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Charter Flight

Stuart Millis* on the Chartered Geologist overseas – a Hong Kong perspective

kljhAnyone who has ever worked in Hong Kong cannot have failed to notice the local love for business cards and, hand in hand with this (within the engineering industry at least), the love of collecting qualifications to proudly present on them. It will come as no surprise to most, then, that the CGeol qualification flourishes in Hong Kong, with between five to 10 new applicants each year and over 85 Chartered Geologists registering Hong Kong as their base of operation. 

What may surprise you though is the time and effort it has taken to reach a situation where CGeol is looked upon as enjoying parity with the professional qualifications obtained by our engineering brethren. 

Picture: Development at Anderson Road

Modern era

The modern era of geotechnical engineering/engineering geology in Hong Kong (these being the fields in which c.  90% of HK geologists operate) began in the late 1970s with the establishment of the Geotechnical Control Office (GCO) in the Hong Kong Government - now known as the Geotechnical Engineering Office (GEO).  The need for this arose after a number of major landslides in 1972 and 1976, most notably at Po Shan Road and Shek Kip Mei, which highlighted a lack of geotechnical control, requiring significant government action to overcome. 

Geologists had had significant input into construction projects before this, but it was piecemeal: notable contributions were called for in major civil engineering projects, (in particular the High Island Dam project), but not so much in day-to-day development work.


Picture: Po Shan Road landslip

The establishment of the GEO changed this, and a number of major slope-safety initiatives arose - resulting in a corresponding elevation of the role of, and need for, geologists.  In 1978-79, visionary applications of engineering geological/geomorphological mapping resulted in the ‘Mid Levels Moratorium for Building Development’ (May 1979). 

This moratorium was implemented because of slope safety concerns arising from multi-storey re-development in one the most expensive pieces of real estate in the world (at the time).  This led to seminal projects like the Mid Levels Study, the terrain-classification-based Geotechnical Area Studies Programme (1979-1989), the remapping of the geology of Hong Kong and the creation of a permanent Geological Survey of Hong Kong (1982). 

These things all contributed to elevating geology’s profile and resulted in an influx of geologists to Hong Kong.  This further enhanced and reinforced the quality of work provided on other major geotechnical projects, such as the expansion of the Mass Transit Railway (MTR) and various other notable tunnel schemes and civil projects.


kljhPicture: Hong Kong Link Road.

The importance of sound geological input was therefore well recognised at last, with engineering geologists filling senior positions in both government engineering bodies and private consultancies.  With government-led support, this created a positive environment for public and private sector geologists to interact with those in the education sector, as demonstrated in 1981 by the formation of the Geological Society of Hong Kong. 

By the mid-1980s, a GEO-led scheme to train engineering geology graduates was up and running, highlighting the need for sound training and integration of skills.  The scheme also put pressure on academia to establish Hong Kong-based first-degree courses, as trainees at this time were all educated overseas. 

The increasing rate of development throughout the 1980s and early 1990s meant that geologists not only played key parts in the numerous slope safety studies and civil engineering and development projects, but also helped to drive government policy on major livelihood issues of the day, including the need to re-house some 300,000 squatters located within landslide-prone hillsides in 1983, and floodplain management studies arising from the severe flooding of 1987. 

Geologists were also deployed in the Housing Department to assist with major housing construction.  In the late 1980s and early 90s, geologists were also instrumental in advancing the concept of ‘cavern’ development, resulting in the construction of underground sewage-treatment works, refuse transfer-stations and explosives storage magazines.  They also contributed to pioneering work in the management of fill supply and contaminated mud disposal for a range of reclamation projects, including the new airport development at Chek Lap Kok.   



Picture: Fei Ngo Shan Debris Flow.

However, this was still the ‘pre-CGeol’ era, and many geologists generally had to establish themselves either by virtue of perseverance and strong reputation, by obtaining engineering qualifications through the Geotechnical Discipline of the Hong Kong Institution of Engineers (HKIE), or as Chartered Engineers through the IMMM.  This meant that by the early 1990s only a handful of the geologists working in Hong Kong held Chartered status.

However, declining workloads in the late-1990s following the completion of Chek Lap Kok Airport and  its associated infrastructure, together with the knock-on impacts of the Asian Financial Crisis, seemed to trigger a shift in the status of geologists in Hong Kong, with the geotechnical departments of many companies becoming reliant on the government’s Landslip Preventive Measures (LPM) Programme - the geologists’ role often being limited to supervising ground investigation works, cutting geological sections and (if you were lucky enough to have an enlightened employer) the odd bit of slope stability analysis and stabilisation design. 

Taking note of this diminishing status and the need for maintenance of ‘standards’, the geological community took steps in the late 90s and early 2000s to redress the balance.  These included (to name but a few) the establishment of the first local Earth Science undergraduate course in 1995 after almost 10 years of effort (which we’re happy to say is now GSL accredited), the formation of the Hong Kong Regional Group in 2001 (the first and so far only overseas Regional Group of the GSL); a push within Government and Consultancies for CGeol to be afforded equal status to engineering qualifications; the establishment of a ‘Resident Geologist’ role for construction supervision on projects where ground conditions played a major part (with CGeol as the defined required qualification for the position); and the specification of CGeol staffing requirements within the tender documents for some government projects.  CGeol also became the de facto benchmark for promotion in many organisations, marking a significant milestone and transition in the career of many local geologists. 


ljkgPicture: Landslide mitigation works

The recent introduction of accredited Company Training Schemes, rapidly embraced in Hong Kong with over five schemes approved by the end of 2014, has also done much to lift the profile of geologists within companies and is proving very attractive to young graduates, providing them with a well-structured early career path.

Overall, these efforts have been very successful and geologists in Hong Kong have enjoyed an increasingly prominent role in the conceptualisation, design and delivery of numerous major projects over the past decade.  With increasing focus on geohazard assessment through the government’s Landslip Prevention and Mitigation (LPMit) Programme and mandated requirements for hazard assessments for all new residential and infrastructure developments, as well as numerous strategic and technical studies on the enhanced use of underground space through rock cavern developments to relocate and house various ‘NIMBY’ facilities, it looks like the future for Chartered Geologists in Hong Kong will remain bright for many years to come. 

*Stuart Millis is Chair, Hong Kong Regional Group