The Story of Klang River

If you climb to the peak of Bukit Tabur, part of the world’s longest quartz ridge in the Gombak district of Selangor, you can see the familiar skyline of Kuala Lumpur and the Klang Gates Dam, which holds Malaysia’s first water reservoir. Beyond it, somewhere deep in the tropical forest of the Titiwangsa mountain range that forms the backbone of Peninsula Malaysia, is where the Klang River begins.

On a map, the reservoir is a jagged pool of blue that narrows into a rivulet which meanders for approximately 120 kilometres southwest through the state of Selangor, the federal territory of Kuala Lumpur, and then Selangor again before discharging into the Straits of Malacca, where Port Klang, the country’s largest seaport, bustles. Along the way, the river breaks off into thirteen major tributaries and drains a basin of approximately 1,288 square kilometres. This is the most densely populated area in Malaysia, and encompasses major cities and towns like Kuala Lumpur, Ampang Jaya, Selayang, Petaling Jaya, Subang Jaya, Shah Alam and Klang, with a mixed total population of more than 4.5 million.

Photograph by Mahen Bala

View of the confluence at Masjid Jamek, with Gombak River on the left and Klang River on the right.

Most photographs you’ll see of the Klang River shows it passing right through the centre of our capital city, where it collides with the Gombak River at the steps of Masjid Jamek, one of Malaysia’s oldest mosques. It’s fitting, as this is where, it’s believed, Kuala Lumpur—”muddy confluence”—got its name.

It’s impossible to talk about the history of Kuala Lumpur without talking about the history of the Klang River. Just as it’s impossible to talk about the Klang River without talking about Klang, the old capital of Selangor before it moved to Kuala Lumpur in 1880, before Kuala Lumpur stood on its own in 1974.

As with any origin story, we begin with a name.

"Klang"

Klang has been settled by humans since ancient times, evidenced by the discovery of artefacts dating back to the Bronze Age, circa 300 B.C. Even as early as 1405, when the Chinese eunuch explorer Admiral Cheng Ho made the first of his seven “treasure voyages” in and around the South China Sea and the Indian Ocean, he was guided by maritime charts that already had the Klang River marked out and named.

The first time Klang, as a territory, is referred to in writing—in a form recognisable to its modern moniker—is in the Nagarakretagama, a Javanese poem composed in the Jawi script from the mid-14th century, where Kelang is described as one of the dependencies of the Majapahit empire. Klang was similarly romanised as Kelang, Kalang or Kolong in the Sejarah Melayu (Malay Annals), in which it’s described as a political outpost of the Malacca Sultanate before Mahmud Shah surrendered to the Portuguese in 1511.

The historian C.O. Blagden thought it possible that the culture of Klang during this period derived from the Khmer-speaking Funan, and found that two Mon-Khmer words were suggestive of “Klang”: klong and galang, or galong—“storehouse”, possibly referring to the many warehouses in Klang as it served as an important port at the time, according to the Klang Municipal Council’s website.

The website also cites a likely, but less illustrious possibility: that Klang simply means “canal” or “waterway”, due to the self-evident geography of the area.

The river that conjured the city

The story of Klang River is the story of tin. By the 1820s, the Klang River basin had already become known as an important centre of tin mining. More than 20 villages with an estimated total population of 1,500, made up mainly of ethnic Malays from Sumatra, had cropped up along the river to search for tin. But it wasn’t until new mining techniques and machinery, imported along with Chinese labourers, made it possible to reach deposits at much greater depths that the industry took a leap forward. It was around this time that the story of Kuala Lumpur began.

In 1857, the chief of the Klang Valley, Raja Abdullah, sent a party of 87 Chinese miners to the confluence of the Klang and Gombak rivers to prospect for tin in the valley’s upper reaches. All the men would perish eventually from malaria, but the mines were open for business—at Ampang, Pudu, Batu—and soon, there was a steady and profitable trade going.

Image courtesy of the National Archives

Klang River , Selangor

At this time, the Klang River was the only effective means of transportation. The historian J.M. Gullick described it as “the only highway through the jungle”. Boats would make the four-day transit to and from the town of Klang to the confluence of the Klang and Gombak rivers to load and offload their cargoes, since it was the furthest point upriver through which heavy boats could traverse. As ancillary trade grew, Kuala Lumpur became a trade centre serving the outlying mines.

Even the devastating effects of the Selangor Civil War of 1867-1874, which destroyed the mines, didn’t dim Kuala Lumpur’s prospects. Under the watch of Yap Ah Loy, then the village kapitan, the town was rebuilt. Just after Selangor came under British colonial rule in 1874, the Resident General of the Federated Malay States, Frank Swettenham, visited Kuala Lumpur and declared it “the best mining village I have seen”, and in just a few years, Kuala Lumpur would overtake Klang to become the new Selangor capital. Similarly, it would survive the extensive fire in early 1881 and the flood later that same year, which destroyed numerous buildings, including Yap Ah Loy’s house. But some places persist despite the odds stacked against them, through the sheer will of its people.

Map courtesy of the Malaysian Branch of the Royal Asiatic Society

Klang River and Kuala Lumpur city centre in 1895

During this time, there were three main communities living along the riverbanks, divided into three sections by the “Y” where the Klang and Gombak rivers meet. The Chinese Hakka traders were clustered around the market square(today Old Market Square), separated by one fork of the Klang River from the Malay village that took up the triangle of land formed by the confluence, and which was home to a Muslim cemetery until 1909 when Masjid Jamek was built in its place. Across the river along the west bank, the British colonial administration built their government offices and bungalows, so as to have a better vantage point of their subjects and to be a safe distance away in case of uprisings. Later, bridges would be built to connect the different communities.

By the 1890s, Kuala Lumpur had grown into a sizeable town with a population of about 20,000. It would continue to grow decade after decade even after the tin rush ended, with an estimated population today of 1.7 million, spurred on by the mass production of rubber and palm oil, and then the rise of the manufacturing industries. Even in the early days, this boom of population and growth, coupled with natural disasters and disease, contributed to sanitary and pollution problems and neglect. Eventually, this would all take a toll on the river.

The river changes

There is a certain irony in the story of the Klang River. The river had created the city, but as the city developed,
it outgrew the river.

Image courtesy of the National Archives

Klang River flowing through Kuala Lumpur

According to George Peet, a former editor of The Straits Times who visited Kuala Lumpur in the 1930s, the death knell had sounded when the Kuala Lumpur–Klang railway line was completed in 1886. As the population and the demands of industry grew, the four-hour boat journey was no longer an efficient means of transportation. In the first of the modifications that would be made to the river in service of human needs, one bend of the river was straightened to provide space for railway use. Peet wrote that “with the completion of the railway, the state government ceased to keep the river clear for navigation”. As road transportation arrived on a larger scale, the Klang River fell into further disuse and neglect.

Today, the Klang River is mainly used to supply water, though it is not the major water source, since most of the potable water for Klang Valley is supplied from the dams in the Selangor River basin. According to the Global Environmental Centre, the Klang River and its tributaries supply 1128.4 million litres per day for Selangor and Kuala Lumpur. The Klang Gates Dam reservoir alone, which has a capacity of more than 25 million litres, routes water directly to a water treatment plant in Bukit Nanas and produces 145 million litres of treated water each day.

Photograph by Vignes Balasingam

Closer to the Klang Gate Dam, the Klang River boasts pristine, clear waters teeming with life. As part of the ROL-POP (Public Outreach Programme), the community of Kampung Taman Warisan is empowered with the right resources and technical know-how to effectively monitor and safeguard the river.

Aside from the headwaters, the Klang River is too polluted to be of much practical or recreational use. According to a government agency’s report, the water quality at the upper reaches of the Klang River basin is Class I or II, but the quality steadily worsens to Class III, IV or V—meaning it’s not suitable for body contact—as the river wends downstream, due to effluents from sewage treatment plants, commercial and residential centres, industries and workshops, food industries, restaurants and wet markets, and squatters.

Photograph by Mahen Bala

One of the river cleaning methods employed by relevant government agencies is the log-boom, a floating barrier designed to stop floating rubbish from going further downstream. Pictured here is only a small portion of the massive amount of waste collected every day, mostly originating from residential areas.

Moreover, due to the trash traps installed and the shallowness of the river due to siltation and man-made modifications, the Klang River is no longer navigable by boat for most of its length. In the middle section of the river basin, where it’s mostly densely populated, it’s sometimes impossible to get to the riverbank because of the hemming-in effect of the surrounding development, and the days of strolling along its banks, swimming and fishing and catching giant freshwater prawns have receded into history.

In fact, in the Kuala Lumpur city centre, the river no longer looks much like a river, having succumbed its natural soil and vegetation to slabs of concrete. Its appearance has earned it unflattering comparisons to a monsoon drain, and its murky brown waters to teh tarik. Yet, it’s hard to discredit the logic behind man’s attempt to dominate the river, to control its ebbs and flows, because the story of the Klang River would be incomplete without the story of floods.

Image courtesy of the National Archives

Floods in Kuala Lumpur

From the early days, two major floods contributed significantly to what the Klang River looks like today. In 1926, a deluge—”the mother and father of all floods”, as Gullick described it—submerged the town to a depth of three feet, when the river was obstructed by silt carried down from upstream mines. “As the water rose, the staff of the Chartered Bank made frantic, but unavailing, efforts to keep the water out of the vaults. When the flood subsided, notes to the value of several million dollars were taken from the treasury to be dried in the open air under the eyes of the armed guard,” Gullick wrote. Then there was the massive flood of 1971, which lasted five days as a result of torrential monsoon rains and killed 32 people.

The result of these disasters was a Klang River that was drastically straightened, deepened and widened, to mitigate flood occurrences. The river began to resemble a canal (or a big drain), its banks transformed from mud and natural vegetation to slabs of concrete.

Image sourced from http://smarttunnel.com.my/

An overview of how the SMART Tunnel system channels excess rainwater away from the city.

Still, the problem persisted, with major floods occurring every decade. In another effort to mitigate the floods, in 2003 the federal government built the 9.7km-long submerged Stormwater Management and Road Tunnel (SMART Tunnel) that could carry traffic as well as stormwater runoff, intended to solve the problem of flash floods in the Jalan Melayu-Masjid India area of Kuala Lumpur and traffic jams along Jalan Sungai Besi and the Lok Yew flyover at Pudu.

And still, the problem persists. Worse, according to a government agency, flooding problems are increasing from year to year, and they are no longer limited to the rainy season. In recent years, Kuala Lumpur and the district of Petaling has been hit the worst. Numerous possible contributing causes have been highlighted, including increasing siltation due to heavy construction along the riverbanks and unsustainable rubbish disposal practices. Or it could be the whims of nature, wreaking havoc in a world in flux.

Photograph by Vignes Balasingam

All along the river, people still rely on the river for various resources, food, water, washing, bathing

Still, we build. The still rapidly growing city and its burgeoning population demands it. In further alienation of its original, natural features, Klang River was transformed into a transportation corridor in the late 1990s. A modern public transportation system—the Ampang Elevated Highway and Light Railway Transit—was constructed in a parallel line above the river, straightening and concretising it further.

The future of Klang River

After decades of neglect, the ambitious, multibillion-ringgit River of Life project is underway to bring some semblance of life back to the Klang River and its waterfront. Kickstarted in 2011 and overseen by Pemandu, and involving the cooperation of federal and state ministries and agencies, the project aims to clean up the river waters and beautify the riverbank, in hopes that a rejuvenated river will attract the development of public, commercial and residential spaces and spark the beginning of a long-lasting revival.

Photograph by Vignes Balasingam

Gross pollutant traps(GTP) are employed to filter and isolate physical particles from water flowing out of residential areas. The waste is then pumped out to be processed at a plant and the traps regularly cleaned by contractors.

The river cleaning phase will continue to be carried out along a 110-kilometre stretch along the Klang River, covering the municipal districts of Selayang, Ampang Jaya and Kuala Lumpur. The aim is to rehabilitate the water from its current Class III–V water quality to Class IIB by 2020, so as to be suitable for body contact and recreation. Other measures include building new water treatment plants, upgrading existing sewage facilities and drainage systems, and dealing with industrial discharge and general rubbish disposal in a sustainable manner. With the Klang River’s water quality improved, both locals and visitors to Kuala Lumpur would be able to swim and fish as they did in the old days, even partake in water sports like canoeing.

As for the riverbank, beautification works are focused along the Klang River’s most visible stretch: the 10.7 kilometres along the central section, where it flows just below the steps of Masjid Jamek. It’s a symbolic move, this spot being Kuala Lumpur’s birthplace and a well-known landmark. But a city is always full of surprises: something the construction workers soon found out when they began their work around the mosque, which, in 2014, turned up its grand staircase, long buried under soil from around the time the railway was developed. The curved staircase has now been restored, and if you imagine hard enough, you can almost see what it was like when sampans would drift right up to the steps, when Muslims would dip their hands into the river to perform their ablutions before prayer.

Photograph by Mahen Bala

A panoramic view of ongoing beautification work along Klang River within the Precint 7 area which includes Dataran Merdeka, Masjid Jamek, Pasar Seni and surrounding areas.

The vision of an idyllic riverfront right in the centre of Kuala Lumpur with wide boardwalks, lined with pedestrian walkways and bicycle lanes, and populated with public parks, cafes and shops, galleries and homes overlooking the water is a gratifying one. It’s also something of a dare, considering the reality in its place right now: a large “drain”, mostly invisible, never a destination in its own right.

But Rome wasn’t built in a day, and our cities are often what our imaginations make it. If all goes according to plan, the Klang River will transform from divider to connector: between the diverse inhabitants of the city, between nature and concrete, between heritage and modernity. Just imagine the river as an integral part of the city, so that when one thinks of Kuala Lumpur, one cannot help but think of the Klang River—the same way one cannot help but think of the Thames when they think of London, or the Seine when they think of Paris. Just imagine.