City's secret weapon in landslide prevention

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 05 August, 2012, 12:00am
UPDATED : Wednesday, 15 August, 2012, 11:03pm


One of the city's foremost experts on landslides says hundreds of lives have been saved since a special government office was set up to manage Hong Kong's hilly terrains, which become treacherous during the wet season.

Dr Andrew Malone, the former head of the Geotechnical Engineering Office (GEO), estimates that the HK$15.5 billion spent on the office since it was established in 1977 equates to several hundred lives spared from rock fall.

'The difference in lives saved is due to the government having intervened in 1977,' he says.

Malone, now 69, joined the office in 1978 as assistant director of the building control division and spent 20 years in public service. The GEO is under the Civil Engineering and Development Department.

During his nine-year tenure as head of the office from 1989 until he left in 1998, he oversaw the implementation of a slope management system that is emulated by other countries today.

The system includes a landslip warning system, the use of soil nails to stabilise slopes, concrete barriers for natural ones and the constant upgrading of man-made inclines - especially those deemed high-risk.

'I do think Hong Kong is [at the] leading edge,' he says, citing regular visits by government officials from Taiwan, South Korea and Malaysia who seek to learn from the city's expertise in stabilising what is inherently an unstable terrain.

'The dramatic drop in fatalities is concrete evidence of the GEO working - and that's the important thing.'

Landslides have killed more than 470 people since 1948, with almost all of the deaths caused by man-made slopes collapsing during torrential rain, according to Malone.

The problem can be traced back to the rapid urbanisation of Hong Kong during the 1960s and 1970s, when there were lax building controls for slopes in private developments. Conditions were even worse in squatter villages.

It was a pivotal moment for the GEO when its budget was increased and its operations widened in the wake of the July 1994 landslide that claimed five lives in Kwun Lung Lau, Kennedy Town.

'That landslide caught public attention. And when it became a political issue during the Legislative Council and district council elections that year, [the GEO's] funding went up by a factor of eight or ten,' he says.

Since leaving the office, Malone has spent the past 14 years as a professor at the University of Hong Kong's earth sciences department, where he advises other countries on slope management. 'I work in Taiwan and Malaysia where they still do have a very significant threat from loss of life caused by landslides.'

Aside from knowledge-sharing and technology, Malone notes that political will is a key factor in ensuring public safety from natural disasters.

'It's not just the technical transfer that improves public safety. It's about the political, economic and social framework around it, and it's about the government's will and competence,' he says.

For example, a unique feature of Hong Kong is that its laws require property owners to comply with slope safety measures, he says.

Still, while GEO has made leaps in mitigating landslides, Malone warns residents to remain vigilant. 'Hong Kong is much safer but it's not safe,' he says. 'Some people don't remember what it used to be like: how roads were closed and people were seriously frightened for their lives.'