A Water Supply System to Boast About

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The Penang Botanic Garden Reservoir.

Penang’s inherited dams, reservoirs, aqueducts and sewers help define the island.

When we talk about heritage in Penang, we tend to focus on George Town’s historic monuments. As it happens, the city’s heritage is in its plumbing too. Penang’s water infrastructure is another part of the city’s colonial inheritance – one expanded upon and maintained by successive generations.

Drawing from the cold, pure sources on Penang Hill, a series of dams and reservoirs stores the island’s watery wealth. Crisscrossed with a lacework of pipes, the water we use flows out through an ancient network of open granite drains and via remnants of old canals – the Prangin Canal being the most visible of these – and into the sea. It is quick and convenient.

The first settlers weren’t so lucky. In George Town’s early days, access to drinking water was patchy, and many had to rely on wells and water tanks – preserved in urban memory in street names like Kampung Kolam. Such infrastructure was unreliable though, and diseases spread frequently – and devastatingly. As early as 1853, The Straits Times made note of George Town’s water woes:

In droughts even the unwholesome liquid found in the wells frequently fails, and the only means by which pure water could be obtained until lately by the great mass of the inhabitants was by buying it from water carts1.

Waterfall Reservoir plaque.

Initial attempts to remedy the situation were thwarted by colonial bureaucracy: the pipes ordered for Penang in the 1840s were “carried off” to Singapore “for use in a project which did not materialise2”. The municipality and local householders took matters into their own hands, with local business magnates donating money and space for the construction of tanks, and property owners offering to pay higher rates for having pipes run directly into their homes3.

By the time writer Ibrahim Munshi visited in 1872, however, Penang was a regional leader in water management:

The Air Itam Reservoir, built in 1915.

Penang surpasses Singapore and Malacca in having a waterfall descending from such a great height, and in having drinking-water conveyed through iron pipes which run along all the lanes and junctions. There are pipes running into people’s homes, and at each junction and in each lane, there is an iron post, about three feet high. Anyone wishing to draw water may go to this post and turn the screw, whereupon water gushes out and you can take as much as you want without having to pay a cent4.

Piped water had arrived. The Municipal Ordinance of 1887 modernised Penang’s piped water and sewerage infrastructure further, ensuring the benefits of the “sanitary revolution” that was sweeping across Britain’s colonies in the latter half of the 19th century5.

 The waterfall mentioned by Ibrahim Munshi is worth particular note, since this is where Malaya’s oldest waterworks were established6. So crucial was this water source that in 1910, the Penang Botanic Garden was earmarked for destruction in order to enlarge the reservoir at the waterfall’s base7. Fortunately, alternative locations were sought, and found; and the garden was saved.

One of these new locations was Air Itam. Built in 1915, the Air Itam Reservoir was the second major reservoir to be built to provide the island’s thirsty citizens with water. The waterworks were later given a distinctive art deco clock tower, still standing today. The reservoir was also once used to store explosives from a neighbouring quarry, and in 1936, newspapers anxiously reported the theft of enough dynamite from these stores “to blow up George Town8”. Visible from the Penang Hill railway, it was Tan Sooi Beng described by one journalist in the 1950s as looking “invitingly like a cerulean blue swimming pool9”.

The 1920s saw the construction of further significant – and stylish – waterworks. The Guillemard Reservoir at Mount Erskine was built in 1929 under the supervision of J.D. Fettes, Penang's first municipal water engineer10. With its two round pools and Taj Mahal-meets-Great Gatsby domes, the reservoir was an art deco statement piece and a popular place for picnics – a pleasure no longer possible due to public health concerns. This is a bit of hidden heritage few Penangites will ever see; the twin pools splitting the reservoir’s seven-million gallon capacity were a clever innovation and allowed cleaning to occur on one side without disrupting water supply.

The reservoir is connected to the Batu Ferringhi a q u e d u c t . C o n s t r u c t e d between 1926 and 1929, this aqueduct is fed by three sources as it winds through the green hills above Batu Ferringhi, covering a distance of four miles11. It is a marvel of early 20th-century engineering, designed to manage the steep inclines of Penang’s hilly northern coast. Cast-iron pipes connect the reservoir via Jalan Pangkor to George Town’s historic centre in Jalan Masjid Kapitan Keling12. The project was a costly affair for the colonial government, with building works amounting to some Straits $3,700,000.

Today, these colonial reservoirs continue to play an important role in Penang’s water supply, though they have been surpassed in capacity by post-Merdeka projects such as the Air Itam Dam and, more recently, the Teluk Bahang Dam, completed in 1999. As Joan Didion wrote, waterworks are about “supply and demand13”. And we are thirstier than ever before.

So what does the future hold for our historic infrastructure?

According to Datuk Ir Jaseni Maidinsa, CEO of the Penang Water Supply Corporation (PBA), the crucial thing is maintenance. “The pipes that were laid during British times are of better quality than the ones today. The old pipes last longer… as long as we maintain them properly.”

Another legacy of British water management is in record keeping. “We are lucky – we are the oldest modern water supply company in Malaysia. We have a long tradition from the British, and the British were good at keeping records. We have maintained this tradition.”

PBA continues to update the extensive records, building on Victorian tradition through new technologies such as the Geographic Information Systems (GIS), which allow it to pinpoint leaks and perform maintenance work with great efficiency. “Our records are in very good shape. This helps with response time.”

What the island’s historic water infrastructure makes clear is that clean water is a hard-won right. The island’s dams, reservoirs, aqueducts, pipes and sewers are the work of generations, whose labour means that we can enjoy clean tap-water today. They slake our thirst and water our gardens. We rely on them to clean and to cook. We draw from the mountain’s catchments daily, using pipes that run from the hills through the city, and on into the sea.

1 The Straits Times, April 12, 1853, 5. Cited in Khoo, The Chulia in Penang, 216.
2 Khoo Salma Nasution, The Chulia in Penang: Patronage and Place-Making around the Kapitan Keling Mosque 1786-1957, Penang: Areca Books, 2014, 216.
3 Ibid., 217.
4 Sweeney, Amin and Nigel Phillips, trans. The Voyages of Mohamed Ibrahim Munshi (Kuala Lumpur: Oxford University Press, 1975), 102. Cited in Khoo, The Chulia in Penang, 217.
5 Khoo, 241.
6 Leslie A.K. James, “Heritage water works: reservoirs, aqueducts and dams”, Penang Heritage Trust Website (URL: www.pht.org. my/?page_id=352).
7 Friends of the Penang Botanic Gardens Society, “Views from the Past”, Friends of the Penang Botanic Gardens Society (URL: www. botanikapenang.org.my/index.php?option=com_ content&view=article&id=9&Itemid=7).
8 “Explosives stolen. Enough to blow up George Town”, The Straits Times, February 18, 1936, 13; “Dynamite taken from storehouse”, The Singapore Free Press and Mercantile Advertiser, February 20, 1936, 6.
9 “They came for the water”, The Singapore Free Press Saturday Magazine, August 26, 1950, 1.
10 James, “Heritage water works”.
11 Ibid.
12 Ibid.
13 Joan Didion, “Holy Water”, The White Album (New York: Simon & Schuster, 1979). Available online (URL: www.pbs.org/pov/thirst/special_ holywater.php).



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