Sungai Keroh: Kuala Lumpur’s loneliest river

The foundation of our capital city isn’t on the soft earth it sits on, but on the many rivers that flow through it. What would Kuala Lumpur be today, if there were no rivers to feed the tin mines and rubber plantations of the capitalists? Where would have the early settlers made their home, if not on the banks of the river that carried the sampans and steamers between Kuala Lumpur and the port of Klang?

Even for those who call Kuala Lumpur home, Sungai Keroh remains an unfamiliar name, despite the river beginning and ending in very familiar places.

A Fresh Start

Water flowing over the rocks of the Kroh Waterfall and into a pool is as pure as water could ever be, a far cry from the state of the river just beyond the green walls of FRIM.

Sungai Keroh begins as a waterfall at the Sungai Kroh Picnic Area within the Forest Research Institute of Malaysia (FRIM), a nature refuge popular with the locals for its lovely nature trails and a breath of clean fresh air. Surrounded by lush greenery, it is hard to imagine that it was once barren mining land.

Established in 1926, the site was chosen by the institute’s first chief research officer, Dr. F.W. Foxworthy as being suitable for experimental plantations and the setting up of a forest school. Its early efforts started with the cultivation of dipterocarps, tall hardwood trees as nursing trees that would aid in the reforestation process.

Today, it is a favourite with the locals, and visitors afar. Not a morning goes by without the guard at the entrance smiling and waving at the steady stream of morning joggers. In the evenings, a more relaxed crowd arrives to enjoy a walk along one of the many trails.

Zakir collects a water sample of the stream flowing out of FRIM to determine the quality of water at the head of Sungai Keroh. The Department of Evironment (JAS) conducts regular sampling of water from various points along all the rivers so the health and safety of our rivers can be rigorously monitored.

At the foot of the slope, I chanced upon one of FRIM’s guide, Khairuddin Mohd Ali who has just concluded a guide up to the canopy walked. “While, most of the area here started off as a tin mine, the area surrounding Sungai Keroh itself started off as a failed vegetable farm when the British unofficially started the institute in 1921,” he explained. “The river plays an important part in reforestation as it helps fertilise the soil and supports the growth of trees in the area.”

Water samples collected by JAS is then sent to a lab where it is tested for the presence of contaminants, minerals, microorganisms, and diseases. Water conditions at the upstream of all our rivers are considered very healthy, and deteriorates rapidly as soon as it flows through a residential area.

“Today, the river is in good health, the presence of juvenile fishes in the water is a testament to the fact.” He added that the best indicator for water quality is the presence of little prawns in the water, and up the 330 metre hill where Sungai Keroh descends from, the waters were teeming with them.

Just past the gates of the research institute, the river ducks under the many roads and houses of Taman Ehsan. Since the back of the terrace houses faces the river, many of the residents demonstrate a sense of communal ownership by cultivating makeshift gardens of banana, belimbing, and ornamental plants on the riverbank.

Fresh water flowing out of FRIM and into Taman Ehsan. Here it is common to see riverbanks occupied by a healthy crop of plants of all kinds, from flowers to banana. And yet it is here, in paradise itself, that the river begins to be polluted.

For Kak Non, a resident of Taman Ehsan of 20 years, the name of the river escapes her. Free from leaves and clutter, she treats the riverbank like her own home with Heliconia flowers, belimbing and assorted potted plants.

A few houses away from her, is the humble dwelling of 36-year old Ahmad Muhammad, which curiously lacks a garden like all the other houses. “Here most of us have plants in the front of the house, adjoining the field,” he explained. When I asked him what do the locals calls the river here, he simply shrugged. “Is it Sungai Kepong?”

Kepong, Past & Present

Downstream, the river flows through the heart of bustling Kepong, too occupied with new housing estates, commercial and industrial centres to linger on its chaotic tin-mining past. In the late 19th century the booming tin industry attracted fortune seeking Chinese émigrés to the area. The migration was facilitated by the Chinese Kapitan, Yap Ah Loy, who also exerted control over the tin mines.

Presumably due to industrial runoff, Sungai Keroh flowing out of Kepong turns a deep red. Pictured here is a log boom(left) and a trash rake(right), river cleaning facilities built and managed by JPS in its mandate to keep our rivers clean.

Water is used to separate tin deposits from dirt, with the help of a sluice box. This can be done in a number of ways; by hand, using a panning technique or the use of a gravel pump to jet water into the ore bearing ground. Sungai Keroh supplied the mines of Kepong with the water needed.

In its heyday, Malaysia produced roughly 30% of the world’s supply and in 1970, this translated to 73,795 tonnes of tin contributing 19.6% of the gross domestic product. This continued until the collapse of tin prices in 1985. Dropping US$6 to US$4 a pound, the sharp decline in revenue (when measured in large volumens) resulted with the capitalists unable to cope with increasing operating costs, forcing the closure of 30% of the mines in the country and the elimination of approximately 5,000 jobs.

An entire industry came to a halt, and all that’s left is a murky(keroh) river.

Downtown

Water is seen draining out of an Indah Water Sewage Treatment Plant into Sungai Keroh, close to Jalan Metro Prima in Kepong. The area is densely occupied by condominiums, food courts, and small-and-medium enterprises on the banks of the river.

Further downstream still, close to AEON Shopping Centre at the heart of Kepong, the once clear river takes on a brackish appearance. Contaminants from restaurants and residential areas along the way accumulate in floating piles.

By the bridge of Jalan Metro Prima alongside the flats, a couple of guys spend the afternoon fishing. Having started half an hour ago, Rahid and Aziz Arifin have already managed to secure a meal. A mature catfish that is about seven inches long sits in a bucket on the bank. With crickets and worms on their hooks, this is a regular activity that started one year ago.

“For those who work in the factories and construction in the area, this is a popular fishing spot,” Aziz explains. He added that some even used nets, further downstream where the waters are not as deep.

Among the species that Aziz and Rahid could catch in the river are catfish, tilapia and occasionally, the sweet-fleshed haruan. “Just last week, we caught a catfish three feet long. About five kilograms.” Occasionally, their lines come up empty.

As one walks towards the Segambut Komuter Station, the river flows underneath a bridge and along the railway line headed into the city. The banks of the river are being aggressively developed with more condominiums, all of them facing away from the river.

Entering Segambut as the river continues its south-easterly course, the water takes on an even darker hue. As if to welcome the river, the names of the roads in Segambut take on an aquatic turn. Here Jalan Udang Galah turns into Jalan Udang Ketak before ending up at Jalan Udang Kertas, an ironic homage to the beginnings of the river.

Friend or Foe?

Despite being located in close proximity to Sri Hartamas and Mont Kiara, one of the more desirable locations in the city, with a density of luxury condominiums unlike anywhere else in KL, Kampung Segambut Dalam has managed to evade the attention of property developers for the longest time. Today, the old village is a palimpsest of wooden and concrete houses, circled by condos, villas, mansions, and investments of every kind. Like most old kampongs of its kind, there is a river running through it.

Both the driver of the excavator and the tractor tasked with removing sand from the river bed are taking a brief respite from the sweltering sun. The river flows slowly, only several inches deep in most places.

Jalan Segambut runs parallel to the river, but the latter is only visible if you go looking for it, veiled by foliage in places and overrun by houses built to the very edge of the bank everywhere else. At the entrance of a newly built Al-Ubudiah mosque , the river is a large concrete storm drain, with the water only a few inches deep. An excavator is hard at work scooping sand out of the river. This time, the goal is not tin, but to keep the occasionally raging river in check.

A common sight in Kampung Segambut Dalam is makeshift-turned-permanent homes built so close to the river that they literally overflow into it. Rubbish, raw sewage and anything loose will always end up in the river if not disposed off properly.

Unlike the seasonal floods in other parts of the country, urban flash floods are unpredictable. A few years may go by without incident, but in some years it might flood up to four times. The floods are not a new phenomenon to Kampung Segambut Dalam native of five decades, Nazri. “In the past all of the houses in the kampung were built on stilts due to the floods.”

The newer concrete houses are built with certain designs to safeguard against the waters. He pointed to his house which has a low wall built into it to keep the waters out. “In the last flood, the water came up to here,” he said pointing to the wall in front of the entrance with a mere centimetre to spare.

In many ways, Kampung Segambut Dalam has remained exactly as it has always been, a kampong in the heart of the city. Pictured here is one of the smaller tributaries of Kerayong, flowing through dense settlements, many of which have built their sinks and toilets over the flowing water.

He said that as recently as the 80’s, Sungai Keroh played a more prominent role in their kampung life. As a boy, Nazri says, he used to swim in the river all the time. “Despite the name, its waters were normally crystal clear with a sandy river bed.” The river is also a source of food for the villagers, as its waters teem with catfish.

“Back then, this village was more peaceful with most of the villagers working the land, either tending to vegetable and fruit farms or tapping rubber,” recalled Nazri

With property prices skyrocketing in Mont Kiara, Kampung Segambut Dalam is beginning to feel the spillover effect with more fringe residential projects coming up.

That all changed in the 1990’s when development began to creep into the area, and concrete walls were erected to better contain the river. He shared that the lure of better paying jobs attracted many Malaysians from other states to the capital and some of them now call Kampung Segambut Dalam home.

But the village is not a bubble, for some the urbanisation of KL brought them here. They have adapted to the changes in their environment, no room for sentimental attachment. To them the transformation of their village is another opportunity, just as the rubber once was, another hope for the future.

The Last Mile

Rivers are doomed to receive pollutants of all shapes and sizes. Pictured here is a discarded mattress, slowly making its way downstream underneath the North-South Highway at the edge of Kampung Segambut Dalam

At the final stretch of Jalan Segambut, Sungai Keroh flows past a row of workshops, warehouses and a self-storage facility, now expanding to a span of 12 metres. Despite having lived here for over 18 years, Fazlie Ismail, is still unsure of the name of the river. He guessed Sungai Segambut before being corrected by one of his colleagues at the music equipment warehouse.

Sungai Kerayong flows underneath Jalan Kuching, as it makes it way through industrial areas before draining into Batu River.

Asking him of the changes to the river over the noticed over the years, he said that in some ways it was better in the past. “Back then, there was less pollution over the area. Especially, with the amount runoff coming from the workshops and factory in the area.”

Thankfully the city council remembers the river. “Previously, the city would only maintain the retaining walls of the river but over the last 5 years there have been more effort to reduce the pollution in the river,” Fazlie explains. “With the installation of rubbish traps and drain covers to collect the debris from the drains of the industrial area. Regardless of how it was, things are looking up in the future for the river.”

Single use plastic bottles remain a huge problem in waste management. Every month, the authorities are forced to scoop out more than 17 tons of waste from log booms and pollutant traps across the city’s river network.

At Akka’s Curry House on the easternmost reaches of Segambut, I chanced upon septuagenarian Palaniandy Vellusamy, who has been living around the area since 1967. Barely half a kilometre from we are, Sungai Keroh ends its journey into the better known Sungai Batu.

“Back then the river was worse, nobody would even think of fishing or swimming in the river.” He explained that the squatters living further up the river had no proper plumbing. “Every time they went to toilet, it would end up in the in the river,” he exclaimed.

Splash! Not much thought went through this man’s mind as he dropped a bag of rubbish into the river. This lackadaisical attitude is suffocating our rivers, and unfortunately all too prevalent among Malaysians.

Another problem faced by the residents was the frequent floods. “Before the city council built the retaining walls 20 years ago, floods were a regular occurrence here but with the walls the river can now flow smoothly and is no longer a threat.”

Before taking my leave I asked if the residents call the river by any other name? “No” he replied confidently, “it was always Batu River.”

At this point we were about 500m away from where the river drains into Sungai Batu, one large drain flowing into an even larger one.

A Better Tomorrow

It’s hard to think about Sungai Keroh without dreaming of the lush greenery of it’s place of birth, FRIM. In a city where land is being cleared and trees felled without restraint, it is inspiring to see such an institution working hard to preserve what’s truly precious in our world.

Sungai Keroh isn’t the loneliest river because it is hidden away like Sungai Bunus, but because we fail to see it as a functional part of our city. We build many layers of roads and highways over it, throw everything we no longer want into it, and only reserve the back alleys of our settlements for it.

Kuala Lumpur has always been, and will always be, in a constant state of renewal. Progress and development is an integral part of any civilisation, and but it must be done sustainably. Change should be for the better, and not at the expense of the environment, and by extension, our lives.

The River of Life project aims to rejuvenate our rivers and surrounding areas by fostering a closer relationship between people and the flowing bodies of water. Government agencies are working to their limit to literally rid the rivers of contaminants and rubbish. But all of these efforts can only achieve so much, if we continue to think and behave as we have always done. If the residents of KL can brave through traffic to soak themselves in the pristine waters of Keroh upstream, then there must be a way we can start caring for it the rest of the way.