The River of Life project – bringing life into the river


River of Life projectBeautification works at the river.

The river that flows languidly into the back alleys of Kuala Lumpur had a glorious past. It was once the gateway into the city – one that brought tin prospectors on a perilous journey into then the almost impenetrable jungle to open up land for mining purposes. Once these mines started thriving, they were eventually followed by merchants who set up shop and a community took root. Kuala Lumpur, which literally means muddy confluence, was founded in 1857 at the confluence of the Gombak and Klang Rivers.

Today, the river which gave birth to the city has faded into the background; with its banks cemented and raised to prevent flash floods, the river now looks like a huge monsoon drain.

“When I first came to Kuala Lumpur, I thought that it was a huge monsoon drain until someone told me that it is a river. To me, this is a rather sad ending for a river,” said Danny Teo, a Sabahan, who migrated to the city about 15 years ago.

A murky existence

“Murky is an understatement when describing the Klang River that runs through this city. I walk by it every day to work from the train station, trying hard not to breathe in the stench,” said Saleha R, who works in the city branch of a local bank.

While upstream on the hills in the north-east of Kuala Lumpur the river is clear and clean enough for picnics and a swim, the Klang River becomes murkier as it heads downstream. By the time it hits the city, the river becomes a toxic concoction of garbage, sewage and other dangerous effluence.

In the last 50 years, the river has become a convenient garbage dump with about 77,000 tonnes of rubbish dumped into it each year, making it the dirtiest river in Malaysia. Apart from garbage and sewage, furniture, fridges, utensils, machineries, mattresses, even carcasses have found their way into the river.

This was the same river whose once pristine water was used for ablution before prayers at colonial-Moorish style Masjid Jamek in the 1900s. The landmark mosque stands at the exact birthplace of Kuala Lumpur – the confluence of the Klang and Gombak rivers.

Klang River originates in the highlands, 25 km northeast of Kuala Lumpur. It is joined by 7 major tributaries, including the GombakBatuKerayongJinjang, Keroh, Bunus,and Ampang rivers. It flows to the west, winding its way to the Straits of Malacca.

Bringing the river back from the dead

The grand stairways of the Masjid Jamek which was unearthed during excavation works.The grand stairways of the Masjid Jamek which was unearthed during excavation work.

The River of Life Project aims to breathe life into a river that has degenerated into a filthy waterway. Once there is life in the river, it will not only change its aesthetics and that of its surrounding areas, but also people’s perception of the river, said the Performance Management & Delivery Unit (PEMANDU) Associate Director for the NKEA (Greater Kuala Lumpur/Klang Valley) Krishnavenee Krishnan.

However, reversing years of abuse and neglect is a daunting task that comes with a hefty bill; about RM4.4 billion has been allocated for this three-phase project, of which RM3.4 billion is for river cleaning efforts.

“This is a mammoth project, which includes the cleaning of the 110 km stretch of the Klang and Gombak Rivers; master planning and beautification as well as efforts to spur economic investments into the areas surrounding the river beautification corridor.

“Currently, river cleaning efforts are being carried to transform  to Class IIB, which is deemed suitable for recreational use.”

This she said, is a multi-agency effort involving the Department of Irrigation and Drainage (DID), Department of Sewerage Services, Kuala Lumpur City Hall as well as the municipal councils of Selayang and Ampang, among others.

The benchmark for this project is Seoul’s Cheong-gye-Cheon River and Singapore’s Kallang River – the regional success story for river transformation.

The River Cleaning phase is being spearheaded by the DID, backed by over 20 agencies across four Ministries and two Selangor local authorities. Work is about 59% done, and this includes the installation of 231 communal grease traps, wastewater and treatment plants in 5 wet markets in Kuala Lumpur that are Pasar Harian Selayang, Pasar Sentul, Pasar Jalan Kelang Lama, Pasar Borong Kuala Lumpur, and Pasar Air Panas.

Also ongoing are the beautification efforts at the heritage quarter of the city centre surrounding the iconic Masjid Jamek. Construction and excavation work there has unearth the grand staircase that once provided access to river for ablution.

“The heritage quarter of the city centre is where important historical landmarks of Kuala Lumpur, including Masjid Jamek, Bangunan Sultan Abdul Samad, St Mary’s Cathedral and Panggung Bandaraya are located. Beautification efforts in this area are very much focused on conservation work to preserve not only the architecture but also the character of these buildings.

“Here we want to draw in investors who are able to appreciate the value in history and conservation.”

She said the plan is to transform Leboh Pasar or the old market square area into a heritage themed F&B hub. “We are picturing alfresco dining by the river, with riverside restaurants opening up to the picturesque view of the river instead backing it. An area where both locals and tourists can enjoy the river and unwind.”

The beautification would also include raising the level of the river via a collapsible weir, which would completely change the aesthetics of the river.

The River Beautification initiative, which is focused on the 10.7 km riverfront stretch from Sentul to Seputeh, is led by KL City Hall’s Physical Planning Department. There will public parks, pedestrian walkways and bicycle lanes built along this stretch, along with the expected premium shops, restaurants, office buildings, and homes fronting the attractive revitalised waterway.

The River of Life Project at the heritage quarter.The River of Life Project at the heritage quarter.

The river pays back

The River of Life Project is an initiative that not only elevates the liveability of Kuala Lumpur city but also increases the value of the neglected land by the river, spurring economic growth here and surrounding areas. According to PEMANDU, the revenue generated from the multiplier effect of this transformation is expected to surpass the initial cost of the project.

Along the 10.7 km stretch, there are plans for 14,000 new homes for 35,000 residents and about one million square metres of commercial space providing jobs for 27,000 people. Public transportation usage is expected to go up from the present 15% to 60%.

“However, development in this area will not cut off public access to the river. We want to encourage development that allows for accessibility and equity. The inclusion of public parks, lanes and walkway, will enable people from all walks of life to enjoy the river,” said Krishnavenee.

The water treatment plant at Pasar Harian Selayang. The water treatment plant at Pasar Harian Selayang.

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