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Ho Pui-yin, Water for a Barren Rock. 150 Years of Water Supply in Hong Kong
Even for the tourist that I was at the beginning of the 1960s, it has bee hard to forget the severe restrictions that lay heavy on the distribution of running water in Hong Kong at that time: the taps only worked for a few hours each day. From the very beginning, the problem of water supply has represented one of the major obstacles to Hong Kongís development. In 1842, at the end of the Opium Wars, the choice made by the British government to annex the then virtually barren island was a response to concerns as strategic as they were commercial. But the exiguity of the territory and the scarceness of its freshwater resources (in the absence of any large fluvial basin and phreatic deposits) were as great a handicap that did not cease to weigh upon the development of the colony for decades. This work by Ho Pui-yin is devoted to analysing the causes and consequences of this penury in water as well as the remedies that have been gradually applied to relieve it.
Upon opening this sumptuous octavo volume, the reader is struck first of all by the abundance of illustrations: paintings by Auguste Borget (wealthy friend of the family of HonorÈ de Balzac who arrived in Hong Kong in 1838 even before the establishment of the British colony), old maps and photographs pulled from the Hong Kong government archives, from the Public Records Office or from private foundations. Around the omnipresent theme of water (large engineering works, distribution systems, operating methods), these illustrations parade a stream of natural and urban landscapes, engineers and coolies at work, meter readers in full regalia, street scenes around fountains and inauguration ceremonies for new installations. Of all the compilations of photographic archives which revive the life of Hong Kong in centuries past, this work has a unity and an originality in its thematic construction and is distinguished by the quality of its reproductions.
Water for a Barren Rock, however, is not simply a collection of beautiful images. The accompanying text retraces the historical circumstances in which the problem of water has been posed and finally resolved and shows how the economic development of Hong Kong and the blossoming of its society have followed the progress made in the stocking and distribution of the precious liquid.
Commissioned and published by the Water Supplies Department of the government of the Hong Kong Special Administrative Region to celebrate the 150th anniversary of the first public engineering works, the research was entrusted to the Department of History of the Chinese University and carried out under the direction of Professor Ho Pui-yin. The study is supported by a rich seam of documentation: texts of the colonial government, internal administrative reports, contemporary press articles and other works. To lighten the apparatus criticus of a book that is also intended for the general public, the list of references is given in a global manner at the end of the volume.
The study is divided into three chronological parts. From 1840 to 1899, the first large reservoirs were constructed (at Pokfulam and Tai Tam) on Victoria Island. The aim was to create stocks of tropical rainwateróplentiful but very irregular (from 1,000 to 3,500 millimetres a year)óas a means to supplement the supply provided by watercourses and wells. The initiative for these constructions came from the colonial government concerned about ensuring the survival of a population that had risen from 7,000 inhabitants in the 1840s to 220,000 by 1891. To begin with, only the more populated Central district and western part of the island were supplied by the water from the reservoirs. At the end of the century, the distribution system stretched as far as Eastern District and Kowloon. The reservoirs then supplied 80% of the water consumed by Hong Kongís inhabitants. Only the colonial residences were equipped with private plumbing. The immense majority of the population fetched supplies from the public fountains installed in the streets. In dry periods, the flow from the fountains became more of a trickle and fights would break out among the bucket-carriers. The provision of water, which the colonial administration considered part of its direct responsibility((1), was free of charge. The engineering works were (poorly) financed by a levy of 2% taken from the general rates.
At the turn of the century, two events played a key role in the future development of this system. The plague of 1894 was the occasion for a painful and sudden awareness of the deficiency, in quantity as well as quality, of the water supply. And, the ceding to Great Britain of the New Territories, to the north of Kowloon, in 1898 extended the area of the colony and offered new and propitious sites for the construction of large reservoirs. In the second period (1900-1946) conceived by the author, the capital invested by the colonial government in hydraulic engineering works increased in hitherto unknown proportions: henceforth they could be counted in millions of dollars furnished by loans and, from 1902, the fee that the government began to demand from consumers. And although cranes and bulldozers came to the rescue of the cooliesí spades, the construction of new large reservoirs often took a dozen years to complete. The progress in the supply of water accompanied the growth of the population (1.6 million inhabitants by 1941) and the rise of trade. But the irregularity of the rainfall and the periodic return of droughts that emptied the reservoirs (such as that of 1929) continued to impose restrictions on consumers, strictly graduated according to the severity of the crisis.
During the last period (1946-2000), Hong Kong has finally managed to resolve its problems thanks to the construction of giant reservoirs, such as Tai Lam Chung (in the southwest New Territories), the use of sea water for flushing systems (the installation of which became more widespread from the 1950s), and finally to the importation, since 1960, of fresh water from neighbouring Guangdong, the waters of the Dongjiang River being channelled to the Shenzhen reservoir before being piped to Hong Kong. Hong Kong would thus seem to be protected in the future from the great crises of drought, the causes of sanitary, economic and social problems, which have punctuated its history and the last of which can be traced back to 1963. Current problems are emerging from the accelerated urbanisation of Guangdong province, which is bringing with it increases in the price of the imported water and a degradation of its quality. These are the common problems, of price and pollution, encountered in all conurbations.
Tackling an important subject, Ho Pui-yin delivers to us a study of an extreme precision, imbued with the constant concern to place the problem of water within the general historical context. The conditions in which the research has been conducted undoubtedly explain the often somewhat intrusive part given over to technical descriptions. But even if it becomes a little unpolished here, the return to the realities of the terrain, called for by certain excesses in the history of images and representations, makes it no less salutary.
Translated from the French original by Nick Oates
1. It would be interesting to compare the history of water supplies in Hong Kong with that of Shanghai as it is described by Kerrie L MacPherson, A Wilderness of Marshes. The Origins of Public Health in Shanghai 1843-1893, Oxford University Press, 1987. In the International Concession of Shanghai, the installation of hydraulic equipment and the distribution of water were granted by the municipality to private companies from the beginning.