It’s easy when we do it together

What can we learn from the Wangsa Melawati Green Committee and their efforts in rejuvenating the river that flows through their neighbourhood?

Wangsa Melawati River Rangers demonstrating to the visiting Pulau Pangkor Island Rangers their method of collecting water sample from Sungai Gisir.

We peered into the pail of water hauled up from the stream below. It was neither clear nor murky, but somewhere in between, and that surprised us. The river looked so clear from where we stood, high up on the bank, and could even be described as inviting.

“Looks can be deceiving,” Mohammad Mokhtar Mohd Ali said. “That’s why we don’t just use our eyes. We test it properly.”

And that’s what we were here to do. Mokhtar is part of Wangsa Melawati’s ‘river rangers’ who meet on a monthly basis to do tests on Sungai Gisir which flows through their neighbourhood.

Sungai Gisir is one of the minor tributaries of Sungai Klang. In fact, the river is so small that one barely notices it, not even the residents themselves. Owing to its narrow channel, the volume of water flowing from the source used to be a constant threat to settlements on the banks. To prevent flooding, the river is now encased in high concrete embankments, marking the boundary between Kuala Lumpur and Selangor.

With a simple test kit, volunteers are empowered to accurately measure the health of a river and provide valuable data to the government bodies responsible for river management.

Every month, this resident-volunteer group tests the pH, oxygen, phosphate and nitrate levels of the water, and uploads the data onto the Department of Irrigation and Drainage website for long-term tracking. This way data can be easily shared across relevant government agencies who rely on localized information and observations to formulate new strategies in maintaining rivers.

The ‘river rangers’, or to use their proper name Wangsa Melawati Green Committee, was set up in 2015 under the River of Life Public Outreach Programme (ROL-POP). This massive, multi-billion ringgit undertaking by the government to rehabilitate and rejuvenate the rivers of Kuala Lumpur is decidedly ambitious, but not impossible. To clean our rivers and transform it from a class III(not suitable for body contact) to class IIb (suitable for body contact and recreational use) will require hard work from all parties.

And that includes the commitment from the communities living all along these rivers, especially upstream. Wangsa Melawati, an affluent neighbourhood of about 7,000 residents, was roped in by the non-profit Global Environment Centre (GEC) which had been engaged by the government to carry out public outreach programmes.

Community engagement is crucial to the success of the River of Life project but it’s nevertheless a very slow process because it takes a lot of time and work to convince the locals, who have never had to think about the river until now. Out of sight, out of mind.

Meetings are never a dull affair with every one constantly chipping in ideas and feedback. The sustainability of any programme relies very heavily on the commitment and self-initiated engagement of its members.

“We need to be seen to be there to help them,” said Dr Kalithasas Kailasan, the coordinator.

He went on to explain how different approaches are used for different communities. For instance, lower-income areas tend to respond best to an economic approach like ‘turning waste to wealth’. This could entail introducing measures like collecting used cooking oil and recyclables for sale.

In other cases, working with religious institutions can be effective, as in the case of Wangsa Melawati where the local mosque is progressive and active in neighbourhood activities. GEC had made contact with this community through the Masjid Al-Muttaqin chairman Yahaya Din who is also active in the residents’ association.

Yahaya, now an advisor to the Green Committee, said when GEC first approached him about the river monitoring project in 2015, he was open to the idea because he believed that mosques should go beyond just providing spiritual nourishment.

“We don’t focus on just religious knowledge but also community work like sports and health checks, and non-Muslims are welcomed,” he said.

Haji Mokhtar is a strong champion for a mosque to be more than just a focal point for the faithful, but a community space that welcomes people of all faith and creed for the betterment of society.

Thus, the GEC’s briefing to the community was held in the mosque grounds. The mosque later also hosted a recycling centre, and ran workshops on making candles from used cooking oil. Last Ramadan, it held a campaign against the use of polystyrene boxes, giving out reusable containers instead to shoppers.

For their efforts, the Green Committee members were invited to visit Japan last year to glean new ideas in waste management, especially at the community level.

“We learnt how the Japanese became successful in waste management because they teach things like recycling from school age but here, we bypass this and go right to enforcement,” Yahaya said.

He and Mokhtar were particularly taken by the pristine river that runs through Tokyo, smitten by the wild ducks paddling in it. “We felt as if we were back in nature but with skyscrapers all around,” said Mokhtar.

Members of the Wangsa Melawati Green Committee posing for a photograph with a visiting delegation from Clean Authority of Tokyo (CAT), Japan who came to study river cleaning methods, community activities, and waste management between both countries

The Wangsa Melawati group is one of the more successful public outreach efforts, and it’s largely because its volunteers make it fun. Certainly, there’s nothing solemn about their work in monitoring the river. Every trip begins with laughter, and ends with breakfast.

The challenges of apathy still exist but now, two years down the line, there are glimpses of change. Farah Nurkhairani Abu Kasim, also a river ranger, said there has been noticeable, if still slight, change among residents living along the riverbank. Where once they emptied bins into the stream, now they decorate the embankment with potted plants and seating.

“When the people kept seeing us there, they got curious, and we got the chance to explain our work,” said Farah. “It’s slow but now, I think they are a bit more concerned about their surroundings.” Change can happen, but only if we believe in it and commit ourselves to a cause for the long run.