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A Deep Dive Into 8 Malaysian Rivers: The Life It Brings And History It Holds 

Malaysia receives abundant rainfall, averaging 3,000 millimetres annually, which contributes to an estimated annual water resource of some 900 billion cubic metres, most of which is distributed into the 189 river basins throughout the country[1].

Besides serving as vital freshwater ecosystems Malaysia’s rivers also provide numerous benefits for our civilisations. They were used as a form of transportation, a source of food and a vital source of water for farming, drinking, washing and industry. In fact, about 97% of our raw water supply for agriculture, domestic and industrial needs is derived from surface water resources, primarily rivers[1].

In more recent times, these rivers have also become major tourist spots. However, many of them are also threatened by 

We shall be diving deep into eight of Malaysia’s most notable rivers and their importance to people who live near them.

#1: Flowing Through The Heart Of Kuala Lumpur – Klang And Gombak Rivers

The Gombak River (left) merges with the Klang River (right) at Kuala Lumpur/Source: Wikipedia

Flowing through the urban heart of the Klang Valley, the confluence of the Klang and Gombak Rivers formed the backbone of our country’s capital. In fact, it is this confluence that gave Kuala Lumpur its name – the “muddy confluence”[2].

The Klang and Gombak confluence once held an important place in our country’s commerce, serving as the only reliable means of transportation for tin mining operations. As more and more people settled down in the area, the Klang Valley became an important trade centre for the then-capital of Klang. Over the years, the town of Kuala Lumpur grew into a city before eventually supplanting Klang as Malaysia’s capital[3].

Sadly, this growth and industrialisation led to the Klang and Gombak Rivers falling into neglect, with pollution from industry and poor sanitation taking its toll. As of now, the Klang River is far too polluted for any 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, wet markets and squatters[3].

Although the government has attempted to revitalise the river through the “River of Life” project, most of its attempts have largely ended in disappointment. Despite this setback, attempts to clean up Kuala Lumpur’s heart have continued in earnest, with the installation of two solar-powered interceptors on the Klang River in 2019 and 2020 to trap solid waste before it reaches the ocean, as well as log booms in the Klang’s tributaries to intercept plastic waste before it flows into the main river[4].

#2: The Longest River In Malaysia – Rajang River

Source: WWF Facebook

Rising from the Iran Mountains and flowing southwest to Kapit before spilling out into the South China Sea, the Rajang River (also known as Batang Rajang in Sarawakian Malay) is the longest river in Malaysia, at a length of 350 miles (563 km)[5].

The river serves as a vital ecosystem for many of Borneo’s native flora and fauna, supporting important ecosystems and species diversity ranging from montane and highland freshwater ecosystems to mangroves and peatlands[1]. A total of 30 species of mammals and 122 species of birds were recorded along the Rajang basin in 2004. Among the mammal species recorded were the slow loris, black giant squirrel and tarsier, all of which are totally protected[5].

The lower part of the Rajang River basin is also home to one of the largest populations of Cryptocoryne, a genus of aquatic plants that are prized in aquaria. Sadly, many of the plants’ habitats were destroyed by logging, water pollution, farming, and construction[6].

#3: From Trade To Tourism – Melaka River

A river with a history as deep as the city built around it, the Melaka River served as the beginning point of the “Sultanate of Melaka”, one of the most powerful and influential empires of the 1400s where merchants the world over would come to trade and commerce, leading to its nickname of the “Venice of the East”. It was also where Malaysia’s independence was first proclaimed in 1956[7].

These days though, the Melaka River is better associated with tourism. Just a few decades ago, the Melaka River was just as polluted as the Klang River, as the presence of many residential buildings with illegal toilet extensions along the water edges reduced accessibility to the waterfront, and caused the waterway to deteriorate in quality[7].

This changed in the early 2000s when the state government embarked on a river beautification project. Illegal extensions on the river were removed, and a river cleaning programme was instituted to improve water quality. Pedestrian walkways, a river boat cruise and a linear park with interesting focal points were built, while squatters along the upper parts of the river were relocated. Finally, the provision of boardwalks ensured mangrove swamps along the river were preserved[7].

After this successful restoration, the Melaka River became one of Malaysia’s prime tourist spots and a valuable source of tourism income for the city. Indeed, the Melaka River Cruise that plies tourists over the waterway attracts over a million passengers, showcasing the success of the rehabilitation and beautification project that now serves as a benchmark for other states in Malaysia[7].

#4: The Lifeblood Of Two States – Muda River

The longest river in Kedah, although the Muda River originated in the Ulu Muda Forest in Kedah, it subsequently flows into the Penang. Consequently, the river serves as a vital water source for both states, leading to much conflict over its land use rights, especially since Kedah has a greater part of the basin compared to Penang[8].

To settle this dispute, the Environment and Water Ministry (KASA) aims to establish the Muda River Basin Authority (MRBA) to help secure water security in Northern Peninsular Malaysia and protect the Ulu Muda Forest (which serves as a vital water catchment for the northern peninsular states of Kedah, Perlis and Penang). It is hoped that with the MRBA’s establishment, all the disputes between the two states will disappear, and be replaced by mutual collaboration, mutual problem-solving, mutual resource sharing and mutual benefits[8].

#5: Rapids and White Waters – Selangor River

Source: Wikipedia

Flowing through Hulu Selangor, the Selangor River provides a whitewater experience for those wishing to test their courage. The river has a 7km rafting distance with varying rapids from Grades 1 to 4, making it a suitable location for beginners and professional rafters alike. It’s also accessible for people living in the Klang Valley, with just a little over an hour’s drive from Kuala Lumpur[9].

Besides whitewater rafting, there are other ecotourism activities in the surrounding area that one can do such as viewing the fireflies at night or trekking through the relatively unspoilt jungles to view the majestic waterfalls and riverways.

#6: A Long And Storied History – Pahang River

Source: Pahang River

At 459 km in length, the Pahang River is the longest river on the Malay Peninsula. The discharges into the South China Sea a short distance from Pekan, the royal town of Pahang. This is also where Jambatan Abu Bakar, the last bridge across the Pahang River before the sea, is located[10].

Judging from excavations by archaeologists, Pahang’s first human settlement was on the Tembeling River.

From Chinese records, we know that from the 7th to the 13th century Pahang was a vassal state of the Buddhist “Srivijayan Empire”, which had its home in Sumatra.

In the 25th century, Pahang was ruled by the Sultanate of Melaka. During the following century, Pahang became the subject of disputes between Johor, Acheh, the Dutch and the Portuguese. Later, Johor Pahang took over and ruled the state for the next 200 years.

Then, when the Johor Sultanate lost its influence, “Bendahara Wan Ahmad” was appointed by Pahang Sultan in 1888 and a British administrator was appointed. After that, Pahang became a member of the United Malay States until the Japanese invasion. In 1963 the Federation of Malaysia was formed.

#7: Most Biodiverse – Kinabatangan River

Source: Going Places

Malaysia’s second-longest river, the mighty Lower-Kinabatangan River also sustains one of the world’s richest ecosystems. It is also recognized as Sabah’s first and Malaysia’s largest RAMSAR site. Other than being home to Borneo’s indigenous orangutan and proboscis monkey, the surrounding forest is one of only two known places in the world where 10 species of primates can be found[11].

And it is not just primates that make the forests surrounding Kinabatangan their home. All eight species of Hornbills found in Borneo also make this area their home. The most commonly spotted hornbills would be the Rhinoceros Hornbill and the Oriental Pied Hornbill. The diverse species of birds seen here have listed the Lower-Kinabatangan as an Important Bird Area (IBA). Bird enthusiasts from near and far often booked a carefully designed birding tour with travel agents specializing in this niche interest[11].

#8: Flowing Through The Last Refuge Of The Sumatran Rhino -Endau River

Flowing through the state of Johor and emptying out into the South China Sea, the Endau River is one of two rivers that lends its name to the Endau-Rompin National Park.

Endau-Rompin is one of the oldest rainforests in the world and is home to a wide diversity of endemic flora and fauna. The park was long thought to be the last refuge of the critically endangered Sumatran Rhinoceros in Peninsular Malaysia. Sadly, the latest surveys indicate that the Sumatran rhino is no longer present in the park; the last obtained evidence of their presence was in the 1990s, and it may well have gone extinct in the whole of Peninsular Malaysia since then[12].

Though the rhino may be gone, Endau-Rompin still hosts other endangered animals such as the Malayan tiger, tapir, sun bear and elephant. And the Endau River itself possesses a variety of aquatic life including fish species like the Tinfoil Barb/Lampam Sungai (Puntius schwanenfeldii), Apollo Sharkminnow (Luciosoma setigerum), Kelah (Tor douronensis) and Sebarau (Hampala macrolepidota)[12].

Explore our sources

  • Borneo Post. (2014). Healthy rivers benefit the people. Link.
  • TwentyTwo 13. (2019). Bringing life back to Klang River. Link.
  • E. Ding. (2017). Rich Waters. New Strait Times. Link.
  • T.Z. Yun. (2022). Environment: The Klang River clean-up act. The Edge. Link.
  • Place and See. Rajang River. Link.
  • L.S. Huei. (n.d.) Journey to the Mighty Rajang River of Sarawak. Tropical Fish Magazine. Link.
  • A. Zailani. (n.d.). From historical city to happiest city to sustainable city – the Melaka City Centre continues to evolve at the helm of the Historical Melaka City Council. Global Future Cities Programme. Link.
  • C.N. Weng. (2021). Setting up a Muda River Basin Authority a way forward. New Straits Times. Link.
  • LokaLocal. (2017). 7 Natural Spots to Visit in Hulu Selangor. Link.
  • Penang Travel Tips. (n.d.). Sungai Pahang. Link.
  • Feel Sabah. (n.d.). Kinabatangan Wildlife Sanctuary. Link.
  • Rainforest Journal. (2014). Endau Rompin Selai. Link.

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