Letters to Engineers (4/12)
20 May 2008
Dear Fellow Engineers:
When I first met Mr Li twelve years ago, he had just retired from being the chief engineer of the Shenyang Municipal Government Water Supplies Corporation. Our foreign invested water purification plant engaged Ir Li as the company’s general manager. Strong-built and dark-skinned, Ir Li was a typical North-easterner of Muslim background. Although he never said much when he was not drinking, he was always the first one to arrive at the scene whenever there was a problem at the work place. It seems to me that harshness was nothing to him and he was always full of energy. The many wrinkles on his face, set against his bright and clear eyes, testified to the countless tough jobs he had gone through as an engineer.
Many years later, a Jesuit priest requested my help to solve the drinking water shortage problem in a rural school funded by Hong Kong donors in Kaiping City of the Guangdong Province . At that time, Ir Li had already retired for the second time. Nevertheless, when he knew about this, he immediately went all the way from Shenyang to Kaiping with two other engineers. Under his supervision, a team of site workers was gathered together to dig several testing wells in the surrounding areas of the rural school. When the source of underground water was affirmed, the team immediately began to lay water pipes. Shortly after two weeks, clean and reliable drinking water was flowing in the school complex. The dirty old well, which hundreds of teachers and students used to rely on for cooking and drinking, became a thing of the past.
I can still remember the smiling faces of those lovely rural schoolchildren when they first saw the new well in their school. Alas! They painfully reminded me of those poor schoolchildren who were buried alive during the terrible earthquake a week ago in Sichuan . More than 9,000 schools were reduced to rubble just in seconds. According to the Standard for Classification of Seismic Protection of Buildings issued by China ’s Ministry of Construction, buildings in the region stretching from Chengdu to Beichuan must be built to withstand Shaking Level 7 during earthquakes. The latest standard promulgated in 2004 specifies that among all education institutions, only large kindergartens and primary schools, classified as Type B buildings, are required to reach Shaking Level 8. Most of the school buildings are only classified as Type C. Is this something worthy of an immediate review by the authorities now? As the shaking level at the epicentre had already exceeded the level of endurance required by those building standards, the recent earthquake has cost immense casualty in the rural and remote areas. These casualties remind us of one grim fact: every design and every single signature by an engineer is a pledge of life and death to all those we serve.
To those children who have survived the earthquake, the society owes them a better future. One of the most important ways to help them restart life is to put them back to school as soon as possible. A normal school life is probably the best way to heal the broken hearts of these children. Nevertheless, there is one fundamental rule we must adhere to in building those new schools after the disaster ---- there must be a new standard of seismic protection for these buildings, especially those in the more backward and impoverished areas.
In an earnest bid to help, many motivated engineers and other related professionals have joined hands to set up a new humanitarian service in Hong Kong --- Engineers Without Borders (EWB). Through cooperation with relief agencies such as Sowers Action, engineers and other professionals grouped under the EWB can volunteer their much needed advice and services in the rebuilding of rural schools in Sichuan , or support the meaningful work of other humanitarian agencies.
Judging from the enthusiastic response of the past week, I am sure that a new leaf has opened for Hong Kong engineers whereby they can utilise their professional knowledge and skills to promote and develop humanitarian services. After its initial meeting, the Organising Committee of EWB has decided to explore its role and mission in four aspects: (1) the establishment of a Register of Humanitarian Engineers and Professionals; (2) the provision of engineering and technical support to humanitarian agencies for their relief and reconstruction work; (3) the support to impoverished communities in their fight against poverty; (4) capacity building for engineers in humanitarian work.
However futile human endeavours may have seemed in the face of great natural disasters, life must go on. I was gratified to see that some forty engineers and architects, many of whom I have never met before, attended the first preparatory meeting of the EWB last Sunday. It was humility that has brought us together, and I hope that it would take us one step further to alleviate our compatriots from their sufferings and losses.
I still remember when I first visited the home of Chief Engineer Li, he showed me a picture he took with the late Chairman Mao in the 1950s. That was a very precious photo to him because it was taken when he received the then very prestigious “ National Labour Model Award ”. “You see, all mayors of Shenyang have been very nice to me since,” he told me. Very sadly, Chief Engineer Li passed away two years ago, or else, he could well have been the first to ring me up and join the EWB. To me, Chief Engineer Li’s heavily wrinkled face is always a testimony to the unswerving dedication of engineers to serve humanity.
Ir Albert Lai, Ir Li from Shenyang (the fourth one from the right with a hat) and other colleagues