Stream of consciousness

Small efforts can have a profound impact on our environment and the way we interact with it, as demonstrated by the volunteers with the Society of Eco Greater Melawati.

SeeGEM's (Society of Eco Greater Melawati) headquarters is a small, charming cabin, set up close to a small bridge where the Kelang River flows underneath. It is easy to miss the cabin, and even easier to miss the river, which looks like a drain from the outside.

I'm not the first to mistake it. “If you look at the signboard there, they put some (sign of) parit la," says Dr Dhileepan Nair, the Chairman of SeeGEM with a hearty laugh. "Even some authorities, when they came down here, they weren't sure if this was the river."

But this unassuming river holds more importance than the unfortunate signboard it currently has. The water from Taman Melawati, which is a water catchment area, is channeled through 14km pipelines to the water treatment area in Bukit Nanas, providing the daily supply for the residents of Klang Valley.

The committee members of SeeGEM understand this and feel responsible in maintaining the river. They are all long term residents who have been here since the 60s and 70s, when Melawati was developed from rubber plantations into a suburb, and the atmosphere was reminiscent of Cameron Highlands, with its mist shrouded mornings. This sense of belonging drives them to devote their free time and resources to maintain Melawati, in addition to raising a family and keeping their demanding day jobs, some as business owners, engineers and event organisers.

Standing guard: Dr Dhileepan Nair, chairman of SeeGEM.

They have been volunteering for years as part of smaller, independent groups before being united under SeeGEM, which was initiated a few years ago under the River of Life’s Public Outreach Program. Under this program, local communities along the Klang River, namely from Taman Warisan, Eco-Melawati, Wangsa Melawati, AU2, AU3 and Sierra Ukay are engaged, trained and supported in their efforts to improve water quality and reduce pollution in the targeted rivers.

"We are a small group of people who have a sense of belonging to Melawati, not many have this kind of attitude," says Zulkifli Mohammed, one of the founders and committee member. "It's not easy. Ask Jeenee, every time we want to have a committee program, she's our superwoman," says Zulkifli referring to Jeenee Lee, another founder and committee member.

From left to right: Jeenee Lee, Zulkifli Mohammed, and Dr Dhileepan Nair

"We are very blessed here (in Melawati). We have 3 jewels here: Bukit Tabur, the dam, and the river," says Jeenee. But these natural wonders of Melawati, as well as its proximity to Kuala Lumpur made it prime property, leading to a slew of development within the past few years.

Zulkifli has tried to garner support from the developers, for them to be involved with the community and their efforts, but to no avail.

"We wanted to initiate these programs with the developers. None of them came forward and (proposed initiatives) for 3R (Reduce, Reuse, Recycle) programs. We have the River Rangers program. We have community based programs. But we cannot (continue) to do this if the developers or any corporate companies (in the area) do not have any corporate social responsibility," added Zulkifli.

However, he stresses that he's not against them. "We are not against development, but it has to go together with the ecosystem and the community. Everybody must have that sense of responsibility," says Zulkifli. They have received support from Standard Chartered and Maybank for one of their previous initiatives, but feel that developers in the area needs to step up more.

Still, it has not stopped them from working on their initiatives to maintain the river and Melawati area, albeit on a smaller scale. One of their initiatives is to engage school children with activities, as awareness needs to be instilled in the younger generation.

Jeenee showing the workings of a reference chart used to determine water quality during their river inspections.

“It all comes down to education,” says Jeenee. One of their programs is the River Ranger program, where children from nearby schools are brought to the river where they experience first hand ways to tell the cleanliness of the river, the different wildlife in the river, and the precautions necessary if they want to play in the river, due to the Indah Water plant releasing discharges into the river. Their programs are recognised by the Ministry of Education under the River of Life program, and they working to incorporate it into the nearby school curriculums.

One of their most successful events was a River Ranger program held in 2016 with the support of Standard Chartered, where volunteers were partnered with students to do river cleaning activities, cleanliness monitoring and alien fish harvesting, where fishes introduced from outside of the ecosystem are taken out to maintain the balance.

Jeenee Lee showing the volunteers from Standard Chartered how the different types of organisms you can find in a water sample can give an indication of the health of the river.

To move forward, they still need help from the authorities in term of awareness programs as well as enforcement. A JPS officer has seen locals throwing large garbage bags into the river, but nothing could be done. “What are they going to do?” asks Jeenee. “Even (police) wouldn’t know what act to arrest them under,” adds Dr Dhileepan.

They hope that authorities could see the value of investing in a clean river, citing case studies from other countries. “If you look at Singapore’s river, or the Han in Korea, or the Thames, they used to be highly polluted. But now the waterfront in Singapore is a magnet for tourism and social life and entertainment, same as the Han and the Thames,” says Dr Dhileepan, demonstrating the measurable financial value a stronger effort could create.

“We don’t get paid for it. Any funding is through the activities we organise,” he adds. “But we do it for a passion for the community and the environment, not for any other benefit.”

In the meantime, says Jeenee, despite the difficulties they will carry on in their mission. Of their 70 odd members in SeeGEM, only 10-20 are able to actively participate, due to work and family commitments. But the numbers do not dishearten her. “We’ll do whatever we can.” And that’s how volunteers make a real difference.

For more information on SeeGEM’s activities and initiatives, visit their Facebook page here (https://www.facebook.com/Eco-Greater-Melawati-213040385564093/)