Hong Kong Water – War Time Supplies

Tymon Mellor: With the completion of the Shing Mun Reservoir in 1937 and the new cross harbour pipe line in 1939, Hong Kong should have had an ample water supply, but low rainfall in 1938 and an influx of refugees from Southern China put a strain on supply. Things would only get worse.

With war raging in Mainland China, the demand for fresh water once more out stripped supply, requiring the restriction of supply to 10 hours a day. Contracts were awarded to extend the Shing Mun Reservoir catchment area to improve supply, add additional filtration plant, service reservoirs and distribution capacity, but additional water sources were still required.

The 1938 report on water supply to the territory[i] identified that in Great Britain it was accepted practice that water supply resources should maintain a lead of five years over demand. On that basis new sources of supply would need be identified in the New Territories. A suitable site was identified in the Tai Lam Chung Valley and the report concluded that it may be suitable for a “very large storage reservoir”.

Works commenced on preliminary investigations to establish a reservoir in Tai Lam Chung during 1938. Using drilling equipment from the Shing Mun works, boreholes were sunk at the proposed dam site, along with the installation of river gauging equipment to record the river discharge and a rain gauge to measure rain fall[ii]. The boring indicated deep faulting at the site, making it unsuitable for a dam and by the end of the year an alternative site for the dam was identified. This proved to be more suitable and in August 1939 a layout for the scheme was sent to the Secretary of State for the Colonies in London to appoint a Consulting Engineer to develop the scheme[iii], to be covered in the next article.

With the Japanese occupation of Mainlnd China, preparations were undertaken to mitigate the risks of any future air raids[iv] and these included:

– a splinter proof brick wall was constructed across the Tai Tam pumping station to reduce the risk of the whole pumping station being put out of action as a result of a bomb. A similar precaution was taken with the Pok Fu Lam pumping station using sand bags.

– additional pipes were procured to allow the private Braemar Hill reservoir, which supplied Tai Koo Dockyard, to be connected to the Government water network in the event of an emergency.

– experimental camouflage painting of the roof of the Chinese staff quarters at Tai Tam pumping station.

To ensure a continued water supply in the event of broken water mains, in 1940 the Government instituted the erection of water troughs throughout the Colony[v]. The troughs were 27m long and around 1m wide and deep. Pick-up drains were also constructed on exposed hillsides to capture and channel rainwater into the system.

1940 Water Collection Uni Brist Sw32 048

With the Japanese occupation of Hong Kong in December 1941, the water supply systems slowly deteriorated as equipment and plant were stripped from the system and the necessary regular maintenance was not undertaken. With the European managers sent to internment camps, there was only limited understanding of the distribution system with the remaining staff and the Japanese having no interest in maintaining the pumps, filter beds and distribution network.

In 1943 it was noted that water restrictions may be imposed to conserve electricity. The power was needed to operate the electric pumps to move water into the high level water supply reservoirs. By November 1944 with an acute shortage of coal, electricity supplies were cut forcing the Waterworks Department to suspend water supplies to properties above Caine Road[vi]. For the rest of Hong Kong Island, water supply to the lower areas would only be available every three days. For Kowloon, there was no interruption to the water supply.

Following heavy American air raids in January 1945, there were no reported damages to reservoirs or pumping stations, but there was concern that supply pipes within the Wanchai reclamation may have been damaged. Where the water supply was maintained, the use of water meters and the associated charges continued throughout the period of occupation.

With disruption to the water supply, the remaining Hong Kong population had to resort to their own supplies. Many people used water from private wells, or extracted water from nullahs and rivers, and consequentially typhoid and dysentery were prevalent[vii]. However, in preparation for water supply problems, the Government had cast concrete slabs to be installed in the nullahs to create small pools that could be used to collect water[viii]. However, these were not all installed and as noted by Harry Ching, “The water anyway is not usable. The nullah is carpeted with garbage, and on this now rests a corpse”.

During the occupation, the Japanese introduced compulsory deportation of the people in an effort to reduce the population to a number they could feed. The population was reduced from around 1.6 million in 1941 to 0.75 million by 1945. With the surrender of the Japanese in August 1945, a great influx of people returned to Hong Kong boosting the population to around 1.6 million by the end of 1946[ix].

With the re-occupation of the Colony, a survey was undertaken of all the water supply assets, and it was found that six electric centrifugal water pumps installed in 1939 were missing, along with a complete new rapid gravity filtration plant, much of the waste detection equipment and pipework. Water leakage was prevalent, with around 30% of the water meters missing and nearly all the fire hydrants out of action. The catchwater system and remaining plant had been neglected and allowed to fall into disrepair. Many of the plans and recorders of the system were lost, although some were preserved throughout the occupation by local Chinese staff.

With the release of the European waterworks staff from the internment camp and with military support, work commenced on rehabilitation of the plant and distribution system. By the end of 1945 with temporary pumps and repairs in-place, the water supply was partially restored. One of the missing rotary pumps was found near the top of Tai Mo Shan, forming part of the Japanese radar station. It would be a number of years before the water supply would match the pre-war efficiency.

The Botanical Gardens Reservoir, completed in 1933 suffered settlement of the north-west corner due to poor ground conditions. As a result, in 1945 only half the reservoir could be used, limiting the water supply to the Central area. In 1948 the defective corner was cut off and a new wall erected[x].

With more refugees entering the Colony, the need for additional water supply become apparent, so in 1947 investigations once more commenced in the Tai Lam Chung Valley[xi]. This would become the largest reservoir in the Colony with a capacity of 4.5 million gallons and covered in the next article.


[i] Report on the Water Supply of Hong Kong, Mr W Eoodward Acting Executive Engineer Waterworks Maintenance Sub-Department, 30 November, 1936

[ii] Public Works Report 1938

[iii] Public Works Report 1939

[iv] Public Works Report 1939

[v] South China Morning Post, 11 July, 1940

[vi] BAAG Conditions in Occupied Hong Kong – Water supply

[vii] Water Warning, Danger of Infection from Pollutions, South China Morning Post, 3 September 1945

[viii] Harry Ching’s wartime diary, 24 December, 1941, https://gwulo.com/node/14455

[ix] Annual Report on Hong Kong For the Year 1946

[x] The Hong Kong Waterworks, ICE Paper, Leonard Jackson, 1952

[xi] Annual Report on Hong Kong For the Year 1947

This article was first posted on 16th June 2020.

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