THE river makes trickling sounds, gurgling, popping. It’s very much alive. The mossy rocks that rise from its swirling waters glisten in the late morning sun. The chirrups and whistles of insects never stop. Birds flap on bending tree limbs and tall grasses by the river banks whisper as they move in the soft breeze. The river that courses through the Bukit Lagong recreational park is teeming with life.
Taking off my shoes, I gingerly step into the cool waters to stand with Md Khairi Selamat, the Department of Irrigation and Drainage (DID) River Basin Management Division director. He cuts a forlorn figure, slacks rolled up to his knees as he peruses the river bed.
The water quality here upstream, he tells me, is classified as Class IIB, from the recent samplings and analyses taken earlier this year — suitable for body contact and recreational purposes. However, as the river wends downstream towards built-up areas and meets the main stem of the Jinjang river, it deteriorates into Class III — unsuitable for touch nor recreational purposes — no thanks to the effluent spewing from sewage treatment plants, commercial and residential areas, industries and workshops, food industries, restaurants and wet markets.
The water swirls around my feet, clear and inviting for now. It’s easy to see why there’s no better metaphor for the journey of life than a river with its constant movement — the changing backdrops, moods and emotions; the flotsam it picks up and the jetsam it discards along the way.
What begins life as an insignificant trickle soon grows in strength and stature until it morphs into a roaring unstoppable entity cast out into the wider world. Unfortunately for us, it is the wider world that’s killing our waterways and clogging our rivers with so much refuse that they’re beginning to die.
His face etched in a frown, Khairi points to a lone styrofoam cup that floats past us. Someone else points to a piece of cloth caught in some rocks just a few metres from where we stand. “Pollution is everywhere,” he remarks testily before going silent.
His frustration is understandable. In charge of the River Cleaning component for the River of Life (ROL) project — an initiative under the purview of the Ministry of Territories to transform the Klang and Gombak rivers into vibrant and liveable waterfronts — Khairi’s division has spearheaded structural and non-structural measures to clean up the rivers. But, as he admits bluntly after a pause: “We’re trying to ‘fix’ the rivers, but we haven’t fixed our ways yet.”
In conjunction with World Rivers Day (celebrated today), Khairi and his band of officers are now in the midst of engaging with local communities for the ROL Public Outreach Programme, to improve attitudes and behaviour of target groups within the project area towards river care and preservation in order to improve water quality and pollution within the ROL areas.
A WATERY TIMELINE
The river constantly flows, bringing within it the rich history of nations while supporting communities the world over since time immemorial. Miles and miles of rivers flow across the nation, stretching out in veins across the landscape. Cities breathe with the rise and fall of their tides. Rivers could well be the lifeblood of our country. They form the map of local history — a watery timeline whose banks are strewn with evidence of life — and stories — stretching back hundreds, possibly thousands, of years or more.
At various intervals of history, rivers have provided the easiest, and in many areas, the only means of entry and circulation for explorers, traders, conquerors, and settlers. “The human civilisation goes back to the river,” explains Khairi, adding: “The Melaka river, once dubbed the ‘Venice of the East’ by European seafarers was a prominent port of entry for traders from Europe and Asia during the late 16th century.
“It is also believed that the east side of the riverbank was the location discovered by the Sumatran prince Parameswara who built his palace in that very spot in the 1400s."
In the Klang Valley, the once-mighty Klang river basin used to be the epicentre for tin mining and the only effective means for transportation. When Melaka was just a fishing village and long before it became the capital of a Malay empire in 1400, Klang was already a bustling centre of commerce, famous for its high-grade tin.
This metal was found in abundance both in-stream and along the Klang river. The town, which soon sprouted, became the hub for Malay chiefs who controlled both the mineral and forest products trade. In fact, the Klang river was marked and named on early maritime charts prepared by navigators who accompanied the Chinese admiral Cheng Ho on his visits to Melaka from 1409 to 1433.
As the cities and townships as we know now grew from these glorious beginnings, rivers began to get in the way and many tributaries were diverted or buried bit by bit under layers of concrete and dust. These hidden rivers still flow, going about their business, forgotten in the background. Today, the 1,288-squarekilometre Klang river basin — now neglected — is mainly used to supply water, and serves as the main water catchment area for Selangor.
For the most of it, pollution has rendered this body of water useless and overlooked. According to a government agency’s report, the water quality at the upper reaches of the Klang River basin is Class I or II but the quality steadily worsens to Class III, IV or V — meaning it’s not suitable for body contact — as the river flows downstream.
“Today, people have forgotten about the rivers,” laments Khairi. “Or they assume that the rivers are polluted as if it was a fait accompli. But it’s not the way it works. The problem is that we’re polluting them now.”
BREATHING LIFE BACK TO RIVERS
The River Cleaning component of the ROL project is conducted along the 110-kilometre stretch along the Klang river basin, covering the municipalities of Selayang, Ampang Jaya as well as the Kuala Lumpur City Council. The goal is to bring the river quality from its current Class III to V (hazardous and unsuitable for body contact) to Class IIB by the year 2020.
Part of the initiatives to restore our rivers under the ROL project include upgrading sewerage facilities and setting up regional sewerage treatment plants, building wastewater treatment plants at five wet markets to decrease the level of effluent from rubbish and other pollutants, installing gross pollutant traps at main drains to prevent garbage, silt and grease from entering rivers, using retention ponds to remove pollutants from sewage and sullage, implementing the Drainage and Stormwater Management Master Plan to upgrade drainage systems, conducting a systematic hydrological study on water quality improvement and flow control of the Klang river and promoting, enforcing as well as managing river cleanliness and health.
These are comprehensive steps, and while they may have some impact on the rivers in the Klang Valley, constant pollution remains the biggest battle. “Our rubbish collection at these rivers within the ROL project costs us an average of RM500,000 per month,” says Khairi drily.
The project has seen more floating booms and other fixtures being built along rivers and in flood retention ponds across the Klang Valley. More, however, needs to be done. As Khairi points out, these traps are only able to remove litter, debris, coarse sediments and grease but cannot improve water quality. The rivers are contaminated, he says, not just by the amount of rubbish that’s dumped into the water, but by the amount of sullage released into the waters.
Sullage, which is a form of wastewater from household sinks, showers and baths, present a perennial issue. In Malaysia, this urban runoff often ends up in the drains that leads to the rivers. According to a study by University Putra Malaysia, the annual discharge of sullage in Malaysia is higher than that of sewage effluent in rivers at urban areas.
“Everything you do is connected to the river,” he says simply, adding: “You can’t say that just because you live in an urban area far removed from nature, you have nothing to do with river pollution.”
With billions of Ringgit pumped into the ROL project to revitalise our riverine system, efforts by the Government will be in vain if mindsets aren’t changed. “The ROL-Public Outreach Programme hopes to do just that,” shares Khairi. Waste education programmes have been created to raise awareness on river pollution issues and to demonstrate best management practices to reduce, repurpose and recycle waste among stakeholders, including communities, food establishments and industries.
“We want to encourage improved stewardship and get people to reconnect with nature, and most importantly, the rivers,” he tells us, adding that school programmes, river clean-ups and other activities have been organised to highlight the importance of river care, proper waste management and to instil the love for rivers and nature at large.
“I wanted to show you what a clean river looks like,” Khairi says, sighing, as we still stand there wading in the gurgling river that snakes through the park. He’s clearly disappointed at the sight of floating garbage that still made their way past us through the undulating river. “But it just goes to show that while we may do what we can to clean up the river, our attitudes deserve a deeper cleansing,” he remarks candidly.
Khairi pauses to stare into the distance, before adding quietly: “When we save a river, we save a major part of an ecosystem and we save ourselves as well because of our dependence — physical, economic, spiritual — on water and the community of life it represents.”
Waving his hand at the river, he concludes: “The river bank is exactly that — a bank — a repository of wealth, a source of livelihood, water and biodiversity.”