Saving Our Waters

Malaysia’s multi-billion ringgit river rejuvenation project is determined to bring Kuala Lumpur’s waterways back to life.

There are few places in the city as recognisable as the confluence of the Klang and Gombak rivers. This iconic intersection by Masjid Jamek is where the city of Kuala Lumpur first took shape, before it grew into the hub it is today.

But as the land’s population and economic prospects blossomed, its natural features faded into the static. The rivers were hardest hit; waste and sewage flooded the currents as urbanised inhabitants disengaged from nature. At present, the clean waters our grandparents and great-grandparents once knew and enjoyed have become toxic torrents.

An artist's impression of the envisioned impact of the River of Life project; a rejuvenated river network

Hoping to tackle this problem is River of Life, a river rejuvenation and beautification project launched in 2010. The end goal of the project? Making Kuala Lumpur’s network of rivers safe for body contact and boosting the region’s economic value.

The path to River of Life’s end goal is not short of challenges. But the vision of a rejuvenated Kuala Lumpur remains irresistible, especially to the stakeholders behind the initiative.

Keeping afloat

All five ministries, twenty-nine agencies and three authorities involved in River of Life can agree on one thing: the project is larger than anything they’ve tackled before.

River of Life aims to transform a total of 110 km of the city’s waterways, spanning a total catchment area of 1,288 square kilometres. This doesn’t take into account the 10.7km stretch between Puah Pond and Brickfields which will be given new life under River of Life’s beautification efforts.

Diagram indicating the river network that falls within the RoL project

“The cleaning component of River of Life covers the Keroh River, Jinjang River, Batu River, Gombak River, Klang River, Ampang River, Kerayong River and Bunus River,” clarified Ms. Kamariah Binti Kamarudin from the Delivery Management Office (DMO) at the Ministry of Federal Territories.

“The cleaning phase by itself comprises 13 key initiatives, split into structural and non-structural measures. Structural measures are physical implementations such as water treatment facilities and gross pollutant traps, while non-structural measures include public outreach programs and research.”

According to Ms. Kamariah, the complexity of the project also required the establishment of additional committees such as the DMO and the Calibration and Implementation Committee (CIC) to help coordinate day-to-day activities.

For a project so large, the expected outcomes are suitably impressive. One of River of Life’s major target is to raise water quality of Kuala Lumpur’s major rivers to a Class II B, which would make them suitable for recreational use.

Other expected positive outcomes include an increase in riverbank land value as well as the generation of more economic and tourism activities.

Reclaiming the source

The pioneers of Kuala Lumpur would have never imagined a river bank settlement growing into the sprawling city of highways and skyscrapers it is today

A recent federal territory census estimated at least 8 million people living in Kuala Lumpur. Approximately a quarter of this figure are believed to reside in the city centre.

“In the early days of the city, everyone lived around the river,” noted Ziad Razak from Pemandu Associates. “The river was transportation, sanitation, sewerage, and drink; the fabric of this city was tightly interwoven with the river.”

“But as we became more modern, we began to lose our connection with nature. Some not only forget, but abuse the river by polluting it.”

Many of today’s city-dwellers perceive the city’s rivers as foul-smelling streams littered with rubbish. Memories of them ever being clean enough to wash, bathe and cook with are becoming rarer by the day.

At present, the river fluctuates between an unsafe Class III and an even less welcoming Class IV in terms of water quality. There are still fishes in the river, though population numbers and diversity have shrunk over the years.

As such, a grand total of RM4 billion was earmarked by the federal government for River of Life, from which RM3 billion will go towards river cleaning and sewerage upgrades. Implementations include wastewater treatment plants, gross pollutant traps and communal grease traps to reduce the pollution harming our rivers.

“Once it is safe for people to use, people will rekindle their relationship with the river and hopefully take better care of it,” explained Ziad.

Seeking clarity

It’s important to understand that the parameters determining the safety of our rivers – these include dissolved oxygen (DO), biochemical oxygen demand (BOD) and chemical oxygen demand (COD) – may not correlate with the river’s appearance.

“What we want is for the river not to be dirty and for there to be no rubbish in it,” noted Department of Irrigation and Drainage (DID) corporate director Dato’ Mohd Azmi bin Ismail.

Dato Azmi explains the reality and the challenges ahead in rejuvenating Kuala Lumpur’s rivers

“Whether the water is clear and blue depends on the deposits and the sediments in the river. For example, if you’ve been to the River Thames in London you will notice that the water is not blue even if it is clean.”

To visualise the impact of River of Life, simply imagine Kuala Lumpur’s waterways as having a vital role in the life of its residents. Among river-based activities that can be expected upon the project’s completion are swimming and water sports, as well as spiritual exercises such as ablution.

“If River of Life achieves its targets, we could soon see devotees at Masjid Jamek using the river to cleanse themselves before prayer,” added Dato’ Mohd Azmi.

In fact, the staircase connecting Masjid Jamek and the river is currently being refurbished, signalling great things to come for the mosque and its devotees. Prime Minister Dato’ Seri Najib Razak recently made a site visit and shared news on the project with the public.

According to Najib, since River of Life commenced in 2011 it has implemented 72% of its river cleaning initiatives. Beautified and upgraded areas, such as the river bank by Panggung Bandaraya, have also been re-opened to the public.

“A wonderful progress for Kuala Lumpur,” he beamed in front of the confluence of the Klang and Gombak rivers.

Prime Minister Dato’ Seri Najib Razak visits Masjid Jamek to inspect the River of Life project

There is a lot of pressure on the team to achieve its goals before the project’s deadline in 2020. Realising the need for people to share in the responsibility of sustaining and managing our environment, River of Life has also invested time and effort into education and outreach programs.

Performed by its stakeholders, River of Life’s programs help communities understand and appreciate the value of clean rivers. Agencies involved in the project’s non-structural measures have recorded highly positive results – some workshops have propagated self-organising task forces within communities.

There’s no guarantee it will all work out for River of Life. Given its scale and the size of Kuala Lumpur’s population, the project can only achieve as much as the people are willing to put into it. However, it is a vital start and a big step forward in rekindling the nation’s relationship with the land.