Hong Kong Water Supply – Shenzhen Reservoir

Hong Kong Water Supply – Shenzhen Reservoir

Tymon Mellor: In the post war Hong Kong, the rapid growth in population and industrialisation brought with it an increase in the demand for water. With improving housing conditions, there was an ever-growing need for additional supply of piped water. Considerable effort had been made to maximise the local resource but continued shortages forced the colonial Government to explore a new water source, the Shenzhen Reservoir.

Politics of Water

On the 15th November, 1959 the Guangdong authorities, under the leadership of Mr Tao Zhu invited three hundred guests from Hong Kong to attend the opening ceremony for the new Shum Chun Reservoir[i], or Shenzhen Reservoir. The project had only just been approved in August, 1959 and work commenced immediately[ii] under the management of Cao Ruoming, the head of the newly formed Shenzhen Reservoir Project. The reservoir had been planned to provide water for “Hong Kong compatriots”[iii] with a capacity of 45.77 million m3[iv], sufficient to supply a city of three million people for seven months of the year[v].

Ground Breaking Ceremony

The proposal for the mainland water supply may have been new to the Government as it had not previously been mentioned, but it may not have been a surprise as the RAF undertook an aerial survey of the area on the 5th October 1959. The image showed the commencement of construction works at the site including the diversion of the river and clearance of the ground in preparation for the dam construction.

Shenzhen Reservoir

This was not the first reservoir to be built in Guangdong, as a number of smaller dams had been constructed to provide water for irrigation. However, at the time of the reservoir construction China was struggling with famine and from the policies of the Great Leap Forward. Water conservation was seen as a priority for the whole province resulting in the decision to construct ten major reservoirs in the area, including the Shenzhen Reservoir, Shiyan Reservoir, Xili Reservoir, Qinglinjing Reservoir, Qili Reservoir, Gaofeng Reservoir, Sanzhoutian Reservoir, Maxie Reservoir No. 2 Reservoir, Zhanghang Reservoir and Wuzhipa Reservoir.

The Shenzhen Reservoir was designed and supervised by the Guangdong technical team with the remaining three medium-sized reservoirs and six small-sized reservoirs were all surveyed, designed and constructed by Baoan County’s (modern day Shenzhen and Dongguan) own technical work force[vi]. Due to the goal of supplying water to Hong Kong, the scheme was followed closely by the Premier Zhou Enlai[vii] who provided assistance in securing key materials.

The intent of the Shenzhen Reservoir was to irrigate 2,000 acres of farmland, generate 320 kilowatts of electricity and supply all the residents of the Po On district[viii], but there was always a desire to use it to supply the people of Hong Kong.

Shenzhen Dam

The area selected for the reservoir is 3.8km north of Hong Kong, in a range of hills providing a catchment of some 60.5 hectares. The structure was formed from compacted earth, possibly from decomposed granite and spanning between two hillsides. The straight dam has an obvious bend on the east side to follow a spur on the hillside. The complete structure is 30m high and nearly 1000m long with a total volume of around 1.8 million m3. A second dam was constructed on the west side to close out a low col. Both of the earth dams were constructed from local material excavated from the valley bottom.


With a storage capacity of 45.77 million m3, the reservoir was twice that of Tai Lam Chung at 20 million m3 and the largest reservoir in Hong Kong at the time. It would not be until the opening of Plover Cove in 1968 with storage capacity of 230 million m3 that the territory was to have a greater storage capacity.

To prevent water overtopping of the dam, a spillway was constructed through the hillside between the main and side dam. This structure ensured that the earth dam would not be eroded by overtopping water and provided a safe route to discharge water.

Within the valley were a number of villages, and these were all relocated to allow for the reservoir construction.

Drowned Village

In January, 1960 with the reservoir under construction the Guangdong officials formally made an offer to the Hong Kong Government for the supply of water. This presented a dilemma for the Hong Kong officials as the territory was suffering an acute shortage of water, whereas Governor Black did not want to be dependent on the Mainland supply[ix]. This new source would address the short-term supply problem but would be a major political coup for the Mainland Government. The Governor agreed to pursue negotiations with the Mainland authorities while developing a more robust local water supply in the form of the Plover Cover Scheme. He hoped this approach would resolve the short term demand and address the long term need.

Filming The Works

To minimise the risk of the Chinese gaining political capital from the agreement, the Hong Kong Government adopted a number of mitigation measures, including:

  1. a formal agreement with competitive supply rates for the water to avoid it looking like charity;
  2. publication of the agreement to avoid one sided propaganda;
  3. the agreement was not to be signed by the Government or high-ranking officials, but members of the respective water supply departments;
  4. recognition that this was only required in times of need and with a fixed maximum supply;
  5. removal of any reference to enlarging the future supply; and
  6. supply the water to the entire distribution network rather than a preferred district.


With the official ground breaking ceremony completed, construction of the reservoir commenced in earnest. More than 10,000 migrant workers, using nothing more than hoes, shovels, picks and hand carts started work on the main dam. However, progress was limited and in order to complete the dam before the 1960 rainy season, the workforce was increased to 40,000 along with 5,000 carts and a few tractors to pull compaction rollers.

Moving Fill Material

The initial daily production quota was set at 1m3 but steadily increased to 5m3, with the highest achieved in one day being 54m3. The majority of the work force were young migrant workers from the surrounding communes. They slept in simple mat sheds, worked long hours and were supplied with only limited rations.

Shenzhen Dam Workers

The migrant workers from the West Sea Brigade of Shajing Commune were an excellent team on the construction site under the leadership of the general branch secretary Chen Zefen. Among them was an 18-year-old girl named Zhang Jingai, a famous “flying girl” on the construction site at that time. When taking the empty cart down the dam slope, the weight of the cart comparatively was significantly more than the operators, resulting in their feet leaving the ground as the vehicle ‘flew’ down the slope at high speed, resulting in the name “flying girl”[x].


By February 1960 the dam was more than 20m high and by the 4th March the dam was completed, two months ahead of schedule. The dam would be known as the “100 days dam”. On the 5th March, 1960 the original guests from Hong Kong were invited back to celebrate the completed works.

Opening Ceremony

Although the dam was complete, construction of the spillway was however in delay and being undertaken by the army. In early June, 1960 Typhoon Mary brought torrential rain to the area. The designers had calculated that it would take two years to fill the reservoir but the storm completed the task overnight. With the spillway structure still not complete, it was not possible to release the growing volume of water and the rising water levels threatened the main dam. To protect the main dam, the army were ready to blow up the temporary dam protecting the spillway works, thus releasing the water, but the storm eased and the water levels subsided just in time[xi].

In addition to the dams, a pipeline had to be constructed to the Hong Kong boundary. Sourcing the necessary steel for the 3.8km pipeline was problematic and a delegation was sent to Beijing to secure the 800T of steel required for the work.

Site Visit

Hong Kong Pipeline

With the prospect of a water supply agreement with the Guangdong authorities, the Waterworks Office had to resolve how to transfer the new water from the boundary into the existing supply system. The solution was to build a new pumping station close to the boundary and pump the water through a 1.2m diameter steel main to a Tai Lam Reservoir catchwater, a distance of 16km. The existing treatment works had sufficient capacity to deal with the filtering and sterilisation of the water.

From the connection on the Mainland side, the new pipeline followed the Man Kam To Road westwards, then beside East Rail before heading west along the Fan Kam Road and across the Kam Tin Valley to discharge into the Tai Lam catchwater above the village of Tai Wo Tsuen.

Shenzhen Supply Scheme

Funding of HK$18 million was secured in the February 1960 budget for the pipeline allowing survey and design works to commence in March. With a scheme in place, negotiations commenced with the 304 landowners impacted by the works. Pipe laying work began at the end of May 1960 working 24 hours a day throughout the wet season, allowing the works to be completed in September. Using temporary pumps, the system commenced pumping water from the Indus River on the 7th October, 1960 and the first water from the Shenzhen Reservoir on the 5th December, 1960[xii].

Shenzhen Supply Pipe

The Agreement

Following the invitation by the Guangdong authorities to supply water from the new Shenzhen Reservoir, in January, 1960 discussion continued throughout the year culminating in the formal signing of an agreement on the 15 November, 1960[xiii]. The agreement provided for the:

  • supply of 5,000 million gallons (22.7 million m3), provided that the rainfall was not less than 1.6m a year[xiv]
  • delivery through a pipeline to the boundary
  • payment of a rate of HK$0.234 per thousand gallons

The Hong Kong delegation consisted of D C Barty, Deputy Director of Commerce and Industry who signed the document, supported by H R Forsyth, Acting Director of Works and his Deputy T O Morgan. Tsao Jo-ming signed on behalf of the Guangdong authorities. The agreement was signed at the Shum Chun railway station and formed part of ten hours of celebration, including two Chinese operas, a visit to the reservoir and a ten-course banquet[xv].

Signing The Supply Agreement

By an interim arrangement, while the two pipelines were being connected, water was discharged from the reservoir into the Shum Chun River beginning in December 1960, allowing Hong Kong to pump the water out and transfer it to the Tai Lam reservoir. By the end of 1960, 353 million gallons had been supplied.

As for the Chinese management team, they did not fare well, as Tao Zhu, the initiator of the construction of the reservoir, was subsequently tortured to death during the Cultural Revolution. The commander-in-chief Cao Ruoming was transferred to the central government soon after the reservoir was built. He died in the early days of the Cultural Revolution.

East River Scheme

With the completion of the Shenzhen Reservoir supply, Hong Kong now had a secure dry season water supply. With the commissioning of Shek Pik Reservoir in 1963, progress on the use of sea water for flushing and with plans in place for Plover Cove, what could go wrong? With the drought of 1963, the need for a new water source arose. Thus was born the East River Scheme or as it is now known, the Dongjiang Water Supply Scheme.


Image Time and Space—A Collection of Zheng Zhongjian’s Works

Shenzhen’s 70-year record [1949-2019]

Mapping: 1957


[i] The Roots of Regionalism: Water Management in Postwar Hong Kong, David Clayton

[ii] The Changing Nature of Border, Scale and the Production of Hong Kong’s Water Supply System since 1959, Nelson K Lee

[iii] Shenzhen Reservoir: a story 40 years ago

[iv] https://zh.wikipedia.org/wiki/%E6%B7%B1%E5%9C%B3%E6%B0%B4%E5%BA%AB

[v] The Roots of Regionalism: Water Management in Postwar Hong Kong, David Clayton

[vi] Reservoir construction and development in Shenzhen 

[vii] Shenzhen Reservoir: a story 40 years ago

[viii] Big Surplus of Water, China Main 29 Feb 1960

[ix] The Changing Nature of Border, Scale and the Production of Hong Kong’s Water Supply System since 1959, Nelson K Lee

[x] Shenzhen Reservoir: a story 40 years ago

[xi] Shenzhen Reservoir: a story 40 years ago

[xii] Director of Public Works, Annual Departmental Reports 1960-61

[xiii] Director of Public Works, Annual Departmental Reports 1960-61

[xiv] Hong Kong’s Water Supply Problem and China’s Contribution to its Solution, John Rose, Geographical Review 1966

[xv] Hong Kong to Get Water from Shum Chun Reservoir, SCMP 16 Nov 1960

This article was first posted on 9th June 2021.

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