9-15 September 2016 #825

Tunnel vision

The experience Nepalis have amassed digging tunnels for Hong Kong’s subway system could be harnessed for hydropower projects back home
Sonia Awale in HONG KONG

Jham Bahadur Gurung
Men at work: Jham Bahadur Gurung poses for a photograph this week in front of the Tunnel Boring Machine he pilots.

Thirty metres below Hong Kong Island, a gigantic drill burrows through the rocks to build an extension of the South Island Line of the territory’s subway network. Controlling the Tunnel Boring Machine in the humid heat deep underground is a Nepali crew led by tunnel construction veteran Jham Bahadur Gurung.

Gurung is one of those Nepalis who decided to follow their British Gurkha descendant spouses to work in Hong Kong’s booming construction industry. But with new hydropower projects in the pipeline back home, many hope that Nepal can use their experience in the state-of-the-art drilling technology.

“I hear about new hydropower projects in Nepal and we talk about working back home. If not anything else, I can at least share my experience in tunnel construction,” says Gurung, who is the pilot of the Tunnel Boring Machine (TBM) and is an expert in the precision techniques required.

Construction has long been a preferred occupation of most Nepalis living in Hong Kong, and thousands are working on tunnels, as engineers operating TBM, or as labourers in drilling and blasting. There are plenty of jobs because Hong Kong has five major subway extensions and railway projects underway, simultaneously.

“Nepali workers are experts in the field of tunnel construction,” explains Dambar KC, a researcher of the Nepali community in Hong Kong. “Tunnel Boring Machines are a new concept in Nepal and the best Nepali TBM pilots are here in Hong Kong.”

Gurung has spent 16 years building tunnels and his expertise is much sought after in Hong Kong. He now has offers from Chinese-supported hydropower projects in Nepal that need people with his knowledge of the field.

Shyam Ingnam
Nepali workers pose in a tunnel they are working on in Hong Kong.

“I think the main reason they have approached me is because of my skills, but also because I can communicate better between contractors and locals as I speak both English and Nepali,” said Gurung, a political science graduate.

Communication is often a big problem between engineers and labourers as well as between managers and locals in hydropower projects in Nepal, and Hong Kong-based tunnel engineers would be a perfect fit.

There are several big hydropower projects in Nepal in which Chinese investors are involved. In April, the Investment Board of Nepal cleared China Three Gorges Corporation (CTG) $1.6 billion to develop the West Seti hydropower project, which is expected to generate 750MW when completed in 2022.

The Chinese are also involved in the Bheri-Babai Diversion Multipurpose Project in Surkhet whose aim is to transfer trans-basin water through a 12 km long and 4.2 m wide tunnel from Bheri to Babai in western Nepal to irrigate 51,000 hectares of farms in Banke and Bardia while generating 48MW power. The project is expected to use the TBM.

The China Overseas Engineering Company (COVEC) had approached Hong Kong-based Nepali operators like Jham Bahadur Gurung. All new hydropower projects need tunnel construction technology. Projects in Nepal have long employed the drill and blast method. The 26km Melamchi tunnel is using TBM for the first time.

Since there are no trained TBM pilots and operators in Nepal, COVEC is looking at two options: either employ a team of Hong Kong-Nepali TBM experts or just hire Gurung in a higher position.“Skilled Nepali workers from the subway tunnels in Hong Kong would be of great advantage to us,” said Sumit Shrestha of Hydro China Corporation, which is building the 102MW Upper Trisuli II.

However, there is the question of whether Nepalis with the same experience will be paid less than their international counterparts. In that case, Nepali technicians say, they’d rather work in Hong Kong where they can easily earn 10 times more than what they would in Nepal.

“I had been talking to the director of COVEC and it would have been great if I could have explored this opportunity,” said Gurung, “but in the end they didn’t hire me because they thought I was too expensive.”

Shyam Ingnam, an engineer at the Vinci Construction Grants Project and previously a lecturer at Kathmandu Engineering College, says some Nepalis would be willing to work for slightly less in Nepal because of the fulfillment they get from contributing to the development of the home country.

A Nepali tunnel operator earns up to US$ 8,000 in Hong Kong, and workers also enjoy generous insurance and injury compensation. Still, Ingnam said: “If I’m paid 60 per cent of what I earn here, I won’t mind working on projects in Nepal. But less than that might not work.”

Not everyone is as enthusiastic. Bhuwan Limbu, who comes from a family of British Gurkha soldiers, tried to work as a tunnel expert in Nepal, but he was so turned off by the politics and nepotism, he decided to leave.

“You can’t do anything without political connections. If Melamchi was based on skill and hard work alone, people like us could have completed it in a year or two,” said Limbu who works as a TBM operator on the Tuen Mun-Chep to Lak Kok sub-sea tunnel. “I’d have liked to used my skills in my own country, but for that there must first be political stability in Nepal.”  

Serve my country

Hem LawAti

Hem Lawati (pic) is originally from Jhapa and studied to be a lawyer at the Nepal Law Campus. However, after a short stint as an advocate, he left for South Korea to work in a textile company, where he worked for a year and nine months.

Soon after, he followed his spouse to Hong Kong and started working at the tunnel construction’s drill and blast. Now, with 20 years of experience, Lawati is tunnel supervisor with Dragages Bouygues Joint Venture in Hong Kong.  

Despite his position, expertise and earnings in Hong Kong, Lawati wants to go back to Nepal and serve his country. “If my skills are recognised and the work environment is favourable, I’ll be the first one to sign up,” said Lawati.

“I’ll leave my monthly US$10,000 job and will be satisfied with Rs 100,000. If the offer is good I know many Nepalis here who would want to work in Nepal.”

A new technology

Shyam Ingnam
HARD DAY'S WORK: Tunnel Boring Machine breaking through its final few metres while drilling a subway tunnel between Kowloon and the New Territories in Hong Kong

The Tunnel Boring Machine (TBM) has been long used to excavate tunnels for railway and hydropower projects, and is being used to dig the 26km Melamchi tunnel.

“TBM is an extensive process, used especially in urban areas where you cannot use blasting techniques,” says Nepali TBM engineer in Hong Kong, Shyam Ingnam. “In Nepal, it will undoubtedly be more efficient and safe.”

Construction and transportation costs make Tunnel Boring Machines more expensive than the drill and blast method, but the minimal disturbance it causes to the rock strata and the tunnel wall, reduce tunnel-lining costs.

The machine can dig up to 60 m of tunnel space per day and can bore anything from hard rock to sand, making it a sound alternative to the traditional drill and blast method.

Read also:

Big delays in big projects, Sahina Shrestha

Delayed by blockade, Lokmani Rai

Piped water still a pipe dream, Kenji Kwok

About time, Dewan Rai

No light at the end of the tunnel, Dewan Rai and Rubeena Mahato

Revisiting a multi-purpose Melamchi, Mallika Aryal