Liquid assets

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 04 March, 2012, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 04 March, 2012, 12:00am


Understanding how essential public infrastructure works such as reservoirs came about is - to many people - history's boring side. But without some comprehension of how these vital adjuncts of civilised modern life evolved, their broader context, and how that intersects with the present day, will remain obscure.

Water security has long been a major local issue. From the earliest years of British rule, the colony's rapid growth outstripped Hong Kong's limited natural ability to provide for its own water needs. Early wells and weirs soon became hopelessly polluted. At the end of the 1850s, the Pok Fu Lam Reservoir scheme was started on Hong Kong Island, and subsequently extended across into the next valley at Aberdeen. An ambitious project for its time, the Pok Fu Lam and Aberdeen reservoirs were not meeting demand by the early 1880s and a new water project had to be initiated.

First discussed in the early 1870s, construction of the Tai Tam Reservoir started in 1883 and the scheme managed - more or less - to satisfy local demand until the 1920s. Reservoirs at Tai Tam were built in three stages, with the last phase completed just after the first world war. Stone bridges, massive aqueducts, sophisticated treatment works and modern pump houses were built to supply the city beyond the hills. Residential bungalows were built for private security guards to ensure against poisoning threats - then as now a form of terrorist activity - and prevent newly planted hillside trees being cut down for firewood.

Popular these days with recreational walkers, Tai Tam recently had a heritage trail laid out and early infrastructure work has been comprehensively documented. Bowen Road, one of Hong Kong's most popular urban walking trails, is actually an aqueduct from Tai Tam. Massive stone supports are clearly visible from below, and the upper levels of the Colonial Cemetery at Happy Valley provide vantage points of these superb Victorian public works details. More than 120 years after they were built, Tai Tam's vital conduits are still in use - one can't help but wonder whether today's public infrastructure projects will last as long.

For extended periods, water security issues drove defence and strategic planning in Hong Kong, as they do in many parts of the world today. This century's wars will ultimately be fought not over ideology, or even - eventually - over oil, but water.

After the Shing Mun Reservoir scheme, inland from Tsuen Wan, was completed, in 1935, Hong Kong Island was largely supplied by submarine pipeline, which in turn made urban areas especially vulnerable to attack. Raids on these strategic New Territories reservoirs were all that would have been needed to turn off the city's taps.

Shelves of books - excellent, atrocious and everything in between - have been written about the Japanese capture of Hong Kong, in 1941. But the basic strategic aim of the invasion can be summed up simply: capture Shing Mun and turn off the spigot, land at the eastern end of Hong Kong Island, capture Tai Tam and turn off the taps there, too, then mop up afterwards. And that - in a nutshell - was what happened. Hong Kong's capture was, in essence, a water war.

Since the late 60s, the mainland has frequently supplied Hong Kong with water during periods of crippling drought, with consequent critical short- age there, too. The Xinfengjiang Reservoir at Heyuan, on the East River about 170 kilometres from Hong Kong, was built in the early 80s (and paid for, in part, with Hong Kong government money) to ensure local water security. For now, it supplies more than Hong Kong actually requires.

A cheap mainland water supply has encouraged much mindless waste in Hong Kong, where many fail to understand the underlying reasons for turning off the taps.