Thursday, March 23, 2006

Water and the Bubonic Plague

A few weeks ago, I had been doing research on water supply restrictions in Hong Kong over the past century and a half. As many of you will know, water is an awfully precious commodity, particularly for an island that does not have enough to supply its own population. Very early on, the Pokfulam Reservoir was created near the source of the stream by Waterfall Bay, in pre-colonial days the most popular place to get fresh water supplies for mariners. However, that proved to be insufficient, as was the much larger Tai Tam reservoir created just two decades later.

The reason? Hong Kong's fast-growing population. Its headcount grew rapidly with opportunity, and soon Western district was packed with new Chinese immigrants, squeezed into very tiny spaces in boarding houses. What's more, the 20-30 people living in each would also be accompanied by a large complement of farmyard animals (chickens, pigs, etc). Conditions, needless to say, were filthy.

What I found interesting though, was that in 1893, the year before the plague, a severe drought and water shortage had forced the colonial government to enforce a draconian water rationing system. Water supplies were only available between 7 and 10 am. Furthermore, the houses in Taipingshan and Western were limited to only a certain number of gallons per day - far less than what was needed for human habitation, let alone what would be needed to keep homes with livestock clean.

Now the plague did not come out of nowhere - it was recorded in March 1894 in Canton, striking many people dead there (the place was even filthier then than it is today). But I would hazard a guess that the rapidity and the terrifying vehemence with which it struck in Hong Kong had not only to do with the slovenly hovels and the way they were kept generally, but also having to do with the level of sanitation specific to that time. The rat population must have ballooned the previous year thanks to a shortage of water for cleaning purposes. I have not seen studies done that have correllated the severe rationing of water supplies to Chinese Hong Kong with the plague, and would love to know if such studies have already been done. Anyone?

My fascination with the plague has only grown, of course, after having read the Tuchman book I mentioned yesterday and the terrifying Black Death that claimed the lives of a third of Europe and Asia. Let us hope there shall be no modern equivalent, borne not on the wings of the Angel of Death, but on the more prosaic, flightless pair of the common chicken...


Anonymous said...


Am not aware of any studies specific to China during the pertinent time period, but here's a link to the 1900 plague outbreak in Austrailia:

It references the importance of sanitation and sterilization (involving water, of course) to eliminate the outbreak.

Two things are necessary to control rodent-borne plagues: (1) sanitary measures to minimize rat and flea populations, and (2) natural predators or humans to eliminate all the rats possible. By way of example, a bubonic plague outbreak occured in San Francisco after the Great Earthquake and Fire in 1906 (it was hushed up by health authorities at the time to avoid further public panic) (next month is the 100th anniversary of same). The plague originated in Chinatown. There had been outbreaks in Chinatown before 1906, but health authorities apparently didn't much care so long as it stayed in Chinatown. The earthquake/fire did two things: (1) underground sewer/water pipes snapped like matchsticks and emerged from beneath ground, (2) the fire drove the rats out of Chinatown, which were able to use the accessible pipes as 'freeways' to anywhere around the town. Of course, there was no water available to disinfect and clean. Voila, the perfect (fire)storm for rats with their bubonic-carrying fleas everywhere.

Here is another link to the effect of municipal water/sewer lines on decreasing disease rates in England:

Out of curiousity, did the Chinese have a history of using cats as mousers?

Welcome back.

Fred Jacobsen
San Francisco

P.S. A Distant Mirror is truly an excellent read. What struck me was how young these monarchs of England and France were. 25 year-olds were deciding, with the impetuosity of youth, to invade other kingdoms.

Dave and Stefan said...

Hi Fred,

Thanks for your e-mail! As always, great to hear from you. Your 'perfect storm' analogy with the rats sent elsewhere by the great fire was fascinating.

In further reading I've since done, the Governor at the time also blamed the plague on the drought. It was susbequently played down, due to the fact that it was not the proximate cause of the outbreak, but only the Governor at the time, Sir William Robinson, and his deputies would have realized how their draconian water control measures might have caused a huge increase in the local rat population. The seven month drought immediately preceding the disease was certainly enough time to generate several generations of rattus rattus (or rattus norwegicus).

And yes, I totally agree, the Distant Mirror certainly demonstrates the major cause and effect a bout of petulance by barely puescent kings could bring about. Although I suppose the times created a much more accelerated development pattern...glad you liked the book too!