When 76-year-old Ramly Jamaluddin was a child, he could swim, go fishing or picnic by the Batu river in Selangor with his friends.
Today, that is no longer the case for villagers in the area due to pollution.
"Sungai Batu, like all rivers, was a source of life and used for daily activities like fishing, swimming and picnics back in the day. But now, such activities can no longer be enjoyed because of development in the area, which include factories, businesses and waste processing centres," Mukim Batu penghulu (chief) Mahat Jantan said during a press conference recently.
Some factories discharge untreated waste water midstream. Pollution is also caused by households and restaurants disposing used cooking oil and trash into drains, which eventually end up in the river.
"This is why local residents living along the river joined forces to form Friends of Sungai Batu in March 2019 as a community effort to help clean up the river and restore it to its former glory," explained Mahat, 51.
Seven (out of the 11) villages in Mukim Batu are involved, including Kampung Sungai Tua, where Ramly is the village head. The others are Kampung Sungai Kertas, Kampung Nakhoda, Kampung Laksamana, Kampung Melayu Batu Caves, Kampung Baru Batu Caves, and Batu Caves Indian Settlement.
The community-led programme is part of the Drainage and Irrigation Department's (DID) River of Life Public Outreach Programme (Rolpop), which began in 2017. Besides local residents, it also involves NGOs, associations, universities and schools, industries and restaurants in the region.
Asia Pacific Environmental Consultants (Aspec) project manager Dr Jamie Chong said: "From reaching out to, and creating awareness among, the communities, we have progressed to action-led programmes such as organising gotong royong sessions and other activities."
Aspec is Rolpop's appointed consultant.
Mahat said that one of the most effective methods of maintaining river cleanliness is through gotong royong activities. But he added that in the long run, education is also important.
"We need to educate people on the 'reduce, reuse and recycle' principle. Used cooking oil can be collected and recycled while unusable paper, plastic and glass products can also be recycled and should not be thrown into the river," he said, adding that such river conservation effort is working well and there has been a positive impact on the community.
"All the villagers have carried on what Rolpop started and they have even taken the initiative to organise their own gotong royong for their respective kampung. So far, 1,500kg of rubbish have been collected based on Rolpop-organised events and if we include those initiated by the seven villages themselves, the figure would be much more," Chong, 42, said.
Local NGO Hebatnita has also implemented a used cooking oil programme in the area.
"We organise events to educate the whole household, especially housewives, on not throwing away used cooking oil," Hebatnita president Hanna Ismail, 45, said, adding that it can be repurposed to make items like candles, or recycled.
A collection centre was set up in Kampung Laksamana last November.
"To motivate them, we implemented a reward system. When they bring their used cooking oil, they are given a card. For every litre they bring, they get a chop. After six chops, they receive a gift.
Alternatively, they can opt to get 80 sen per kg. If it's more than 8kg, they'll also receive a free gift," she said, adding that the programme will be implemented in all seven villages.
"The villagers are now more aware and realise that used cooking oil doesn't have to be thrown away. They are mainly residents and pasar malam vendors. Most of them bring used cooking oil, and to a lesser degree, plastic, paper and glass, to the centre," said Kampung Laksamana village head Roszaidi Ishak, 48.
Ramly emphasised that there are some important considerations when it comes to river conservation.
"Everyone must realise it's their personal responsibility to care for the river," he said, adding that villages must continue organising gotong royong sessions despite poor turnouts because every little bit helps.
The whole community must get involved, not just the villages but also schools, businesses, industries and NGOs, he added.
"Enforcement such as fines to prevent people from littering or throwing rubbish into the river is also necessary. We need the strong support of the government for that," said Ramly.
He added that proper structural planning and a good water flow system must be in place for factories and homes. Factories must have a standard procedure for waste disposal and homes should be located some distance from the river. Dissemination of information through television, radio and newspapers on the importance of river care is also important.
Chong revealed that in future, Rolpop will recruit more Friends of Sungai Batu members from the private sector and also NGOs.
"We plan to promote this area as a tourist spot. The upstream of Sungai Batu runs through the Selangor State Park and is pristine and good for swimming because it is in a forest reserve. A 100m wall mural has also been painted with the help of students and the support of Indah Water Konsortium. There will be a cycling trail from Batu Caves to Gua Damai Extreme Park, this area where the mural is located, and along the river.
"Not only will this bring in more tourists, it will benefit the economy and show people that the river is an asset that can generate income, and so they must take care of it," she said.
Friends of Sungai Batu
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