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From Pristine To Polluted: The History Of The Klang River And Shared Efforts To Restore It 

The Klang River has been crucial to Kuala Lumpur since the early days of tin mining. However, over time, the once mighty river has become polluted and filled with garbage.

Various attempts have been made to restore the Klang River to its former state. But have these efforts succeeded? Let’s find out.

History Of The Klang River

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. It is thought that it is this confluence that gave Kuala Lumpur its name – the “muddy estuary”[1].

The discovery of ancient artefacts from the Bronze Age, circa 300 B.C., indicates just how long humans have settled in the Klang area. The Klang River itself had already been marked out and named in maritime charts as early as 1405. These charts guided Chinese explorer Admiral Cheng Ho as he made the first of his seven “treasure voyages” in and around the South China Sea and the Indian Ocean[2].

The Klang and Gombak confluence once held an important role in our country’s commerce, serving as the only reliable mode of transport 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 Selangor, Klang. 

By the 1820s, there were already an estimated 1,500 people –  mainly ethnic Malays from Sumatra – who had come to search for tin in the area, constituting more than 20 villages along the river[2].

The development of novel mining techniques and machinery, which were imported along with Chinese labourers, made it possible to reach tin ore deposits at much greater depths – causing the industry to take a significant leap forward. 

Stemming from this development, Kuala Lumpur was born, initially as a trade centre for the outlying mines. By the 1890s, the population of Kuala Lumpur had grown to about 20,000 people, turning it into a fairly large town. Kuala Lumpur would only continue to grow over the years, developing from a town into a mighty city before eventually supplanting Klang as Selangor’s capital[2].

A River Choking With Pollution

Sadly, urbanisation and industrialisation took its toll on the Klang and Gombak Rivers.

With the increasing demands of the population and industry, a four-hour boat ride across the river was simply no longer considered efficient. Thus, more practical means of transportation were needed, which led to the construction of railway lines. 

During the construction of the Kuala Lumpur-Klang railway line, one bend of the Klang River was straightened out to provide space for railway use, the first of many modifications to the river. 

Subsequently, as road transportation became more widely used and preferred, the Klang River fell into further disuse and deterioration[2].

The Klang River is currently used primarily to supply water, although most of the potable water for Klang Valley is supplied from the dams in the Selangor River basin. However, much of the river’s water is too polluted for any practical or recreational use. 

In 2017, the water quality at the upper reaches of the Klang River basin was classified as Class I or II. Downstream, the water quality progressively worsened, having classifications from Class III to V – which means it’s not suitable for body contact – due to effluents from sewage treatment plants, commercial and residential centres, industries and workshops, restaurants, wet markets and squatters[2].

In fact, before 2016, because of the pollution of the Klang River, it was not possible to ride a boat down the river without having your propellers become wedged with plastic and other floating waste[3].

Source: The Star

A 2021 study ranked the Klang River as the second-highest contributor of plastic into the ocean, sharing the position with India’s Uthas River and the Philippines’ Tullahan River, each at 1.33%. The Klang River’s final stretch connects to the Straits of Melaka, passing through the busy maritime centre of Port Klang, making it a significant source of plastic pollution[3].

Landasan Lumayan Sdn Bhd’s managing director, Syaiful Azmen Nordin stated that much of the plastic waste that ends up in the Klang River is domestic waste, originating from urban areas where people do not dispose of their trash responsibly.

During rain, these items are washed into drains that flow into our rivers. – Syaiful Azmen Nordin, Landasan Lumayan Sdn Bhd managing director[3]

Another study found that 80.1% of the Klang River’s pollution originates from sewage plants; 3.9% from food outlets or restaurants; 3.4% from industrial waste; and 12.6% from other sources such as workshops, houses, and wet markets[4].

All of this pollution has been detrimental to the health of the Klang River.

Attempts To Revive The River 

The Malaysian government has long recognised the need to clean up the Klang River and restore it to its former glory.

In 2011, along with other important initiatives, the Kuala Lumpur city government initiated the River of Life (RoL) project. This ambitious project aimed to fully transform 10.7 kilometres of waterfront and supporting rivers at a cost of RM4.4 billion[5].

The goals of this project include reshaping the Klang River from a barrier to a connector; establishing a new identity for the river; beautifying the river; improving its economic value of the river; reinvigorating the social and cultural heritage of the river; restoring the river’s ecology; as well as raising environmental awareness among the public[5].

Source: Wikipedia

In short, the RoL project aims not only to clean up the Klang River but also to enhance its beauty and establish it as a commercially significant area.

We’re not only focusing on cleaning up the riverbanks but are also looking into the rivers’ water quality aspect to ensure that we attain a water quality index that allows body contact without causing any skin irritation. – Md Khairi Selamat, Department of Irrigation and Drainage Malaysia (DID) River Basin Management Division director[6]

Since the start of the RoL project in 2011, the Department of Irrigation and Drainage Malaysia (DID) installed 309 grease traps, 588 rubbish traps, 10 clean water treatment plants, and 15 river water treatment plants.

In the early stages, it was a challenge for us to clean up the polluted and stinking rivers. The traps we installed were able to collect all types of garbage and foreign matter floating in the rivers which we later disposed of in accordance with the standard operating procedures. – Md Khairi Selamat[6]

Despite the great strides the RoL project has made, conservationists have criticised the project, questioning whether its development was at the cost of sacrificing the city’s heritage. 

Source: CiliSos

Indeed, Heritage Urban Landscape specialist, Dr Rohayah Che Amat believed that from a conservation standpoint, the project had failed as the ambience and historical setting had been altered because of the new features and structures that were installed.

ROL should have stuck to just cleaning up the river. They installed a long marble fountain near the plaza to cover the RoL pump. There are chips and cracks on the material, tiles and stones at water features and paths installed behind the Sultan Abdul Samad building.

Does the landscape architect know that Malaysia is a tropical country? Now everything has to be maintained by DBKL at a high cost. – Dr Rohayah Che Amat, Heritage Urban Landscape specialist[7]

Institute of Landscape Architects Malaysia’s vice-president, Dr Nor Atiah Ismail was similarly disappointed.

I was very excited about RoL. It was touted as the most expensive and ambitious river cleaning project by the international press.

But I was sad when I visited the place. The mist and the fountains were piped water and the river was still muddy. There could have been more plants, better water quality and the use of more sustainable material. – Dr Nor Atiah Ismail, Institute of Landscape Architects Malaysia vice-president[7]

That being said, the RoL project is already 92% complete and expected to be ready in 2024[8]. Md Khairi stated that the success of the project depends on strong collaboration between government agencies and the community;  as well as raising awareness among the public on the importance of river and environmental conservation efforts[6].

Source: The Star

Md Khairi also said that a smartphone application called Citizen’s Eye, which was introduced in 2018, enabled city folk to be the eyes and ears of the authorities and to be a part of the city’s river management and cleaning initiative.

This application allows the public to report pollution and vandalism incidents to various agencies, such as the Department of Environment, DBKL, DID and local councils. – Md Khairi Selamat[6]

Other Efforts to Restore the Klang River

Perhaps the most successful attempt to clean up the Klang River came in 2019 in the form of the “Interceptor”. Created by The Ocean Cleanup, a Dutch non-profit organisation, the Interceptor is a solar-powered river-cleaning machine dedicated to clearing plastic from the oceans of the world[9].

The Klang River now has two of these machines: Interceptor 002 in the stretch of river behind Masjid Bandar Diraja Klang, and Interceptor 005 near Jambatan Parang in Port Klang, where they have been working hard to collect the waste flowing down the Klang River[9].

Thanks to these cleaning machines, the total amount of garbage collected from the river from 2019 until June 2023 was close to a whopping 88,000 tonnes (enough to fill more than 470 Boeing 747 aircraft or 3,500 RapidKL buses), according to Landasan Lumayan Sdn Bhd (LLSB) managing director Syaiful Azmen Nordin[10].

We are cleaning up the river with several river cleaning infrastructure, including seven log booms along the river stretch. These river cleaning infrastructures are complemented by two units of the Interceptor placed in two locations along the river. – Syaiful Azmen Nordin, Landasan Lumayan Sdn Bhd (LLSB) managing director[9]

The Interceptor 005, which arrived in 2021, was sponsored by British rock band Coldplay, who carries out various philanthropic activities and has thrown its support behind The Ocean Cleanup to clear the world’s oceans of plastic.

Without action, there could be more plastic than fish in the oceans by 2050, which is why The Ocean Cleanup’s work is so vital. We’re proud to sponsor Interceptor 005 which will catch thousands of tonnes of waste before it reaches the ocean. – Coldplay[9]

With these clean-up efforts, the amount of waste collected yearly has significantly dropped, going from 16,408 tonnes in 2016 down to 6,177 tonnes in 2022[9].

Most importantly, the Klang River’s water quality has dramatically improved, going from Class V (entirely unusable) to Class III (suitable for livestock) and removing the river from the list of the top 50 most polluted waterways[10].

That being said, Syaiful noted that this is the best that can be expected for now and that for things to truly change, we need to change people’s attitudes towards littering and dumping and encourage more public involvement in cleaning up the Klang River.

Ideally we do not need the Interceptor. You know why? Because we should not actually be doing river cleaning. Rivers do not generate waste so where is it coming from? The waste is coming from us. – Syaiful Azmen Nordin, Landasan Lumayan Sdn Bhd (LLSB) managing director[10]

Kennedy Michael, an award-winning environmentalist and river rehabilitation specialist, had a ‘rude awakening’ when acquaintances brought him over to Malaysia to use his marine conservation skills for a river revitalisation project they were conducting along the Klang River.

I did not see any impact (from their efforts), you know. (The river was) still dirty. The trail was inaccessible, (they) did not actually have a plan and they did not actually do anything. Once a year they would go ‘gotong-royong’ and then it is forgotten. – Kennedy Michael, award-winning environmentalist and river rehabilitation specialist[10]

Recognising the need for a more hands-on approach to genuinely keep our rivers clean, Kennedy initiated the River Three Conservation, Protection, and Rehabilitation (CPR) Programme under the Alliance of River Three organisation that he established. This programme aims to engage volunteers in cleaning a specific stretch of the Klang River, located in Taman Melawati River Three Park. Over the past five years, the programme has involved over 5,000 volunteers in cleaning up the Klang River. Kennedy noted that these volunteers have worked for 270 straight weeks, “which means no holidays, no public holidays, no breaks, no excuses, rain or shine or whatever. That is our commitment.”[10]

Source: The Star

It was back-breaking work, but it proved worthwhile as the cleaned-up section of the river had lost the ‘teh tarik’ colour and become almost clear, with the group collecting all manner of waste in the process:

An old motorcycle frame, refrigerator, mattress, furniture, pillows, plastic bags now and then, cigarette butts. – Kennedy Michael, award-winning environmentalist and river rehabilitation specialist[10]

Kennedy asserted how important it is for the group to ensure that they are not reliant on government funding – which can be inconsistent – as water is a vital resource.

(People) need water on a daily basis. So you cannot say, ‘Oh, I don’t have enough allocations, money or funding, so I won’t keep the rivers clean. – Kennedy Michael, award-winning environmentalist and river rehabilitation specialist[10]

The Alliance of River Three aims to transition from the river-cleaning phase to the community development phase by 2030[10].

Positive Environment Change Starts With Us 

The success of the Alliance of River Three programme is a strong demonstration of the power of community and the importance of getting the public involved in environmental conservation. The ultimate goal of these projects isn’t to continue cleaning the Klang River, but to restore the river to its former glory and ensure that we no longer need these large-scale projects.

The best way to help with the clean-up is to make sure that our trash is properly disposed of so that it does not get into our rivers in the first place. So please consider your actions and take the following steps to reduce your contribution to the pollution of our rivers[11]:

  • Where possible, aim to always reduce, reuse, and recycle; especially when it comes to plastic consumption.
  • Follow established guidelines for the appropriate disposal of oils, chemical cleaners, and non-biodegradable items to ensure that they don’t end up going down the drain.
  • When renovating, consider landscaping options that reduce runoff.
  • Pick up after your pets!

Remember, when we want something done for the betterment of our society, we must always be willing to take the first step.

Explore our sources:

  1. TwentyTwo 13. (2019). Bringing life back to Klang River. Link.
  2. E. Ding. (2017). Rich Waters. New Strait Times. Link.
  3. D. Pfordten. (2021). INTERACTIVE: Identified as source of plastic waste into the sea, Klang River faces major cleanup. The Star. Link.
  4. River of Life – River Cleaning. Link.
  5. River of Life – Our Story. Link.
  6. L. W. Soon. (2020). Success of River of Life project already visible in city centre. The Borneo Post. Link.
  7. V. Babulal. (2019). River of Life project has fallen short of objectives. New Straits Times. Link.
  8. The Star. (2021). River of Life project may be ready by 2024. Link.
  9. W. Muthiah. (2023). Klang River shedding murky past. The Star. Link.
  10. J. Desmond. (2023). River clean-ups needed until attitudes change, say experts. FMT. Link.
  11. Intelligent Aqua. (2021). Water Pollution Malaysia: Its Dire Effects and Cause for Solutions. Link.

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