Keeping our rivers clean

This is the first of two articles on the human effort behind keeping our rivers clean. Rivers within the boundary of Kuala Lumpur fall under the jurisdiction of City Hall.

Words: Theresa Belle
Photographs: Irene Yap

Kuala Lumpur owes its name to the meeting point between Klang River and Gombak River, which came to be known as a ‘muddy estuary’. Today, the Klang River carries the discharge of city life through the urban jungle, out of sight and out of mind.

To those in the Kuala Lumpur City Hall’s Civil Engineering and Drainage Department, however, maintaining these rivers and its drainage network is something they worry about every single day.

Encik Haji Bederul Hizan, the head engineer in River Maintenance Unit DBKL (Chief Assistant Engineer J38), showing locations of garbage trap along rivers in KL. "It gets worse during the monsoon. Garbage will overflow and at times, due to strong current, the trap snaps. Rivers in Jakarta was once severely polluted. But the administration came up with a brilliant plan to hire people to dig up and clean the rivers, paid on daily basis. Now, people can swim in it! That's what we want to achieve for our KL rivers".
Photo by Irene Yap

“The six engineers monitor the maintenance of 200 waste traps along a 123km river stretch, which is contracted to 30 companies,” En. Haji Bederul explained. He is one of the engineers in the department, which oversees the maintenance of rivers and monsoon drains within the city.

This includes the Klang River and its Kuala Lumpur tributaries – Gombak River, Keroh River, Kuyoh River, Batu River, and Kerayong River.

“Our main task is to attend to public complaints. The closed drainage system that runs like a maze beneath the city must also be closely maintained and monitored to ensure the entire city has a smooth-running drainage system, and avoid flash floods,” En. Haji said.

Contractors manually scooping out all sorts of rubbish from the river. It is a never-ending routine for them, not by choice, but necessity.
Photo by Irene Yap

Scheduled de-silting and bush clearing are also carried out to maintain river capacity and flow. City Hall contractors hire workers to clean traps, which can be a hazardous job – those in the river are in contact with chemical waste products daily. Even on their monitoring rounds, the officers stay a safe distance away from the heaps of rubbish.

On rainy days, larger volumes of rubbish push against the barricading trap (known as a log boom) due to stronger currents. Log booms are solid, but not indestructible – if it breaks, City Hall has to fix or replace it.

This is not a job for the faint of heart. En. Haji’s colleague, En. Zamani recalled some of the most outlandish items found in river traps – from foetuses to a severed head. The department has had to collaborate with police on cases such as these.

Back at the river, I was slightly taken aback at the sight of workers cleaning rubbish held back by the floating boom. Under the scorching sun, they dug up polystyrene containers, plastic bottles and large styrofoam blocks that formed a disheartening spectacle of residential waste, littered with toys and packets from household items.

The log boom is designed to hold back floating debris and rubbish from flowing further downstream.
Photo by Irene Yap.

“These are not things you would find anywhere in or near a river – but when people by the river litter, it ends up in here one way or another,” said En. Zamani.

Since the department has no law enforcement capacity, these officers are not able to intervene authoritatively if they witness someone throwing rubbish in or near a river.

The supervisors by the river said they had just cleared the river bank, where it is common for people to dump large rubbish bags simply because they know it is cleared every weekday. After weekends, they typically find a larger-than-usual heap.

Other locations present their own set of challenges, such as a monsoon drain in Desa Pandan that carries waste from a night market nearby. A huge gross pollutant trap is fixed here, with a large metal box that is designed to hold back rubbish and dried leaves.

The main challenge in maintaining these fixtures, and the river, is clearing up the litter of city folk. “This is still a widespread issue that forces City Hall (and by extension, taxpayers) to spend lots of money cleaning up,” said En. Haji.

"The biggest challenge and problem we face is the people. How do we change people's attitude in loving our rivers and taking care of nature? We've done educational and awareness campaigns but no visible changes according to our statistic record." explained Haji Bederul Hizan.
Photo by Irene Yap.

On our way back, we stopped by a monsoon drain so heavily mossed that the water was almost still. A man sat by it with his toddler son, a fishing rod in hand.

“Are you fishing?” I asked the boy.

He looked up at his father, who replied, “There is no fish here. Saja-saja lah,” – implying that he was only doing it to entertain his son.
The little boy was oblivious, staring anticipatedly at the green water.

Every single day, we read and share about things happening on the other side of the globe, and yet we couldn’t care less about our rivers, or know enough about the people who help us look after it. We take it for granted as something that just happens, and that the river will always be there, even if we keep throwing rubbish in it.

If we understand that water is the source of life, why aren’t we doing the best we can to preserve it?