A 'water journey' shows just how much plastic is in our water sources

The Water Heroes' last checkpoint, the Sewage Treatment Plant in KL. Photo: WWF Malaysia/Shariff Mohamad

When we look at our rivers today, what do we see? Usually, it’s all types of plastic floating about. In today’s world, this oh-so-convenient material is increasingly found in products that we use in every aspect of our lives.

Unfortunately, when we dispose of plastic products in overcrowded landfills, they take an exceedingly long amount of time to degrade, as the natural elements fail to break them down to be dissolved into the surrounding soil.

How long? Approximately 400 years. This means that the plastic thrown away today will only disintegrate in 2418, which is equivalent to 16 human generations.

Despite over two decades of freshwater conservation activism that included many anti-plastic and anti-pollution campaigns, plastic waste is still choking our rivers and poisoning our wildlife.

This is why WWF-Malaysia organised Asia’s first Journey of Water (JoW) in April.

The JoW is a WWF (World Wide Fund for Nature) event that was first organised in South Africa in 2013 to highlight the arduous journey that a single drop of water takes as it makes its way to taps. Since then it has been held in South Africa in 2015 and 2017. The JoW was then organised for the first time in Zambia in 2017 and Brazil in March 2018.

In the following month, JoW made its way to Asia, with Malaysia as its first Asian host, from April 21 to 23. The event was hosted in the Klang Valley and made possible by the contributions of the Royal Bank of Canada (RBC) and the cooperation of more than 10 agencies. Thirty volunteers designated 'Water Heroes' (including this writer and 12 RBC employee volunteers) then embarked on an eye-opening journey to discover where our water actually comes from.

The three-day journey saw us travelling on foot and via vehicles to points in the Klang and Selangor river basins that represented the various stages of water collection and distribution.

Macroinvertebrate larvae found at Sg Chiling Fish Sanctuary, an indication of clean water. Photo: WWF Malaysia/Vincent Gan
Macroinvertebrate larvae found at Sg Chiling Fish Sanctuary, an indication of clean water. Photo: WWF Malaysia/Vincent Gan

Upstream we go

Our JoW began upstream of Sungai Selangor at the Sungai Chiling Fish Sanctuary in Kuala Kubu Baru. Throughout the day, we had briefings and guided tours given by officers from the Department of Fisheries, the Selangor State Forestry Department, the Department of Orang Asli Development and the Hulu Selangor District Office.

During this leg of the journey, we learnt about the river classification system based on the beneficial uses of the National Water Quality Standards for Malaysia and the Water Quality Index. We were told that Sungai Chiling and nearby Sungai Pertak are Class I rivers, which means that the water is very clean and able to support the presence of very sensitive aquatic species and that the conservation of the natural environment is one of its beneficial uses.

Midstream marvels

The second day of JoW saw us travelling midstream to the Sungai Selangor Dam in Kuala Kubu Baru which provides 60% of the Klang Valley’s water supply. This was followed by a tour of the Sungai Selangor Phase II Water Treatment Plant in Bestari Jaya.

Officers from Luas (Lembaga Urus Air Selangor), Splash (Syarikat Pengeluar Air Sungai Selangor Holdings Sdn Bhd), and Air Selangor showed us the numerous behind-the-scenes efforts to store water and treat it for consumption.

Water Hero Wani with some freshly plucked groundnuts. Photo: WWF Malaysia/Vincent Gan
Water Hero Wani with some freshly plucked groundnuts. Photo: WWF Malaysia/Vincent Gan

The Water Heroes marvelled at this privileged tour. Volunteer Iman Corinne Adrienne, an actress and producer, said: “Going on the JoW was fascinating. It took me to the source, to where our daily consumed water comes from. It reminded me how water is part of the environment and how pivotal it is to not take it for granted. I felt like I had a re-education.”

We then went on downstream to Kampung Tanjong Siam Baru where we met members of Kelab Inspirasi Kawa – “kawa” is Japanese for “river”, and these young people have banded together to look after Sungai Selangor. The club’s water expert, Affan Nasaruddin, showed us how the community maintains the cleanliness of the river by, among other things, collecting waste regularly and analysing how much of each type of waste is collected by weight and what the main components of river pollution are – and yes, plastic is the number one pollutant!

After the presentation, we got our hands dirty and planted mangrove tree saplings on the riverbank.

Why is it important to plant mangrove trees? The answer lies in our next stop, where we arrived in small, motorless boats to observe fireflies in their natural habitat.

Fireflies are an “indicator species”: they are commonly found in healthy mangrove ecosystems. Mangrove plants are a food source for snails such as Cyclotropis carinata, which in turn are the main food source for fireflies in the larval stage. Hence, without healthy mangrove ecosystems, these organisms would not survive.

“My daughter Soraya and I really enjoyed the council’s presentation and the boat ride. I think children in Malaysia should join outdoor activities such as the JoW to enjoy educational experiences amidst experts and fellow volunteers,” said Aishah Sinclair, a Mix FM DJ and the spokesperson of Yayasan Anak Warisan Alam, an NGO that involves children and teens in environmental issues.

Downstream and dreams of a better future

The final day of JoW kicked off with a visit to the River of Life Public Outreach Programme (ROLPOP) Community Garden in Taman Keramat AU2, Ampang.

Here, the community maintained a public garden without the use of pesticides. They kindly let us harvest vegetables, fruits and herbs, and taught us a few gardening tips and tricks. They also prepared a meal for us utilising vegetables grown right there in the garden.

The journey continued with a tour of the Kolam Biru (Blue Pond) at Masjid Jamek in the heart of Kuala Lumpur. As part of the ongoing initiative to clean and beautify the infamous Klang River, the riverbank is illuminated by blue lights at night, from which the project got its name.

Volunteers trying their hands at mangrove planting. Photo: WWF Malaysia/Tan Jae Han
Volunteers trying their hands at mangrove planting. Photo: WWF Malaysia/Tan Jae Han

Our final checkpoint was the Pantai II Sewage Treatment Plant in Pantai Dalam, KL. Here we learnt the various steps involved in processing wastewater from Indah Water Konsortium officers. Our journey ended with a simple closing ceremony, followed by dinner. Water Hero and songbird Wani Kayrie regaled us with live renditions of her popular hit Aku Suka Kamu and Zainal Abidin’s Hijau.

Freshwater ecologist Dr Tajang Jinggut, who had been on the journey with us, said that it had been a great opportunity to get to know water agencies, water experts, and Water Heroes. “I can’t wait to see what’s in store for JoW 2019,” the partnership development manager of the Tropical Research Conservation and Research Centre added.

Sathyaseelan Nadaraja, an RBC Water Hero, chimed in. “It’s imperative that we not only create solutions to improve our waterways, but also focus on the watersheds, as this is where our precious water comes from.”

Indeed. We tend to look at man-made infrastructure instead of finding solutions in green infrastructure such as water catchments, but we forget that man-made solutions are not free from limitations.

For example, a water treatment plant is built with specifications tailored to the maximum rate of pollution and known pollutants at the time of construction. However, the moment there is an increase of pollution or new pollutants beyond the plant’s range of limits, the plant has to be shut down temporarily.

When this happens, water supply is disrupted and consumers face a water shortage, causing us to become overnight water conservationists. However, when the water supply resumes, we forget the hardship and begin using water as if it is an unlimited resource again.

So how do we stop this cycle of behaviour?

The Water Heroes' last checkpoint, the Sewage Treatment Plant in KL. Photo: WWF Malaysia/Shariff Mohamad
The Water Heroes' last checkpoint, the Sewage Treatment Plant in KL. Photo: WWF Malaysia/Shariff Mohamad

Change begins with us

Here is the answer: we need to stop polluting our water resources. It is actually not that difficult to reduce and recycle plastic, and dispose of it responsibly. In fact, we could live a plastic-free life.

Growing up in Sabah, I remember seeing mothers going marketing with rattan baskets instead of coming home with hands full of plastic bags. Fishmongers wrapped up fish in newspapers, while food sellers sold nasi lemak wrapped in banana leaves.

Our homemade nasi campur (mixed rice) called linopot was even packed in leaves from the Bornean native tarap tree, and this is now a novelty usually served to tourists. If we could use all these methods then, then why not use them again?

It might be a new Malaysia after the recent general election but we should not just sit back and wait for the government to make change happen.

Change must start from within us and the time for action is now. Let us be proactive and work together to protect our rivers by beating plastic pollution.

Datin Daria Mathew is the WWF-Malaysia Freshwater Lead for Klang Valley and Setiu Wetlands, Terengganu, and has been involved in freshwater conservation for 27 years. She was one of the six recipients (across World Wide Fund for Nature offices worldwide) of the WWF-International Award in recognition of Exceptional Commitment and Outstanding Service in 2011.

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