Down a river of lives, fish, fowl and foul

Thor Kah Hoong Hasnoor Hussain

Masjid Jamek Sultan Abdul Samad after a downpour in early September. A pond built next to the mosque under the River of Life project is submerged after Sg Gombak and Sg Klang overflowed because of the rain. – The Malaysian Insight pic by Hasnoor Hussain, September 16, 2017.

SUNGAI Gombak, the tributary of Sungai Klang, which contributed its mud to the naming of the city, has its source in Bukit Bunga Buah, 1,430m high, west of Janda Baik and Genting Highlands. 

The Malaysian Insight looks at the river the RM4.4 billion River of Life project is supposed to rehabilitate and beautify, by spending a day following the river along both banks, diverting to a couple of tributaries, until it merged its waters with Sg Klang at Masjid Sultan Abdul Samad Jamek.

7am: Unable to arrange in time for a guide to trek to its source in the fragrant hill of flowering fruits, we settle for the upper reaches of the river and its clichéd beauty at dawn: the distant range of hills shrouded in mist rising from the land warming to the day.

Of course, that view comes with a cost: the constant thrum and strain of engines heading to the city or away to Genting Highlands and the east coast.

The car is parked at the entrance to apartments at the International Islamic University. The two security guards, when asked about life in the river, say prawns are not seen any more, but fish still exists.

One of them points to half-a-dozen or so tilapia fingerlings under the bridge spanning the river and a small catfish, barely 15cm long, lurking in the drain discharging into the river at that point.

Hopping on a scooter, it’s off to the Sg Pisang falls up-river. Everyone ignores the metal barrier barring the road leading to the few kilometres trek to the bottom of the falls.

On a weekday, the waterfall is free of campers and day-trippers. 

It is a National Geographic moment, if one listens to the fall and gurgle of water, if one looks at the profuse green growth, the hovering scarlet dragonflies and a couple of butterflies flapping their sassy colours… and not look down to see a rag here, a tin can there.

Pensioner Mohsin Mohamad Nor cutting Napier grass which grow along Sg Gombak in Kg Sg Chinchin in Gombak, Selangor. Mohsin feeds his goats with the grass. – The Malaysian Insight pic by Hasnoor Hussain, September 16, 2017.   September 16, 2017.

8am-12.45pm: Off, following the river, wandering into every kampung along the way, following dirt trails skirting one bank or the other. Cross a couple of kampung bridges that are just a concrete beam, one kapchai-wheel-wide. Phew!

Upper reaches: five young men in the shallow river using a big plastic sheet to corral palm-sized fish against the grassy banks. More than two dozen fish in a bag and they vend their way through the long grass back to the kampung and a meal.

Just a bit further down, Mohsin Mohamad Nor, 60, is slashing at tall weeds on the overgrown riverbank, for the goats he rears. He has lived in Kg Gombak all his life, and remembers that before water was piped in in the 1970s, they got their water from the river.  

Amid the lush green growth along the way, there are a couple of “festive” low-hanging trees festooned with multicoloured rags and plastic bags. 

In the vicinity is a kampung house, its backdoor a fount for accumulated rubbish spreading metres-deep down the slope to the river.

Thought: The River of Life programme is supposed to have an educational component. 

What is that? A minister and public officials speak at public gatherings, and their pious sentiment about people not treating the rivers as a free rubbish-disposal system gets reported in the media.

How many of those residents who should be reached see or read the message, don’t talk about taking it to heart and changing their delinquent ways?

Isn’t it better to have gotong-royong with the settlements to clean up their act?

At points along the river and its tributaries – one of them, a small stream requiring research into the dark history that led to its name, Sg Semampus, the river of death – there are signposts telling anyone who would bother to stop and read that one must love the river and safeguard the environment.

To balance the picture, there are a couple of makcik taking household rubbish in plastic bags for disposal in the big communal bins on the main road.

Sg Klang turns the colour of milky tea after a storm in the heart of the city of Kuala Lumpur. – The Malaysian Insight pic by Hasnoor Hussain, September 16, 2017.

Where the tributary Sg Pusu, in Setapak, discharges into Sg Gombak is where the river changes to its subsequent colour of milky-tea. Upriver Sg Busu, in the vicinity of IIU and above, the river is being dredged for sand and land is being cleared for housing.

Village houses begin to give way to concrete buildings as the city’s sky-scrapping skyline looms in the distance. A white egret in the river flaps away into the trees on our approach.

Soon after that, one can switch from kampung dirt trails to paved paths courtesy of the River of Life project, another sign of it being a high wall of earth, dredged in the deepening of the river, and piled on the side.

There is a long, low weir, above it a couple of children fishing in the distance, downstream from it small wild flowers… and the stench of rotting fish, flies in joyous buzz, proboscis straws slurping rot.  They are dismissed as “ikan Bandaraya” – grown-up versions of the scavenger-fish hobbyists have moping at the bottom of their aquariums vacuuming crap – by a pakcik fertilising his sugarcane upstream of the weir.  

He says the sand was dredged up months ago. He hears someone has bought it or will take it away or something. The ways of the higher-ups are a mystery. The rakyat just have to wait and see what happens, when it happens.

This pensioner is content that the Datuk politician who owns the strip of land where he is growing the sugarcane, gave the villagers permission to do so, no fruit trees being the only condition.

“You tahu, dia orang kaya. Sini pun ada beberapa rumah.” Pointing to a house a few metres away: “Dah lama dia tada datang. Anak dia kadang-kadang.”   

In the meantime, there the high wall of sand hunkers, every storm diminishing it for the dredgers downstream. 

Coming to noon, on the outskirts of Sentul, with storm clouds threatening, there is a burly, taciturn pakcik manning several fishing rods dangling small nets into the river downstream of a water-gate, amid a constant churn of rubbish.

Upstream, his catch of palm-sized tilapia dangle in the water in a net till they are hauled up for additions to the flapping group.

A hundred metres or so downstream, on the other bank, three statuesque storks stand tall on lamp-posts, facing a flyover with a roaring stream of traffic and blocks of anonymous apartments.

With an ungainly take-off, they flap down, long necks and legs extended, to join the three to four other storks stalking the river, a couple of white egrets, spear, lift, swallow, step, step, jab. 

A woman and her child looking at a group of teenagers catching fish near Sg Gombak at Kg Padang Balang, Kuala Lumpur. – The Malaysian Insight pic by Hasnoor Hussain, September 16, 2017.

12.45pm-2.20pm: Make it to popular Yassin’s soup kambing, just as a downpour starts. 

2.20pm: In a light drizzle, propelled by a fast-advancing dark curtain of rain, it’s off to Masjid Sultan Abdul Samad Jamek, to greet high water.

3pm-4.30pm: Drenched in the last 100m before reaching the shelter of a sidewalk in Chow Kit.

4.30pm-5.30pm: In a drizzle, off to Masjid Jamek. Both rivers are high. There are five workmen, soaking round the spear-point of the soaked, silenced symphonic fountain, one of them wading off occasionally to fetch a tool from the steps of the masjid.

After a day’s dunking in water, what wrinkled… it does not bear thinking. 

The moving on of the storm to other parts bring out about a dozen people or more on both banks and the bridge spanning them, snapping phone memories to be recalled on subsequent viewing of hundreds, thousands of bottles flowing by – the folks upriver must be a really thirsty lot – the monotony of the parade broken by a few big Styrofoam containers, the lid of a toilet-seat, part of a hockey-stick, the ubiquitous red plastic bag of rubbish, its handles in a bunny-eared knot.

There is talk of boat-rides and a Venice of the east – joining a long list of prior claimants to the title: Srinagar, Bandar Seri Begawan, Hanoi, Bangkok, etc. 

What one can say about this is that the one thing the River of Life project does not lack is dreamers (pun intended).   

Workers collecting rubbish from the trap installed at Sg Gombak in Kg Padang Balang, Gombak, Kuala Lumpur. – The Malaysian Insight pic by Hasnoor Hussain, September 16, 2017.

5.30pm-7pm: On the way back to upper Gombak for the car, divert up a tributary, Sg Bunus. In the shadow of the Bernama office is a large retention pond, its narrow gateway a roaring torrent of constricted water, to the side in less turbulent waters a whirlpool of dozens of plastic bottles.

Under the bridge, the water is forced into a narrower channel, which means rubbish garlanding both banks downstream, the rest heading on down in a rush.

Earlier, at mid-morning, in Kg Padang Balang, there were three workers clearing rubbish that had been snagged by the low barrier of concrete blocks.

But the flow of crap is constant through the day. With an afternoon/evening storm, that’s all heading for the tourists at the masjid.

In the evening, after the rain, about five to six kids and three older ones, about 18-20 in age, are in the river, watched by a dozen other kids on bicycles on the bank.

They are hand-fishing, feeling underwater, near the roots of the long weeds, because fish avoid the river’s force there. A fish in hand, a heave and a flapping fish is flying to the bank to be picked up by a kid with a bag, that at the end has close to three dozen fish, four to five of them medium-sized. There is also a terrapin which is put in an aquarium.

A shout and a splashing run across the river follows a hand realising the fish grabbed is actually the tail of a monitor lizard.

They also catch a small monitor lizard and torture it and the kids with it. As first-time visitors, The Malaysian Insight don’t feel it was appropriate to preach about loving all God’s creatures.

It is a what?-moment, confessing a first knowledge of and visit to the kampung for Mohamad Safuan, 23, a uniformed technician for a telecommunications company, much too big for the kapchai he is astride, to introduce the salient feature of his kampung as: “Ini kampung Tian Chua. Rumah keluarga dia dalam sana.” 

After 7pm, slowly crawling in the usual after rain, after work jam, there is time to mull over what is learned from the trip: 12 hours without back support – it’s literally back-breaking. – September 16, 2017.

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  • Almost NOTHING has improved since 1975 when first monitored river. Where are the billions & efforts going? Gurmit

    Posted 6 years ago by Gurmit Singh · Reply