Catchwater Colonialism: Reshaping Hong Kong’s Hydrology, Infrastructure, and Landscape, 1937 to 1983

16 Feb 2023 04.30 PM - 06.00 PM SHHK Conference Room Alumni, Current Students, Industry/Academic Partners, Prospective Students, Public

This is a hybrid seminar.

To register for in-person attendance at SHHK Conference Room (SHHK Level 5), register here:

To register for Zoom attendance, register here:


An extensive network of reservoirs, catchwaters, pipes, and pumping stations developed in Hong Kong between the late 1930s and the early 1980s. Driven by the colony’s geological impermeability and a desperate socio-economic need for water, these networks extended far and deep into Hong Kong’s hinterland. In the process, this paper, argues, infrastructural extension transformed the urban-rural relationship in Hong Kong, turning the countryside into an ‘operational landscape’ for the urban-industrial centre. At the same time, this catchwater-reservoir assemblage helped reshape the colony’s carceral system and conservation practices, and drew the late-colonial state into deep engagement with rural society. Building Hong Kong’s reservoirs entailed moving its prisoners, planting trees, regulating joss-sticks, and linking its remotest hillsides with its most urbanised core. In examining these processes, this paper helps reframe a burgeoning literature on histories of water in Hong Kong and wider discussions of urban political ecology.


Jack Greatrex is a Research Fellow at Nanyang Technological University, Singapore. He completed a PhD on the bodily, discursive, economic, and infrastructural histories of ‘pests’ in colonial Hong Kong and Malaya, undertaken at the University of Hong Kong. Before this, he read the World History MPhil and the undergraduate history tripos at the University of Cambridge. His research is located at the conjunctions of colonial, environmental, medical, and multi-species histories in Asia and the Pacific.