Given Hong Kong's hilly terrain, heavy rainfall pattern and high urban density, landslides are always a risk. The torrential rains that lashed and inundated the city in mid-2008 hit international headlines, after triggering almost 40 landslides and 125 cases of flooding, shutting down roads and air traffic.
Although landslides can never be eliminated, the government is committed to training and recruiting geotechnical engineers to ensure slope safety.
The Geotechnical Engineering Office (GEO) of the Civil Engineering and Development Department (CEDD) specialises in slope safety, sets standards, develops new technology, exercises geotechnical control, upgrades substandard slopes and promotes their maintenance.
"Geotechnical engineering is about the knowledge of soil and rock," says GEO assistant geotechnical engineer Raymond Law. "For most building and construction projects, we will need to deal with soil and rock at the foundation level. Unlike concrete, soil and rock are natural materials and may undergo rapid weathering."
GEO's work includes assessing slope safety before construction. "We need to make sure the slope is up to standard and doesn't pose a landslide risk," says Law. "Another important aspect of our work is that we develop design guidance for local practitioners on how to do a geotechnical design properly."
A geotechnical engineer works to determine the qualities of the soil prior to any building or construction on the site, adds Law, who graduated with a master's degree in engineering from the Hong Kong University of Science and Technology in 2008.
Issues with soil or ground quality may also crop up during road building, the installation of power lines, drilling and mining.
"Other government agencies - such as the Buildings Department, Highways Department and Water Supplies Department - also hire their own geotechnical engineers," says Law, adding that generally, GEO has the most crucial role in regulating slope works.
Aspiring young engineers who are interested in the study of soil and rock science may be attracted to CEDD's geotechnical engineer graduate programme, as it provides a rare opportunity to work in key projects.
For its training programme, the CEDD is eyeing high-calibre civil engineering graduates with excellent academic background and a strong interest in geotechnical engineering.
The course begins with a four-month general training, covering laboratory work, ground investigation, geotechnical background assessment, as well as construction and environment safety. According to Law, the course is quite different from those offered in the private sector.
"During the four months of classroom-based training, we are not attached to any kind of construction project. It is a very valuable transitional period for graduates to put knowledge into practice. At private companies, they may want you to be productive immediately," says Law, who completed the programme in August 2011.
After the general training, graduates can opt for in-house training in slope projects at CEDD or get a placement or secondment with outside companies.
"We can choose where we want to go, but we need to take responsibility during the placement and can no longer remain observers - that is, to get our hands dirty," says Law.
He adds that he was interested in reclamation, so he was given the chance to work at the third phase of the Central and Wan Chai reclamation project, and the design of the artificial islands that will house the Hong Kong boundary crossing facilities for the Hong Kong-Zhuhai-Macau Bridge. During that time, he worked as a graduate engineer at Ove Arup.
"I am sure I will be very happy and proud when I see the completion of the artificial islands as I was part of it," says Law.
The on-the-job field training consists of two aspects - design and construction. Each lasts about nine to 15 months.