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Rivers of KL: Portrait of a silent river

The ebb and flow of a river endures despite its ever-changing surroundings. Documentarian Mahen Bala studies the prevailing nature of the rivers in KL, the birthplace of our city

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A bird’s-eye view of the iconic Masjid Jamek, currently undergoing extensive renovations to its landscape as part of the beautification plan envisioned in the River of Life project.

Photo: Mahen Bala

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Ah Pak is visibly with his catch, even if he spends more time disentangling the fish from the net than waiting for a catch.
Photo: Mahen Bala

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The AKLEH is designed to allow free flow of air and sunlight.
Photo: Mahen Bala

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A little girl poses excitedly with one of the many River of Life boards around the city.
Photo: Mahen Bala

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‘I will never let anyone touch this land,’ warns Roselan Yaacob, a retired senior officer with the Malaysian Army who now runs the Isi Rimba Camp in Kg Kemensah.
Photo: Mahen Bala

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The walls lining the river just behind Dayabumi are lined with graffiti by local street artists.
Photo: Mahen Bala

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A boy from a nearby Orang Asli village rocks the river with his trusty air guitar.
Photo: Mahen Bala

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Karim @ Aba picks up a discarded cloth from the river. Many pristine recreational areas across the country suffer from visitors who throw non-biodegradeable items into the river.
Photo: Mahen Bala

A river always takes the path of least resistance, often resulting in a crooked path. From the very first cup to ultra-modern hydroelectric dams, the mastery over flowing water is an instinctive, universal symbol of progress and innovation, a celebration of human achievement in exerting control over nature. We have always revered and relied on the river for transportation, fresh water, food, farming, and even religious rituals. But not anymore. This is the story of Kuala Lumpur and its rivers.

Upstream

Upstream

The large body of water held back by a sliver of concrete wall glistens like polished opal in the first light of the day. This is the Klang Gates Dam, which marks the source of the 120km-long Klang river before it courses down through the city, pouring out into the Straits of Malacca. The 1,288-square-kilometre Klang river basin serves as the main water catchment area for Selangor and is also home to the world’s largest quartz ridge, knuckling up Bukit Tabur.

Further downstream, at Kuala Ampang, the mighty Sungai Klang absorbs Sungai Ampang and topographically transitions from a river with grassy banks into a monsoon drain. Pollutant traps are in place to stop floating garbage and the concrete banks are spacious enough for a few cars.

For the next few kilometres, the river is hidden. The Ampang-Kuala Lumpur Elevated Highway (AKLEH) hovers above it, a carbon copy of the river, designed to transport the overflow of vehicles funnelling into and out of the city. Out of sight and out of mind, and yet the river still runs its course in the shadows. That’s where I meet Ah Pak.

With an old bicycle, a thin singlet on his back and a fishing rod, he reminds me of Hemingway’s Santiago. An 80-year-old tome of living history from China, he grew up witnessing the Japanese Occupation, the communist insurgency and the nation’s independence.

‘I’m just here to kill time. Fishing gives me a bit of excitement. The water here is too dirty, fish can’t be consumed. I just feed it to my cat. But some people eat it.’

On a good day, he catches one or two, sometimes none. As we’re speaking, he bags his fifth catch of the day. He smiles at the river and casts his rod again. I look into the river and see clothes, rotting food, plastic bottles, a football, a motorcycle helmet, a shopping cart. Just above, the elevated highway roars with the rumble of a hungry engine at full throttle.

Kuala Lumpur

Kuala Lumpur

I arrive at the iconic Masjid Jamek Mosque just in time for Friday prayers. Hasty pedestrians squeeze past pop-up stalls on the walkways in front of the Masjid Jamek LRT station, selling deep-fried everything. The river flows underneath, barely visible through a small gap between the road and the station.

The once-fertile land around the historic mosque is now bare, almost unrecognisable from the postcards of old with its show of swaying coconut trees against a curtain of cold concrete and glass. The officer at the Pejabat Urusan explains: ‘All the trees are gone. They’ve removed the coconut and mango trees. It might be a little hot after all this [renovation] is done.’

Excavators tear the ground open to reveal the original steps leading down to the river where the faithful once drew water for ablution. The mosque was designed by AB Hubback and completed in 1909 on the site of a Muslim cemetery. This is where the mighty rivers meet, Sungai Gombak merging into Sungai Klang, a clear Y on the map of Kuala Lumpur. This is the kuala lumpur (muddy confluence) where it all began.

Faded photographs of old KL paint a serene memory, but reality was a cycle of diseases, floods and fires. In 1881, the original settlement by the riverbank burned to the ground, and new, safer brick structures replaced them as Kuala Lumpur was divided into four areas: businesses, craftsmen, brothels and opium dens. Malaria, dysentery, beriberi and tuberculosis were common with inadequate water and waste management in the cramped settlements.

As the city expanded and grew economically into the capital it is today, sanitary and plumbing policies were focused on the health of its inhabitants, gradually weaning them away from the river. The completion of the KL-Port Klang railway line and the reservoirs in Ampang further reduced reliance on the river for transportation and fresh water. Ignored, the river threw tantrums like an irritated child, flooding the city every time it rained heavily upstream. It wasn’t until the massive floods of 1971, which soaked the city for five days, that the authorities decided the river had to be tamed.

‘What river? It’s only a huge drain. You can’t see the drain from here.’ explains Hj Naim, the caretaker of the Muslim Cemetery on Jalan Ampang, who has waded through his fair share of floods for the past 33 years.

‘Before they widened the river and built the concrete walls, it used to flood. The gravestones would be flooded about this high [gesturing to just below his knee]. But now it’s okay.’

The cemetery, just across the Twin Towers, is an oasis of calm shadowed by towering concrete, the final resting place for a thousand quiet souls. The river flows just beyond the garden of headstones, but I can’t see it.

The River of Life

The River of Life

A master plan with the tagline ‘Connecting-Activating-Regenerating-Enlivening (CARE)’, this is the government-led River of Life (ROL) project. The artist paints an imagined city; warm sunlight, crisp air, lush green foliage with spacious parks dotted with pedestrians. The river of the future is turquoise blue, complementing the ochre of today.

‘In Islam, the image of Heaven is always described with a river,’ says Razak Bahrom, a technology consultant who has worked with the government on projects related to the river, roads and bridges. He hands me books, maps and thick reports on the current state of the river.

From its own mission statement, the ROL project aims to do three things: to improve the water quality of the Klang and Gombak rivers from Class 3 (hazardous) to Class 2b (suitable for body contact and recreational activities) by 2020; to enact a master plan for various districts along both rivers for beautification and an increase in economic viability; and lastly, to promote an increase of private sector investment in Greater Kuala Lumpur/Klang Valley.

The project sounds exceedingly promising on paper; a 4 billion ringgit facelift by reprioritising the river in policymaking, to bring people closer to the river. Statistically, the main sources of water pollution are domestic sewage treatment plants (52 percent) and eateries (16 percent), with other sources (industrial, workshops, squatters, etc) contributing the rest. The solid waste from all our daily activities, from a humble plate of nasi kandar for lunch to chemical plants, all drain directly into our rivers.

‘Even the rubbish on the street, if it’s not cleared away, will eventually end up in the river.’ adds Razak. ‘The government can only do so much. All parties must play a part in solving the problem. Cleaning the river is one thing. More importantly, we need to clean our minds. It’s filthy.’

I look through the reports and try to imagine the river, but it’s a blurry mess of digits, percentages, acronyms, case studies and projections.

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Roselan and Heart

Roselan and Heart

Following the long, winding road by the river till the end, I arrive in Kemensah, Hulu Kelang to meet Roselan Yaakob, or Abang Lan to the locals. His staff lead me through a rickety bamboo hut where I find him seated alone, accompanied by swirling wisps of cigarette smoke. He is the spitting image of Colonel Kurtz from ‘Apocalypse Now’, albeit with a scrubbier beard.

‘I was a senior officer with the military. My knowledge and experience are the only things I can pass on,’ he shares, well aware that his legacy demanded something larger than himself or his camp.

A private forest with a focus on preservation and education, the Isi Rimba Camp hosts team-building exercises, extreme sports activities, jungle trekking and educational workshops for students. Roselan himself conducts survival training and readily shares the medical benefits of plants and herbs found only in the rainforest. But the camp grounds are only a small part of Roselan’s ambition.

‘It’s about 400 acres in total. I bought this land so I can safeguard it. I will never allow anyone to touch it.’

A small stream runs through the camp. This is a Class 1 river, meaning I can safely drink from it. I look into the water and I see small fishes gently nibbling at my feet. In a system where the financially privileged are cleaving untouched hills and planting high-rises on every inch of available land, Roselan is an outlier. His passion in preserving the rainforest and educating the young on the fragility of the ecosystem will pay its dividends many times over in a way that can’t possibly be measured in ringgits and cents. Ironically, his camp dangles the same carrot as every other luxury condo advertisement: ‘Back to nature’.

The Silent River

The Silent River

I arrive in Kg Pertak, Kuala Kubu Bharu to meet a stranger who lives by the river. I knock on the door of the house but there is no answer. A man from the house across the street grunts at me, gesturing for me to wait. With a towel around his neck, and two stray dogs at our heels, we walk down to the river. The water is as clear as glass. Splash! He dives into the deepest part of the gushing stream to show me how deep it is. Deaf and mute, we communicate using simple hand gestures and he tells me the story of a man who drowned while swimming under the influence of alcohol.

A few hours later, I meet the man I was looking for earlier, Antares Maitreya, a ‘writer, musician and visionary who moved out of the city in 1992 and found himself living amongst the Temuan Orang Asli in the rainforest’ (from the introduction of his book ‘Tanah Tujuh’, on the legends of the Temuan tribe). His patio overlooks the village and the lone, unnamed road that cuts through it, carrying a steady stream of weekenders who arrive to enjoy an evening dip in the river. I ask him if such a massive effort (the ROL Project) could actually work.

‘No. I have full faith in nature to heal itself. It’s like when you have a cut, you need to leave it undisturbed to heal. If you keep cutting at it again and again, it will only get worse,’ he replies.

I learn from Antares that the man I had met earlier was Karim, or Aba to the village, ‘a man deeply connected with the forest spirits’. Aba stands on a huge boulder overlooking the gentle river with its repeating pattern of shallow streams, deadly whirlpools and gentle rapids. The river and the forest are silent to him.

In the evenings, childish laughter come pouring over the rapids, the playground of Orang Asli children, while the men hunt for fish and the women wash clothes in the river. Regressing to simpler ways, my thoughts also take the path of least resistance, just like the river. With a deep breath, I sink into the watery womb of Mother Nature. Sunlight spears through the leaves, illuminating the pebbles at the bottom of the pool. I look into the river and see Aba gliding across my gaze.

Downstream

Downstream

From the Pasar Seni LRT Station, I make my way down to the river bank where the homeless find shelter under a makeshift tent made of worn cloth, cardboard and rope. Freshly washed clothes and shoes lay under a strip of sunlight piercing through the overhead bridge above.

Far from Kemensah, the river grows distant. The walls are higher, the banks wider. Even on my knees, the river is beyond reach. Rain washes over bare hilltops and gushes into the river, but it no longer floods the way it used to. We now have engineers, consultants and politicians to ‘fix’ the river instead of changing our own ways.

Flushing solid waste directly into the river is also, unfortunately, the path of least resistance for most of us. We know it’s wrong and yet we do it anyway, partly because there is no alternative, and it would take too much effort to find one. Upstream, the river is a source of livelihood; and downstream, a garbage dump. Besides, it’s not our job anyway. Someone should take care of the river, be it the federal or state government, NGOs or Roselan, it doesn’t matter. Passing the buck to someone else also requires very little effort.

I look into the river and trace the outline of gleaming skyscrapers, interrupted by assorted flotsam. I look closer, hoping for a revelation, a subtle hint to the answer the river truly needs.

The river, as always, is silent and all I see is my own reflection.

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Rivers of KL: Portrait of a silent river

A river always takes the path of least resistance, often resulting in a crooked path. From the very first cup to ultra-modern hydroelectric dams, the mastery over flowing water is an instinctive, universal symbol of progress and innovation, a celebration of human achievement in exerting control over nature. 

Read more
By: Time Out KL contributors

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