KUALA LUMPUR • Once a picturesque landscape of two rivers meeting to form an estuary which cradles a whimsically striped mosque, this spot was the birthplace of Kuala Lumpur (KL) as a small settlement in the 19th century.
It was also the spot which reputedly gave Malaysia's capital city its evocative name - Kuala Lumpur, which literally means a muddy estuary.
But over the years, only the Jamek Mosque remains picturesque, while the rest of the landscape degenerated into a concrete mess.
The two rivers, Gombak and Klang, now resemble humongous concrete drains with murky waters classified as "not suitable for body contact".
The rivers' fame lies in their filth.
They are regularly used as an open sewer and rubbish dump.
But things have begun to change. An ambitious multibillion-ringgit plan is under way to clean up the river to a level safe for recreational use, and to turn its underutilised banks into land desirable for commercial and residential use, to generate jobs and buzz.
Overseen by the government's reform agency Pemandu, the River of Life project began in 2012 as one of the high-impact initiatives to bring Malaysia to developed country status by 2020.
The Klang river (as it is called after the two rivers, Gombak and Klang, merged into one) is one of the city's most prominent landmarks, on whose banks were built iconic structures like the Sultan Abdul Samad Building.
With its source in the mountains in northern KL, it flows for 110km and enters the sea in the area now known as Klang.
Its potential has long been evident, but many grandiose plans to clean up the filthy river over the decades failed to take off due to the high cost involved. This latest effort also met with scepticism, but has moved along at a fair clip over the last three years.
Its potential has long been evident, but many grandiose plans to clean up the filthy river over the decades failed to take off due to the high cost involved.
This latest effort also met with scepticism, but has moved along at a fair clip over the last four years.
There has been no further updates on the total cost of the project, but it was earlier reported that it would amount to RM4.4 billion (S$1.5 billion). It is a huge project. The Klang river has 13 major tributaries and is the fourth- largest river basin in Malaysia.
The River of Life plan calls for the cleaning of the entire river, while beautification and development works will be carried out along a 10.7km stretch in downtown KL.
The focus will be on the section of the river that flows near the Jamek Mosque in KL's heritage heart, as this is the city's birthplace and a highly visible tourist area.
Development plans include public parks, pedestrian walkways and bicycle lanes, waterfront shops and homes, and a gallery.
According to e-mail responses from Pemandu's Greater KL National Key Economic Area director Ziad Hafiz Abd Razak, substantial progress has been made in both the cleaning and beautification of the river.
To begin with, two sewage treatment plants for a population of 750,000 each are being built, and another 15 sewage plants are being upgraded.
Five wastewater treatment plants for wet markets have been installed, as well as 409 pollutant traps for floating rubbish and 231 grease traps at food courts.
These may be the less visible works, but they have gone a long way in raising the level of cleanliness.
LIFE ALONG THE RIVER
There has been some noticeable progress made, said opposition Democratic Action Party MP Ong Kian Ming, who has taken a personal interest in it, even literally getting into the river last December for a closer look.
Because the Klang riverbanks are not very walkable at the moment, the only way to inspect the river is to get into the water - by kayak.
Dr Ong and three others set off one morning to kayak along a 4km stretch, ending right in the city centre. To his surprise, he found the river to be cleaner than he had expected.
Dr Ong said: "It was dirty but not as bad as I thought. But I had very low expectations to begin with."
He added that he had spotted new silt traps, ongoing work to strengthen the riverbanks and a new retention pond for flood mitigation.
"I am keeping tabs because a lot of money is being spent on this project. It has been reported that it would take RM3.4 billion to clean up the river, and RM1 billion for landscaping.
"That's a huge amount, the cost of building KLIA2," he said, referring to KL's new airport for budget airlines. He also noted that a successful outcome could be a catalyst in rehabilitating other rivers and KL itself, much like the Cheonggyecheon River rehabilitation project in Seoul or the transformation of Clarke Quay and Boat Quay in Singapore into thriving commercial areas.
Also on the trip was graphic designer Jeffrey Lim, an avid cyclist who said the river is now cleaner than when he first began cycling along its banks six years ago.
With the dearth of cycling lanes in the city, he found river embankments to be the safest place for cyclists, and became very familiar with the Klang river.
They also found other surprises: villagers living along the riverbank who fished for food in the murky water, and decent-sized rapids that could provide thrills for rafters.
These discoveries told them that despite its sad state, the river still features significantly in community life and has great potential for further use.
RUBBISH THAT ENTERS THE RIVER
Despite the recent improvements, the challenges remain great.
Just recently, Mr Lim found several dead fish floating on the river when he cycled along the banks, and rubbish still piles high on the banks or floats on the water.
Dr Ong noted that it would be money down the drain if factories and large-scale polluters continue to pour untreated waste into the river.
Mr Ziad Hafiz said the main challenges come from the hundreds of settlements along the riverbanks, where most of the infrastructure for river cleaning had to be located. The government is working to relocate the people.
He also said while most KL residents agree on the need for clean rivers, many still do not understand that it means a change of lifestyle.
Pemandu's community outreach programmes are currently focused on areas upstream of the city centre. Public outreach is one of its most difficult tasks, as it entails persuading the public to change their behaviour. This involves a whole spectrum of the community, not just people who live along the riverbanks but everyone in the city.
As Mr Lim noted, rubbish thrown in the streets would eventually be washed into a drain that flows into streams and, finally, into this river where so much effort and money are being expended for its rehabilitation.
A successful first phase, especially at the prominent Jamek Mosque area, may help generate some excitement that can energise an apathetic public. If people could use the area for recreation, people might come to see the river as part of their lives, rather than feeling disconnected from it.
Still, economic hard times may take a toll on the project.
Dr Ong noted that the River of Life website is now updated much less frequently and work, especially in public outreach, seemed to have slowed. He said: "Work has probably slowed because we don't see so many updates being pushed out to the public anymore.
"My sense is that funding could be an issue."
Mr Ziad Hafiz said in his e-mail response: "As for the project cost, the government remains committed to the successful execution of this project, and works are progressing as planned."
Dr Ong also registered another concern. There is currently a freeze on the sale of over 100 parcels of government land along the river until the project is completed.
The land, which is expected to increase greatly in value, will then be sold to recoup the project cost.
While this is justifiable, he said, the process is opaque and there is fear that public access to the river could be hindered without proper checks on private development there. There is also concern about the relocation of villages along the banks, and proper compensation for the people.
Despite the immense challenges and scepticism, this project has got off to a good start.
As Mr Lim noted, it is a project for the long haul. "We can start somewhere, and we can only be hopeful," he said.