Rivers, rakes and responsibility

This is the second of two articles on the human effort behind keeping our rivers clean. Rivers outside of the city boundary is managed by the Department of Irrigation and Drainage, DID.

Text: Theresa Belle

Have you ever wondered how rubbish that ends up in the river is cleaned up? Who looks after the rivers that are outside the boundary of the city? Who determines when it needs to be done? I sat down with En. Zamri and En. Azri from the River Basin Management Division of Department of Irrigation and Drainage to learn the details of river cleaning.

En. Azri explaining describing the mechanism of river cleaning to visitors at the Klang River Basin Management Office.
Photo by Mahen Bala.

These gentlemen are part of the team that oversees river cleaning efforts in parts of the Klang River outside the jurisdiction of Kuala Lumpur City Hall. They explained that two main types of solid waste traps are used in our rivers, depending on the catchment area. The most common are gross pollutant traps (GPT), of which there are 396 under their supervision. From this number, 119 are in the Klang River alone, from which approximately 1.5 tonnes of rubbish is collected every month. That’s about the weight of an average sedan.

Additionally, ten log booms and trash rakes are fixed at points along these rivers. These traps are cleaned once every three days – more frequently if it rains – and the department records an average monthly rubbish collection of 1.7 tonnes.

A typical view of rubbish and debris floating in a river. Fortunately these were all held back by log booms and will be cleared out by DID contractors.
Photo by Vignes Balasingam.

The numbers begin to paint a shocking picture of just how much rubbish is in our rivers, which begs the question – who are the people going down to the rivers to collect them? Not many are aware that rubbish trap servicing jobs are contracted to private companies to the tune of approximately RM400,000 every month.

“These structures are rather solid, so they rarely require maintenance works – save for the occasional accident. Cleaning them is what takes up a huge chunk of the budget,” said En Azri.

“We receive complaints from residents on pollution in their neighbourhood river, but if they won’t take responsibility for keeping their own areas clean, how can we keep up with scheduled cleanings?”

His smiling face and jovial tone did little to mask the disappointment in En. Azri’s voice. Department budgets ideally should go towards providing better facilities for the citizens, but instead, rubbish collection has become a priority for the department.

While the River Basin Management Office handles out-of-city rivers, the Kuala Lumpur City Hall manages the rivers that flow within the capital city. Together, they ensure Klang River and its tributaries are regularly cleaned, and their rubbish traps serviced.
Photo by Irene Yap

Without regular collection, Klang River would turn into a floating landfill. The officers will be held back by river cleaning works until the waters substantially clear up.

Thankfully, things are looking up. Since the River of Life (RoL) project took off in 2011, the water pollution index is inching closer to the aspired Class 2, making it safe for recreational use and body contact.

This is crucial in transforming Klang and Gombak Rivers into vibrant waterfront hubs with high economic potential by 2020, which is a key thrust of the RoL project. The 10.7km stretch where national landmarks such as Dataran Merdeka and Masjid Jamek are found is also being developed through beautification works with a targeted RM1 billion expenditure. Last year, RoL projects received an allocation of RM498mil, and are expected to cost RM4.4 billion over the course of 10 years.

As of November last year, 72% of all river cleaning projects under the River Basin Management Division had been completed. Construction of communal grease traps was also almost complete at 94%, which will ensure liquid wastes from restaurants and food courts do not pollute nearby rivers.

Contractors cleaning a typical gross pollutant trap, designed to filter out small debris and rubbish from water flowing out of residential areas.
Photo by Mahen Bala

The river cleaning phase of the RoL project covers the rivers of Klang, Gombak, Batu, Ampang, Jinjang, Kerayong, Keroh and Bunus, which make up a 110km stretch within the Klang Valley. This falls under the jurisdictions of Kuala Lumpur City Hall, Selayang Municipal Council, and Ampang Jaya Municipal Council.

Improving our rivers consists not only of structural measures such as river traps, but relies heavily on public engagement and action.
“Integrated river basin management requires the cooperation of the government with developers, industries, restaurants, schools, and local communities. We are trying to change the mentality of groups so they can sustain themselves, take ownership of the programmes, and lead them to success,” said Dr Wong Chee Leong, principal assistant director in River Basin Management Division, Department of Irrigation and Drainage (DID).

Public outreach programmes empower a community to be in-charge of a project that directly connects them to the river, fostering the muhibbah spirit and responsibility to drive river improvement efforts. Thus, the team is continuously exploring new methods to pique and sustain public involvement.

Although it is never too late to change, public outreach programmes that target children may prove more effective in instilling responsible habits from the start. For example, these kids were involved in a community programme in Kampung Taman Warisan, organised by GEC, Society for Eco Greater Melawati and supported by Standard Chartered.
Photo by Vignes Balasingam.

“We must start them young with campaigns at school level, and in the media,” said En. Zamri. Past department efforts in this vein include open classrooms in river education centres, as well as awareness and enrichment programmes in schools.

En Azri agreed, adding, “Changing behaviours and attitudes takes time and stages, but it can be done. We’ve seen it in the campaigns to reduce polystyrene use, for example. With the recently introduced charge for plastic bags, people will also start being more aware about disposing their plastic bags.”

Campaigns and laws play vital roles in creating awareness and enforcing discipline, but these are not the solution to river pollution. All the officers I spoke to agreed that caring for our rivers begins with positive action, which is only possible when every individual is mindful of what they dispose, as well as where and how they do it.

This is why the maintenance and installation of river cleaning structures should ideally be supported with greater law enforcement and public engagement. After all, keeping the rivers clean is not the responsibility of one team or department – it is up to all of us with a sense of civic duty and love for the environment.