see things from an alternative and opposing perspective. It may also embed from a young age an awareness of the diversity of experiences seen by people across our highly unequal country.

MPs would be encouraged to spend time in their constituency’s sister town. First-hand exposure to voters in a very different part of the country would surely soften the views of even the most entrenched parliamentarian, making for a more civil debate in the Commons. Imagine the good this would do for Parliament today, with Brexit gridlocked because of the unwillingness of MPs to compromise.

In 2016 the Carnegie UK Trust launched its Twin Towns UK programme, a pilot linking twenty towns across the UK to examine how they might develop together. Emerging benefits include a reduction of insularity and a greater awareness of the bigger picture. Its focus was not on bridging economic divides – towns with similar socioeconomic characteristics were twinned – but initial outcomes from the scheme suggest a broader programme of domestic town twinning could have a powerful impact.

Looking further back, Camden has been twinned with Doncaster since the 1980s, a relationship that unionised Camden Town Hall workers forged in a display of solidarity with striking miners during the 1980s. Funds were raised to feed families of striking workers at the pit and Camden locals even drove north to deliver presents at Christmas. Though the relationship appears less active today, it serves as a powerful reminder of twinning’s capacity to bring people from very different places together.

As we prepare for Brexit it’s imperative that we protect existing twin town relationships with our European partners. This is of vital importance when we know sadly many of these are under threat from austerity and gloriously un-PC mayors. But we should look to breathe new life into these traditions too, where possible. Domestic town twinning would do just that: a step towards bringing Britain back together, just as a continent was reunited after the devastation of war.

Ben Glover is a researcher at the think tank Demos.