Paradise Lost

Redicovering Sungai Bunus, Kuala Lumpur’s hidden river

With large areas of land covered by paved roads and concrete foundations, drains struggle to keep up with heavy rainfall.

In the beginning, there was a flood.

Standing under the pouring rain in Setapak, this is where the Bunus River is first visible. It is not a single stream, but a tide flowing out of patch of jungle on a hill, near an open car park two football fields wide. The small concrete drains are no match for it, and in no time, the main road is flooded calf deep. A car hesitates before braving the water, its plate number barely visible.

All around, the rumbling sky pours open and fills the road, the water eventually collecting in to a large drain labelled Sungai Bunus. The water rose in a matter of minutes, reminding me of creation stories throughout cultures and religions, from the Gilgamesh epic to the Abrahamic religions, where civilisations were devastated by floods that swallow cities and kingdoms whole. And still, humanity prevailed.

From Seksyen 2, Wangsa Maju, it thunders on for 7km through residential areas and later the city, before draining out into Klang River. But you will never see any of this, for Bunus is the river we have lost

Right from the start at Wangsa Maju, Sungai Bunus pours into the city as a storm drain, far from our idyllic notions of what a river looks like.

Nobody knows

“Is there a river here?” Despite being a resident of Wangsa Maju of over 20 years, Yati is surprised to hear of Bunus and even more so why anyone would bother looking for it. She drives for UBER for a living, and this is the first time someone had requested an unlisted destination in the system.

Upon hearing that the rivers are being revitalised under the River of Life (ROL) project, she latched on to the graffiti along the concrete banks of Sungai Klang, near the Pasar Seni LRT Station. She loved the idea. “It’s good that they do something artsy like that. Just like overseas right? Rather than just leaving it bare like that.”

Her idea of a river is a binary one, shared by many who call KL home; A river is either romantic and artful in a city, or a stream in the outback surrounded by lush greeneries. The harsh reality is that the rivers of KL are nothing more than drains in the public mind.

Encased in concrete with a deep drop, and a constant amount of garbage floating in it they become nameless storm drains that will hopefully behave itself during downpours. How tragic that Bunus should be the only river in KL without a pristine upstream like Kampung Taman Warisan for Klang River, or a picnic area like the Sungai Keroh waterfall.

Even the grounds of nearby low cost housings turn into shallow lakes the moment it rains, and whatever on the ground is flushed into the river.

Paying the price

Close to the headwaters of Bunus near Wangsa Maju, Setapak, the land is occupied by vast residential areas with your typical cornershop-kopitiams, automotive workshops, 24-hour restaurants and convenience stores. Here the Bunus flows at the back of terrace houses. This is a middle class residency, where you live wall to wall and floor to ceiling with your neighbours. Yards are non-existent; any free space is used for practical purposes, like parking your car, hanging your laundry, or arranging your belongings that do not fit inside your house, some turning into a mountainous pile.

Views of the river is obscured by a mix of man-made natural barriers, a sign showing 'Dilarang Masuk' cobbled together from sheets of metal placed by the unofficial river community, the residents themselves. It's followed by large pots, trees, cables, electricity pylons, Perspex sheets, plastic bottles, more planks, more sheets, anything they could get their hands on to separate the Bunus from potential thrill seekers.

Coming from out of town, Nazri(not his real name) has set up shop here for more than 10 years. Built on a concrete patch with a zinc roof, the outdoor sink connects straight to the drain outside.

Closer to where a large college is, houses make way for dense condominiums, where accommodation is abundant, and cheap. For just RM100, a student from out of town could get a bed, in a house shared with maybe 15 other people. In a 3-bedroom apartment, bunk beds and single mattresses littered the place, maximising sleep area. Some mattresses are spread on the kitchen floor, visible from the outside. If you're desperate, bed shares were available: 12 hours per person, you take the mornings, I'll have the night.

For someone on a budget, this is still a liveable place. Prices are relatively affordable: a square meal with a drink can still be had below RM10, stretching your ringgit further.

Affordability, a conundrum of quantity versus of quality comes with a price, and the Bunus bears the brunt. The food traders in this area disregard any sort of cleanliness regulations to cut on costs. Plates are just washed by a drain, and any attempts of using a sink beats the purpose, as the pipes feed directly into into the same drains. Without a properly installed grease trap, food wastes and oil flow straight into the Bunus, but this is the least of anyone’s concern.

In the hubbub of post-work rush hour, stalls below the concrete pillows of the LRT tracks wait for the passing rain before they pop up like mushrooms.

A second life

Historically, communities tend to build their lives around rivers or sources of water. It bathes us, cleans us, feeds us and connects us. But now that pipes bring the water to us, we have moved on from that way of life. We forget what the river is for and how communities first started. We don’t even remember its name or how it came to be.

We have moved away from the river, but not all is lost. While the original communities on the river banks are gone, news ones are coming together.

Grassy banks dotted with rubbish line the river as it flows by the National Library and BERNAMA.

“The number one pollution source of Sungai Bunus is organic waste; food waste from restaurants, chemical waste from workshops and plastic pollution. It’s really bad,” explains Yasmin bt Rasyid, chairman of the Sungai Bunus Phase 2 River of Life (ROL) LA21 working committee.

The real problem lies in the lack of willpower to do anything about it, especially among the residents of the river bank itself. The working committee Yasmin leads is tasked with kick-starting and driving community led projects, with the most important one being the creation of the Sungai Bunus Recreational Park. The vision is to transform an otherwise unused space into a multi-purpose one that’s accessible to all.

Past the Kg. Boyan Flood Retention Pond and the Sungai Bunus recreational park, the river flows underground past Jalan Tun Razak and into the city.

“To move forward and build sustainable cities, the private industry, communities and the local government must be working together, if you only have the private industry and communities pushing for change, but on the higher level, policies and enforcement are not done accordingly, we will hit a ceiling and our efforts would still be in vain,” she said.

When the committee was formed in 2014, it was joined by 14 organisations and private companies, and recently another 10, namely developers, community clubs and business cooperatives, have joined in. In 2017, they signed a Memorandum of Understanding and pledged support to making the vision of a clean, healthy river a reality for all. At the end of the ceremony, all present were involved with planting 100 trees in the park grounds.

Kuala Lumpur City Hall management executive director Datuk Hj Mohd Najib b Hj Mohd (in blue) planting trees to commemorate the second MoU signing along with the other attendees at the event.
Photograph courtesy of DBKL.

The LA21 working committee is also involved with the soon-to-be-opened Kampung Boyan Flood Retention Pond, an extension of the Titiwangsa Lake recreational area. Once complete, the area will feature urban vertical farming, and cycling tracks for the public to enjoy.

The tree planting initiative is a perfect example of how simple steps taken today, can have a profound, multi-fold impact in the years to come. All it takes is the courage to dream and the willingness to follow it through to fruition.

The old new village

A map(left) shows Sungai Bunus cutting through Kampung Baru. A more recent satellite view(right) of the same area shows how the river has been covered up into a walkway.
Source: Google Maps.

Ducking underneath Jalan Tun Razak, the Bunus enters a deep, dark cavern leading into the city, only to reappear at the very edge of Kampung Baru. On one side of the bridge on Jalan Raja Muda Aziz, the river is shaded with coconut and palm trees just outside the National Cancer Society of Malaysia and on the other, a newly paved walkway curving its way deep into the historic settlement, a concrete replica of the river.

The wooden houses here offer a glimpse of how things were in the past, a simple dwelling built on stilts on the riverbank, with chickens roaming freely and children running out of the house and into the river. Today, the river is gone but some villagers still raise chickens in their yard, the space underneath their houses doubling as a chicken coop. Fruit trees line the streets outside these houses.

The newly built walkway offers a chance for pedestrians and cyclists to explore the heart of Kampung Baru without battling traffic.

The river belonged to everyone, and they shared a life with it, in good times and bad.

Tuan Haji Naharuddin Ali, a member of the Historical Society of Malaysia, remembers the days of past: “The river would overflow when it rained heavily. It was famous for that. The worst was in 1926. Kampung Hanyut (Drifting Village) that was around the area suffered badly.”

“Before the river was buried, the waters were so clear, beautiful and full of fish. The villagers would often fish from it to supplement their income.”

Life is very different for the residents here these days. They sit on highly valued land, ever-ripe for development with the right vision. Preserve in the name of heritage, but basic facilities must be allowed to develop. Built at a time when density and overpopulation wasn’t a concern, the kampong is in need of a comprehensive waste management system, especially in areas where houses are huddled together.

An iconic sight in Kampung Baru; charming wooden houses juxtaposed against a concrete skyline.

Towards the end of the new concrete walkway, a rubbish collection lorry slowly inches its way in reverse towards a mountain of plastic bags at the side of the road.

Four workers scoop up the leaking rubbish with their bare hands and throw it into the back of the lorry. “This is how it is every day.” One of them says with a resigned smile. “It’s the easiest way for them. They just come out and throw it on the road.”
Right that moment, a man walks out of a house nearby and nonchalantly contributes to the pile.

In most densely populated areas, a dustbin is a fluid idea that ranges between a dedicated collection bin and an entire area. All it takes is for one person to start a bad habit and the rest will soon follow.

A river flows through it

Past Kampung Baru, it becomes exceedingly hard to trace the river accurately, if at all. It goes under the newly built Quill City Mall, Medan Tuanku Monorail station, through The Row (formerly Asian Heritage Row), crosses Jalan Dang Wangi, Jalan Munshi Abdullah, and finally onto the river’s namesake, Jalan Bunus.

All along the path are art spaces, hip coffee bars, corporate office towers, and small puddles of rainwater, leftovers from a brief downpour just moments earlier. But the water has to go somewhere, even if the river is long forgotten by this point. Put your ears to the ground, and you might hear it flowing, between the rumble of traffic and blaring promotions from nearby retail stores.

As the number of cars going in and out of the city increases by the month, roads are under constant pressure to be widened and extended. It is little wonder then how Sungai Bunus is almost entirely underground near the Medan Tuanku Monorail Station.

Behind a long bus stand on Jalan Bunus, the river trickles through a covered drain, out into Klang River. The iron hatch is still closed, meaning the water levels upstream are still stable. But around the gate, little pieces of trash are stuck all around it, a hint of the torrent that comes through it and the fragments of the city it carries along.

This is the first of two outflows, the second one is a more recent diversion, running underneath Jalan Hassan Salleh, close to the Kg Baru LRT Station. The latter is nothing more than a hatch on the concrete wall lining the Klang River, only visible from across the river from the silent tombstones of the Ampang Muslim cemetery.

Across Jalan Bunus is Persiaran CapSquare, a thriving commercial area due to see changes under the Phase Two of the River of Life project. This area falls under development Packages 1C 1D and 3A 3B, the former covering the area around Masjid India and Dataran Merdeka, while the latter will transform public areas around CapSquare and the Jalan Sultan Ismail intersection. The massive undertaking involves numerous other areas around KL and in scheduled to be completed by 2020. We can fix many things in the span of three years; builds can be redeveloped, walkways can be made better, and the rivers can be cleaned to a more sustainable level.

The ‘original’ Sungai Bunus outflow where it meets Sungai Klang. The only trace of Bunus left is its name on buildings and road signs.

But changing the way we think about the river has been the most formidable challenge. In the case of Bunus, how do we fix something you can’t see? How do we make the 1.79million people of Kuala Lumpur change their ways?

From the bridge crossing over the Klang River, the current state of our city’s rivers is evident; branches, plastic bottles, paper, garbage, mementoes, a piece of vacuum tube, and someone's lunch in a plastic bag floated along the river. These not gifts from mother nature, but the fruits of our own ignorance.

Murals decorate the vertical shafts of cement all along the Bunus River as it flows unseen through Kampung Baru.

Things will only change if we see it in us to claim ownership to the city and what happens to it. There should be a day when we can be proud of our rivers, the same way we strain to catch the gleaming pinnacles of the Twin Towers. For now, the work on the ground must continue.

Dark clouds roll in swiftly with a low rumble. Both vehicle and foot traffic at Jalan Bunus starts to pick up, as another working day comes to an end. A middle-aged woman running a noodle stall nearby looks up at the darkening sky and pulls out a pair of gum boots. Heavy rain will soon wash the city clean.

In the distance, a black tube connected to a construction site is plunged into the river and sways wildly, and it looks like a boatman's oar from a distance.

Still, the river rises.