Letter 5/ 12
5 June 2008
Dear Fellow Engineers,
Gas Mask and Engineers as Enablers
As you may know, today---- June 5 --- is the World Environment Day. Thirty years ago on this very day, when I just completed my first year of studies in engineering at the University of Hong Kong, I went along with several fellow members of the Conservancy Association to the Tsimshatsui Ferry. We stood right in front of the famous Ferry flagstaff; each of us took out a gas mask from our backpack and started to put the mask on our face. Our intention was to demonstrate to the public that air pollution was a health hazard that must be addressed. Nevertheless, even before we could take out our cameras, a police sergeant was heading straight towards us. At a faraway corner, an expatriate police superintendent was watching us with a fierce look.
Ten minutes later, I found myself inside the Police Station at the nearby Tsimshatsui Hill for interrogation. The “funny” thing, however, was that even the police inspector on duty that day could not understand why wearing a gas mask could justify a police interrogation. Anyway, this was my very first time to set foot in a police station.
From then on, however, I reaffirm my belief in the role of engineers in face of challenges, which is to be part of the solution and not part of the problem.
Another remarkable incident I have experienced is that of the Long Valley saga six years ago. If you take a ride on the Lok Ma Chau Line of the East Rail towards Shenzhen, you can be forgiven for missing the fact that you are actually cutting across the largest freshwater wetland in Hong Kong. This wetland is home to more than 200 species of birds. A handful of decision-makers in the then KCRC top management insisted that the new railway should be built above the Wetland, creating a seemingly unavoidable clash between ‘conservation’ and ‘development’. The deadlock seemed unbreakable and a legal battle broke out between the KCRC and the Director of Environmental Protection.
At last, engineers came to the rescue. The design of the railway line was revamped. A 3.2 km tunnel design was adopted instead and a freezing-ground method was employed for tunnel excavation to guard against the loss of groundwater table. The result was a double-win for both conservation and development: Hong Kong got an international applause in wetland conservation; the cross-border traffic jam was eased. Though the total project cost rose from $8 billion to $10 billion, it was generally considered good value for money by the community. The engineering industry got the direct benefits.
Engineers are enablers of solutions that transcend conflicts, hence demonstrating the power of engineering.
Another recent case was the development of the Centennial Campus by the University of Hong Kong two years ago. The site was located on a narrow and steep slope, covering three waterworks buildings, which were classified as heritage. A veteran architect overseeing the project told me, “This is the toughest project I have ever come across. We must not reduce the gross floor areas; we must not increase the building heights for fear of blocking the views of local residents; and we must not interrupt water supply from the service reservoirs. How can we go ahead without sacrificing one or two heritage buildings?”
After several rounds of meetings, I, together with another engineer insisted on an on-site visit with the university management, project architects and engineers from the Water Supplies Department, with a view to finding solutions that can harmonise development with conservation.
Again, engineers came to the rescue. The service reservoir was relocated to a man-made tunnel. The Water Supplies Department adjusted certain technical specifications and the layout of the buildings was revamped. At the end, all three historic buildings are to be conserved. Amongst them, the Elliot Treatment Works Building will likely become the first industrial monument open to the public in Hong Kong.
Once again, this is the power of engineering.
Some people like to spread these words, “Conservation destroys engineering; and it stops the world from spinning.” It is hard to believe that any engineer living in the 21st century would not treat this as a joke. Those who spread this kind of views would only show their ignorance about the power of engineering.
Next time when you hear words like these, you may invite the person to read carefully the speech of our Chief Executive Donald Tsang delivered at the Boao Asian Forum earlier this year, “The green agenda is no longer something that is imported or foisted upon Asian countries or cities. It is an essential element in the ongoing success of cities such as Hong Kong…….”*
The gas mask thirty years ago has always acted as a timely reminder: engineers can excel as enablers: rise above conflicts, forge consensus and create new opportunities. This is what the engineering profession is good at, and what engineers can be proud of.**
Ir Albert Lai
* The speech: www.info.gov.hk/gia/general/200804/12/P200804120137.htm
** Engineers Without Borders (HK) News: http://hk.myblog.yahoo.com/albertlai-hk/
Long Valley wetland preserved by engineers: more idle fields changed to wetland and organic farming was introduced.
Engineers as Enablers: after the conflict was resolved, local villagers were trained as eco-tour guides so that more income could flow to the indigenous people.