Cleansing confluences

Tackling river pollution in Kuala Lumpur

The rivers of Kuala Lumpur are dying.

More than one-third of downstream water samples from Sungai Batu tested positive for blastocystis in 2011. Kuala Lumpur’s central business district has flooded in each of the last 6 years. Singaporean newspaper The Straits Times recently described the rivers by Masjid Jamek as “humongous concrete drains with murky waters”.

Used as a waste dump by many, our waterways have grown dysfunctional. Today, average river quality within Greater Kuala Lumpur falls under Class III, requiring “extensive treatment” before it is safe to touch. Class IV, only good for watering plants, and Class V, a hazard to most living beings, are not uncommon in the city centre.

Flushing down our future

“A lot of the pollution affecting our rivers comes from sewage and effluent discharge,” explained Dato’ Mohd Azmi Ismail, Corporate Director at the Department of Drainage and Irrigation (JPS). “We have to upgrade the city’s sewerage so that only a permissible level of pollution gets into the river. After all, we have over 1.7 million people in Kuala Lumpur.”

For a start, many of us don’t realise how our toilet bowls affect the environment. All forms of sewage reduce a river’s dissolved oxygen content and its capacity to nurture life. But households outside the public waste management system often release raw sewage into the environment -- one sure-fire way to quickly destroy the viability of a river.

While the construction of buildings are subject to strict guidelines by the city council, extended renovations are often done to the whims and fancy of the owners. Additional bathrooms and kitchens are notorious in piping untreated waste water directly into rivers.
Photo by Mahen Bala

Kuala Lumpur’s inadequate sewerage infrastructure is causing serious problems to our waterways.

It’s really quite tragic: these rivers, having provided food and drink for potentially millions of years, are now tainted with enough human faeces to harm swimmers, let alone the creatures that live in them.

Making things that bit worse is our sullage situation. Comprising waste washed down sinks and drains, sullage often flows directly into the river. Therefore, the sullage from markets, hawkers and public spaces can be destructive because of contamination with pollutants such as grease.

In a point source survey initiated by the Department of Environment (DOE) to identify river pollution sources outside its jurisdiction, troubling discoveries include portable toilets placed over drains and animal blood released into the gutter: two ways to make sullage extra deadly.

Pitching into the stranglehold

One of the many log-booms installed all along Kuala Lumpur’s rivers to filter out large floating rubbish before they enter the city centre.
Photo by Mahen Bala

Gross pollutant traps, trash rakes and log booms installed around the city consistently fish out shocking amounts of waste – Klang River alone is tainted by approximately 1,500 kilogrammes of garbage each month.

It becomes apparent that fixing our rivers calls for more than connecting households to Indah Water. Tonnes and tonnes of garbage don’t just fall from the sky.

“Industries don’t cause as much damage to the rivers in the city. It’s the people’s attitudes which must be addressed if we want to create sustainable change,” noted Ahmad Mazhar Mansor, a member of the DOE’s Environmental Impact Assessment Enforcement Unit.

Though illegal disposal of industrial waste and run-offs from pig farming sound terrible, they aren’t as disturbing as Kuala Lumpur’s litter crisis. From kayaks to motorcycle helmets and broken furniture, the assortment of trash found in any of Kuala Lumpur’s rivers paints an ugly picture of Malaysians.

Even with education programmes and hefty fines, Malaysians still succumb to the bad habit of littering indiscriminately.
Photo by Vignes Balasingam

People also fail to understand that smaller pieces of rubbish -- the plastic bags, tin cans and water bottles -- dumped in public spaces will inevitably flow into the drain and end up in the river. The result? Additional breeding space for disease-causing pests and a higher probability of flash floods.

Gearing towards a comeback

In 1957, the River Thames in London was declared biologically dead by the nation’s Natural History Museum. Attitudes towards the river was at an all-time low; members of parliament perpetuated the river’s use as a rubbish dump which resulted in zero levels of dissolved oxygen (DO) for several miles upstream and downstream from the London Bridge.

It took decades of growing environmental awareness and improvements to London’s sewerage system to rejuvenate the river. As the Thames slowly returned to its natural state, its original occupants also returned -- there are now 125 species of fish living in the river. Most impressively, the Thames provides more than two-thirds of London’s drinking water today.

Back home, a national initiative targeted at revitalising the rivers of Kuala Lumpur hopes to stage a comeback for Kuala Lumpur’s waterways. River of Life is a RM4.4 billion project initiated in 2011 which has been cleaning and beautifying our rivers. Its main targets are to have our rivers suitable for recreational use and body contact, as well as attract economic investment to the vicinities of Klang and Gombak River.

Artist impression of what Leboh Pasar Besar would look like once beautification work is completed.

Some of the project’s implementations to date include the extension of Kuala Lumpur’s sewerage pipe network by 69.8 kilometres, the establishment of 8 river water treatment plants, and the installation of 504 gross pollutant traps, trash rakes and log booms across the city.

However, River of Life runs up to the year 2020 and the government can only do so much. Beyond that point, the quality of our watercourses will hang on the people surrounding them.

Pulling together an audience

While laws can be tweaked to strengthen penalties on litterbugs, they are costly to enforce and people don’t learn much in the process. Awareness remains essential to the health of our waterways.

Thus far, River of Life’s public outreach programs have engaged over 40,000 people from schools, restaurants, workshops, property developers and households. Positive results include the rise in independently-organised environmental activities around Kuala Lumpur.

Even our creatives are doing their part. Last year, Malaysian artist Azliza Ayub debuted a solo exhibition at Rimbun Dahan titled Everlasting Love. Azliza’s visual display consisted of mixed medium artworks, many constructed with discarded soft drink and mineral water bottles.

Everlasting Love provoked much thought on the durability and versatility of packaging and the transformative qualities of art. It also attracted media attention which highlighted the fact that the polyethylene terephthalate (PET) bottles recycled for Azliza’s showcase takes 500 odd years to decompose.

Returning our rivers to their natural state is going to be tough, but it won’t be possible without the people's support. Leave the more complex tasks to our government and artists -- all it takes for Malaysians to help is to stop themselves and others from littering.

Ultimately, the fate of our rivers are in the hands of the people. The sooner Malaysians stop choking their rivers, the better we can reclaim our mega-diverse paradise.