Hong Kong Water Supply – The Politics of Water Supply and Rider Main Districts (1890-1903)

Tymon Mellor: With the completion of Tai Tam (Upper) reservoir in 1888, the city of Victoria now had a secure water supply. The “big reservoir at Taitam” would have sufficient capacity to support the population of 146,000; but now it was time to improve the supply networks[i]. However, with a growing population, unreliable rainfall and the introduction of residential water services, the adequacy of the water supply was put under pressure. In 1891, in an attempt to conserve the limited water supply, an intermittent water distribution policy was adopted. Things were only to get worse though.

1890 Waterworks Ordinance

Following his report of 1882 into the Sanitary Condition of Hong Kong, Osbert Chadwick returned to Hong Kong in 1889 to see the installation of a new water distribution network, and he also assisted in drafting the 1890 Waterworks Ordinance. This legislation regulated the supply of water and for the first time, provided for domestic water supplies to Chinese households, which until then had been prohibited[ii]. The draft legislation required that every house was to have a metered water supply, but this was rejected by the Legislative Council, as the Council did not believe that any regulations were needed. As reported by Chadwick, “They said it was too much trouble and that the landlords could not look after the people”[iii]. The requirements were revised to get the necessary support for domestic supplies, and The Waterworks Ordinance, 1890 was passed on the 21st July, 1890.

1889 Water Connection

The ordinance provided the structure for the management and distribution of water, to be managed and supervised by a “Water Authority”. It provided for water connections, monitoring water demand and where necessary, liming water supply, along with payments and the protection of water gathering grounds. Installation of domestic water supplies commenced in September 1890.

Pok Fu Lam Filter Beds (also known as West Point) – 1889 to 1890

Following the commissioning of the Tai Tam reservoir and associated Albany Filter beds, the expectation on the quality of water supply had been raised. The untreated water supplied by the Pok Fu Lam reservoir was no longer acceptable, particularly the muddy water supplied during the rainy season. In 1889 the Colonial Government agreed to build a new filter bed for the Pok Fu Lam supply. Work commenced on four filter beds, of 1,310 square yards in November 1889 and was completed in late 1890 along with a 940,000 gallon service reservoir, for a total cost of M$39,485[iv].


The filter beds were in operation for many years and only in 1993 were they demolished to allow for the construction of the Kotewall Road Fresh Water Service Reservoir.


Private Reservoirs 1884 to 1900

In addition to water for public consumption, industry also required water. Small business users had to install water meters, but for the water intensive productions, private wells were the solution. However, in two cases, the Government sold the water gathering rights to private enterprise in the area of Quarry Bay and Aberdeen.

In 1884 Butterfield and Swire completed the construction of three private reservoirs that would supply water to their enterprises at Quarry Bay. The first reservoir had a capacity of 11 million gallons, a second reservoir completed in 1893 held 30 million gallons, and a third built in 1895 held 137.7 million gallons[v]. A smaller fourth reservoir was constructed some time later, appearing on the 1924 aerial photo.


In 1890 the Tai Shing Paper Manufacturing Company, constructed a reservoir in the Aberdeen valley with a capacity of 44.3 million gallons, suppling water to a new paper factory on the coast. The reservoir was impounded behind a concrete dam that was subsequently raised a further 5.5m between 1899 and 1900 to increase the reservoir capacity to 92 million gallons.


Under the terms of the Crown Lease, the company had to supply the villages of Aberdeen and Ap Lei Chau with 60,000 gallons a day. In 1897 the Government built a small covered reservoir and three filter beds to improve the water supply. The dam was described in the 1931 PWD Annual Report as:

The old dam which was of the buttress type had a length at road level of 440 feet, a maximum depth below overflow level to stream bed of sixty-three feet and was provided with one 9″ draw-off and one 18″ washout each being controlled by a single sluice valve on the up-stream face and exposed to the water. The length of the overflow, at a level of 261.85 A.O.D. and which was continuous over the main section of the dam, was 110 feet. Access across the top was made by means of light steel trestles supporting timber bearers and planking. The old dam was constructed of various grades of displacer concrete, generally of poor quality in the interior with better material near the faces. The whole of the facing was of hard blue rubble set in cement mortar.

The reservoir was resumed by the Government in March 1928 for a fee of M$525,000, giving the company 183 days to use up the remaining water. The dam was reconstructed in 1931, but more of that in a later article.

Water Pumps & Service Reservoirs (1890-1892)

Supplying water to the higher levels of the city along with the Peak areas had been impossible with the gravity system, but with the construction of the new distribution network, in 1890 water pumps were introduced at; Garden Road, Arbuthnot Road and Bonham Road to supply water to services reservoirs constructed higher up the hill at Peak Road, South of inland lot 715 and south of the Pok Fu Lam filter beds. Steam engines were used to drive Worthington type motors and by 1892 the new system was in full operation, supplying water to the Peak and upper levels of the town.


Bowen Road Filter-beds and Service Reservoir (1898)

In 1896 work started on the construction of a service reservoir and filter beds on Bowen Road to filter 1 million gallons of water per day, and providing some relief to the Albany Filter beds. Three filter beds were constructed with a combined area of 1,400m2 and a service reservoir with a capacity of 720,000 gallons, connected into the Tai Tam conduit and supplying the eastern portion of the city.

The filter beds were constructed from lime concrete while the reservoir was constructed below ground using brick arches supported on brick pillars. The facility was commissioned on the 14th June 1898.

Bowen Road Filter Beds

Bowen Road Filter Beds

Failure to Rain

Within one year of commissioning the Tai Tam (upper) reservoir, in 1890 intermittent water supply practices had to be adopted following lower than average summer rains. This problem would be more acute during 1895 and 1901, when the rainfall was particularly low, forcing the authorities to take additional action to secure more water collection and storage.

Rain Fall Capture

Tai Tam (Upper) Extension & Catchwaters 1894 – 1895

With a failure to provide a constant supply of water, quick solutions were explored to improve the situation, the simplest being to raise the embankment level of the Tai Tam (Upper) Dam. The dam had been designed for this addition and on the 6th December, 1894 a contract was awarded to raise the main dam by 12ft 6in, the overflow by 10ft and the erection of removable sluices on the overflow raising the reservoir capacity to 390 million gallons.

In 1895, with less than 50% of the normal rainfall (1,164mm against 2,365mm annual average for the previous 10 years) the Tai Tam reservoir did not fill up. To enlarge the catchment of the reservoir, two catchwaters were constructed around the eastern side of Mount Parker enlarging the reservoir’s catchment by 220 acres to 900 acres.

The first catchwater was constructed at a level of 180m with a fall of 1 in 100, and the second catchwater at 250m level, with a total length of 2,800m. Connection of the catchwater to the reservoir crossed a small valley requiring the construction of two 450mm diameter steel pipes on granite piers, along with a bypass pipe. The work was completed and commissioned on the 8th November 1897[vi].


Wong Nei Chong Reservoir 1897 – 1899

To provide additional water storage, in 1897 work commenced on the Wong Nei Chong Gap Reservoir, a dam around 15m high and 82m long creating a small reservoir in a side valley at Wong Nei Chong gap. By the end of 1897 excavation for the dam foundations was complete ready for construction of the concrete dam. Around 11,000m3 of material had been excavated from a hill spur projecting into the reservoir, raising the reservoir capacity by an equivalent amount. Work also commenced on a catchwater along the hillside.


The dam and catchwater were completed in 1899 and commenced supplying water to the Tai Tam conduit in June 1899, providing an additional 33 million gallons.



Report On the Water Supply 1896

In May 1896 the Director of Public Works, Francis A Cooper[vii] recorded the history of water supply for Hong Kong Island and set out the future projects. Included in his proposal was a new dam below the existing Tai Tam (Upper) reservoir, and to explore the use of sea water for flushing and washing. However, without the new Tai Tam catchwater and Wong Nei Chung reservoir he was confident that the city of Victoria had a supply of 1,308 million gallons, sufficient for a population of 266,000 which was the estimated population in 1910.

Peak Service Reservoir

In late 1896 work commenced on a service reservoir for the Peak, as the area was at that time serviced by a small steel tank with a capacity of a single day. In the event of a problem with the pumps the residents ran out of water and had to rely on wells. The new reservoir was constructed just below the Peak Signal Station, with a top water level of 533mPD and was completed in December 1897. The reservoir was constructed below ground using concrete faced with rubble masonry and a brick arch roof. The new reservoir had a capacity of 409,000 gallons, equal to around 10 days supply for the residents[viii].

Peak Service Reservoir

Tai Tam Byewash 1904

In 1891, once more the rains failed to return to normal levels, and additional measures were required. In late 1901 a contract was let for the construction of the Tai Tam Byewash reservoir. A new dam was to be constructed close to the byewash (overflow) of the existing Tai Tam (Upper) Reservoir intercepting all the water that overflowed when the Upper reservoir was full.

Tai Tam Byewash Reservoir Subsidiary Dam 02

Tai Tam Byewash Reservoir

The dam was 146m long and adopted the same construction technique of concrete core with stone cladding. Excavation for the foundation commenced in 1902 and the rock turned out to be “less favourable than was expected”[ix] There were areas of decomposed rock, deep jointing and open fissures. As with the other dam sites, holes were drilled to inject cement grout to fill the holes. By the end of 1902 85m of the foundation were complete. By the September, 1903 the dam was sufficiently complete to impound 20 million gallons of water. Work on the dam was completed in May 1904 providing an additional storage capacity of 26 million gallons with the overflow weir set 1.8m below the overflow level of Tam Tam (Upper) Reservoir and supplying water to the existing conduit to Victoria.

The Drought of 1902

In 1902 the Colony experienced the worst drought on record, after it followed on from a record low rainfall in 1901, resulting in the reservoirs not filling by the end of the wet season. Tai Tam (Upper) and Wong Nei Chong Gap reservoir only achieved a combined storage of 390 million gallons, 120 million gallons below their capacity[x]. An intermittent supply strategy was initiated on the 11th November 1901 with the city water turned on for only 4 hour per day. By the end of the 1901, the reservoirs contained only 146 million gallons. With a daily demand of 3,525,000 gallons, this represented only 41 days’ supply to cover the 90 days until the start of the wet season. Additional measures were needed to minimise usage, and this included:

  • 13 January 1902 the hours of water supply reduced to 3 hours per day;
  • 22 January 1902 use of water for cleaning was suspended; and
  • Late January 1902 all supplies to boats and construction were disconnected.

On the 12th February, 1092 a committee, consisting of the Harbour Master, the Registrar General and the Director of Public Works, was appointed by His Excellency the Officer Administering the Government with full authority to take whatever steps they thought necessary to boost the supply of water.

An initial proposal was to resume the Lai Chi Kok stream water that Steam Water Boat Company used to supply shipping, but this was discounted due to the limited daily yield, the impact on shipping and the associated compensation costs.

An alternative water source was identified at Tsuen Wan, where a river with an estimated yield about half a million gallons a day discharged into the sea. Water from the river was used to operate a sandalwood-grinding mill. Following negotiations with the mill owner, the water supply channel was extended 300m to the shoreline, where a 120m bamboo pier had been constructed to allow the water to be discharged into lighters. Initially problems were encountered when the water became muddy as it washed away the soft channel banks before. The channel was upgraded to 225mm concrete pipes in areas of soft banks.

1908 Mapping Default 000 (Medium)

Tsuen Wan Water Supply

Initially, three large lighters were hired, cleaned and fitted with timber bulkheads to allow them to carry 90,000 gallons of water a piece. Later the fleet was expanded to five boats. Filling with water at Tsuen Wan, the boats were towed to The Praya where three brick and concrete tanks had been erected with a combined capacity of 100,000 gallons. One was situated at Wing Wo Street, the west end of Wing Lok Street and the third at Eastern Street all connected by a 150mm iron pipe. Military guards were stationed at each tank to maintain order and to regulate the flow of residents collecting water.

A steam driven centrifugal pump mounted on a barge was used to transfer the water from the lighters to the tanks and each tank had 20 large taps, each capable of filling a 5-gallon bucket in a minute, and later an additional 5 taps were added.

The new tanks were commissioned on the 10th March, 1902 and operated until the 17th May 1902 when the rains returned and the reservoirs began to fill once more. Initially providing 247,000 gallons a day, the system was expanded to deliver 432,000 gallons a day and a total of 23 million gallons over the duration of operation.

With the commissioning of the Tsuen Wan water tanks, the water supply between the harbour front and Queens Road was cut off, impacting 47,000 resident. As the import scheme expanded, the area of mains isolation was increased until 63,000 residents were reliant on the three tanks.

To assist the east of the city, arrangements were put in place, along with a temporary pipe line, to use water from the Butterfield and Swire reservoirs. The agreement provided for the supply of 15 million gallons but due to an arithmetical error in calculating the contents of the reservoir, only 1.25 million gallons were eventually supplied.

With these additional supplies, the supply hours were revised to two-hours each day for the remaining areas of the city.

With the drought continuing through April 1902, additional measures were taken, including the provision of water from Tai Wan in Kowloon Bay. A dam was constructed across a small stream where the water was taken 700m in an open channel to the sea, where it fed three canvas lines, supported on trestles 567m out to sea, where there was then sufficient depth for lighters to be filled. The water was delivered to a large tank on Ship Street where taps were provided for the residents. By the time the works were complete, the rains arrived.

For the other areas not served by these schemes, a dam was constructed across the stream at Tai Lam Chung to feed an open channel, 360m long connected to 3,200m of 300mm cast iron pipe, taking the water over ravines and out to sea to fill the water boats. Two lighters were lent by the Peninsular and Oriental Steam Navigation Company along with five other hired from Godown Company and Naval Authorities. The water was then to be transferred to two 34,000 gallon brick tanks on The Praya, one opposite Pottinger Street and the other opposite French Street. The works were half finished when the rains set in.

Rain began to fall in large quantities on the 8th May and on the 13th May, with 177mm falling over a period of 24 hours. By the 25th May there was sufficient water in the reservoirs to return the supply to normal. However, by the 1st November, 1902 the intermittent supply strategy was once more implemented due to early cessation of the summer rains. The total cost for the additional water supply measures was M$66,900.

Plague and Sanitary Conditions of Hong Kong

In 1894 there was a major outbreak of plague[xi] and this became an almost annual event, making an appearance in February or March and peaking in July before disappearing during the winter. Between 1894 and 1901 some 8,600 residents died of the disease[xii].

In 1902 Osbert Chadwick was once more requested by the Secretary of State for the Colonies to review the sanitary conditions of Hong Kong since his original review in 1882, and to report back with recommendations. He produced his report in April, 1902[xiii], giving a number of recommendations and advice. This included his view that the use of an intermittent supply strategy introduced additional dangers as it allowed:

  • entrance of disease and germs in to the water mains;
  • growth of fungus and pipe corrosion;
  • undue wear of the distribution system;
  • difficulties of equitably distributing the water;
  • waste of water; and
  • failure to provide for fire services.

To address these issues, he proposed a rider-main arrangement, where by the residential services would be connected to a smaller diameter pipe, rather than the water main, and this rider main could be isolated in times of water restriction.

Rider Main

He also noted that:

  • increased storage within the existing gathering grounds would not be sufficient, so a new source of water was required, with the most suitable source being the Tai Tam Tuk valley below the existing dam;
  • initially additional water could be sourced by establishing a pumping station lower in the Tai Tam Tuk valley and pumping at least 30 million gallons of water up to the Tai Tam (Upper) reservoir;
  • prepare a comprehensive scheme for the further development of the Tai Tam Tuk valley; and
  • adopt universal metering.

Water Works Ordinance 1902 and 1903

Following the problems of water shortage over the summer of 1902 a new Ordinance was prepared to penalize the waste or extravagant use of water. It had its first reading on the 4 June 1902 and after extensive amendments was passed on the 13 August 1902. One of the key features was the disconnection of tenement housing from the water supply when there was an available fountain/stand-pipe close by. There was strong objection by the local community to the proposal, but this was ignored. Eventually they appealed to the Secretary of State for the Colonies and the Ordinance did not receive Royal Assent.

To achieve the main goal of the Ordinance to prevent wasting water, two options were considered; either install universal water meters or introduce the rider mains system. The use of meters was not acceptable, as the general water rate already covered the cost of supply[xiv], thus on the 25th September 1903 the new Ordinance came into effect and new regulations on the 9th October, 1903 establishing Rider Main Districts[xv].


PWD Commission (1902)

Following a number of problem cases, not limited to the supply of water, the quality of the management of the Public Works Department (PWD) came into question. In March 1902 under the chairman of J H Stewart Lockhart, a commission of enquiry was appointed to review the duties and responsibilities of the PWD.

While in Hong Kong, Osbert Chadwick provided evidence to a commission[xvi]. During the review, a number of home truths were exposed including the race based approach to water supply. A H Hollingsworth, an Executive Engineer with the PWD entered into a discussion on water wastage with a member of the Commission, R G Shewan:

“Q – The Chinese in their own country always go out to the street for water?

A – Yes, it seems to me to have been a great mistake to give them water into their own houses, at all. Personally, I should like to see the water taken out of Chinese houses.”

His views reflected the local colonial sentiment.

Mr Osbert Chadwick was interviewed by the panel and presented a much more pragmatic response.

Commissioner, J Thurburn, asked, “There is the other way of taking the water out of Chinese houses in the town altogether and making them go to the street hydrant.

Mr Chadwick replied, “Well, I am not quite sure about the equity of that. The Chinese pay rates, and I don’t quite see why they should not enjoy a water-supply like other people. They have been admitted to general rights like other people.”

With regard to water supply, the enquiry concluded, “The evidence and these statements show that provision for increased water-supply has not been made so rapidly as the necessity of the case demanded.”

It was also noted that the PWD was severely understaffed, and Osbert Chadwick reported, “A great many things that should have been done that have not been done, because they have not had the men to do them”. Following the drought in early 1902 and a recognition that additional storage was required, there was now political support to start building more reservoirs. Time of the Tai Tam Tuk Scheme.


[i] PWD Report 1892

Dam photo, https://www.hpcbristol.net/visual/rd-s013

Pok Fu Lam Filter Bed https://lungfushan.hku.hk/en/content/site

[ii] Water Supply of Victoria, Osbert Chadwick, Hong Kong 7th August, 1894

[iii] Report of the Commission Appointed by his Excellency the Governor to Enquire into the Public Works Department, 29th March 1902.

[iv] Report on the Water Supply of the City of Victoria and Hill District, Francis A Cooper, Director of Public Works, 9th May, 1896

[v] The Governor, The Colony’s Waterworks, Hong Kong Legislative Council, 5th September, 1929

[vi] Report of the Director of Public Works, for the Year 1897

[vii] Report on the Water Supply of the City of Victoria and Hill District, Francis A Cooper, Director of Public Works, 9th May, 1896

[viii] Report of the Director of Public Works, for the Year 1897

[ix] Report of the Director of Public Works, for the Year 1902

[x]Report of the Director of Public Works, for the Year 1902

[xi] Third plague pandemic https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Third_plague_pandemic

[xii] The Great Plague of Hong Kong, E G Pryor, http://www.cultus.hk/middle_ages/plagueHK.pdf

[xiii] Preliminary Report on the Sanitary Condition of Hongkong, by Osbert Chadwick, 10th April, 1902

[xiv] Colony’s Water Supply, Efforts to Check Waste, Universal Meterage: Rider Mains, 1932

[xv] Report of the Director of Public Works, for the Year 1903

[xvi] Report of the Commission Appointed by his Excellency the Governor to Enquire into the Public Works Department, 29th March 1902.

This article was first posted on 4th July 2019.

Related Indhhk articles:

The following articles on Water Supply in Hong Kong were also written by Tymon Mellor.

  1. Hong Kong Water Supply – Kowloon Reservoir
  2. Hong Kong Water Supply – Tai Tam Upper Dam (formally Tytam Reservoir)
  3. Hong Kong Water Supply – Kowloon Peninsula
  4. Hong Kong Water Supply – Pok Fu Lam Reservoir
  5. Hong Kong Water Supply – Mint Dam and Other Early Structures

You might also be interested in:

  1. Water supply for boats, Lai Chi Kok, early 20th century
  2. Water supply in HK – its history and past, current and potential future problems – SCMP article
  3. World War Two -1945 BAAG report on occupied Hong Kong – water supply

Our Index has a number of articles about Hong Kong Reservoirs listed under Reservoirs.


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