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Putting teamwork and mentors first: President Ir C C Chan

Published on Wednesday, 09 Sep 2015
Putting teamwork and mentors first: President Ir C C Chan

How important are mentors in our lives? As members young and old come together to celebrate HKIE's 40th anniversary, there is little doubt that many will share their memories of how one generation has mentored the next as the ranks of professional engineers in Hong Kong swell. 

New President Ir C C Chan has his own memories to share with the graduate engineers he will recruit for the President's Protégé Scheme (PPS) as he too was guided by a mentor on his path towards becoming a professional engineer.

"There were two main factors behind my decision to become a civil engineer," Ir Chan said. "One, I had a very good maths teacher in secondary school who really cared about how much we had learnt. The other factor was a challenge that a teacher gave us in primary school."

The students were given two planks with which to cross a moat, but neither piece of wood was long enough to span the water. The budding engineer applied his problem-solving skills to the challenge and found that, by bridging two sides of one corner of the moat with one plank and using it to support the other plank, the T-shaped bridge would enable him to span the water.

"That was my first encounter with engineering and sowed a seed," he said.

Preferring physics and maths to biology, Ir Chan decided to pursue a degree in civil engineering at the University of Hong Kong after matriculation. He joined a consultancy firm for summer training during his second year, doing so well that he effectively secured himself a job after graduation. Although Ir Chan had a job offer without having to attend an interview, he hesitated to join because the firm did not have enough quota for recognised professional training, preferring to wait and see how his application to join a government training scheme went. When an offer came from the Government, he opted to take that choice instead.

At the time he joined the Government training scheme in 1976, the then Public Works Department had two streams for engineers who had completed their graduate training: water supplies and the rest, which included highways, drainage and other civil works. After a year with the then Highways Office and another year with the Drainage Division, Ir Chan was assigned to the Water Supplies Department (WSD), where he remained until 2008, in the process overseeing some of the most important waterworks ever to be undertaken in Hong Kong.

One of the best known of these is the water mains rehabilitation and replacement programme, which involves the replacement or rehabilitation of 3,000 km of water mains across Hong Kong over 15 years. According to the International Society for Trenchless Technology, it is among the largest water mains rehabilitation programmes in the world.

"The target to replace 3,000 km of water mains represents more than 40% of our total water supplies asset underground," Ir Chan said. 

The complex scheme requires detailed planning and design for successive phases and involves multiple construction contracts. Although it involves temporary traffic management in many districts, it is important from the viewpoint of water conservation as well as supply reliability. Mapping of failure incidents by WSD indicates that the programme has been effective in progressively reducing the rate of failure incidents.

Ir Chan was transferred to the Civil Engineering & Development Department in 2008 and spent two and a half years there before being transferred to the Drainage Services Department (DSD). From 2010 until his retirement in 2014, he oversaw many critical, large-scale projects. They include three major stormwater drainage tunnels and HATS 2A, which is part of the scheme to collect sewage from different parts of Hong Kong for treatment at the Stonecutters Island Sewage Treatment Works before discharge. 

During his tenure at WSD and DSD the departments won many local and international awards. Ir Chan is particularly proud of international awards given by organisations such as the International Water Association (IWA), which has accorded recognition to several projects, including its Project Innovation Award for Tai Po Water Treatment Works and Aqueducts in 2006 and three IWA East Asia Regional Project Innovation Awards in 2014, for the Relocation of Sha Tin Sewage Treatment Works to caverns, Lai Chi Kok drainage tunnel, and a sludge treatment scheme.

"These global awards are a true reflection of what Hong Kong engineers can do, but I'm also particularly proud of the Ombudsman's Award (2013)," Ir Chan said. "It was an internal award but the Ombudsman is an independent party that had taken an impartial, critical look at our performance. It was recognition for the way DSD handled complaints and resolve differences with other parties. It showed that soft skills were important and was very encouraging for our colleagues. EQ is just as important as technical ability; we need to improve our EQ in order to tackle problems." 

The three stormwater drainage tunnels, the largest of which has an internal diameter of 7.25 m, are world-class engineering works designed and built in anticipation of more severe weather events that would otherwise cause flooding in low-lying urban areas. As global greenhouse gas emissions surge past 400 parts per million, more extreme weather has been predicted for all parts of the world - though there are those who dispute its relationship with climate change.

"Different experts have different views on climate change, but we have to do something given current weather trends, regardless of whether it's induced by human activities or not," Ir Chan said. "'Adaptation' and 'resilience' are the words used now, which reflect an acceptance of the limitations of mitigation. In Hong Kong we must maintain awareness and decide how to apply adaptation measures."

According to the Hong Kong Observatory, Hong Kong will experience more episodes of heavy rain as well as "extremely dry years". That means that, apart from building large drainage tunnels to divert stormwater, the city will also have to tackle the issue of water supply availability. WSD launched its study into the Total Water Management strategy during Ir Chan's tenure and, according to Ir Chan, all alternatives to ensure stable supply will be explored, including desalination and wastewater reuse. The latter has been tried and tested in many sewage treatment works under DSD in the past few years.

Serving the Institution
Ir Chan joined the HKIE as a student member in 1975 and as a full corporate member in 1985. Active involvement in institutional activities began in 1991, when he served on the Civil Division's committee on the recommendation of another mentor, the then WSD head and former HKIE President Ir K L Wong. 

Ir Chan became a Council Member in 1997 and gradually took up more positions in various boards and committees. He has been involved in virtually all aspects of institutional affairs, including the Public Relations Committee, Learned Society Board, Finance & Investment Committee, Accreditation Board and Planning Committee. Ir Chan is therefore well-placed to witness the Institution's growth and identify its needs. 

"The HKIE is a growing institution. We now have more than 32,000 members from different disciplines and sectors and different age groups. How to better serve all these members is a challenge. At the same time, we have to look at ways to mobilise our members to help the Institution," he said.

Ir Chan will be applying a lesson he has learnt from his professional career, which is the value of teamwork.

"Over the years I've realised that team effort is very important. We have to share a common goal to serve the profession and adopt a partnering approach," he said.

Source: The HKIE’s Monthly Journal – Hong Kong Engineer

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