Communities stake claim to waterways

IT HAS been eight years since the River of Life Public Outreach Programme (RoL-POP) was launched to address pollution of two Klang Valley waterways, by getting the community involved in their preservation.

RoL-POP is one of the main pillars under the RM4.4bil River of Life project to protect Sungai Klang and Sungai Gombak.

RoL-POP, which is due to end by this year, is spearheaded by the Drainage and Irrigation Department (DID) with the aim of empowering the public to carry out river care efforts.

Currently, some 10 groups of communities that were created under the programme are actively continuing their river care activities.

Positive impact

Global Environment Centre (GEC) river care programme coordinator Dr K. Kalithasan described the community groups as one of the positive outcomes of RoL-POP and similar programmes.

“We have been involved in river care efforts for the past 20 years and there has definitely been some changes for the better.

“In the past, community involvement was mostly reactive, meaning they would report to authorities if they saw any wrongdoing.

“But now it is changing from reactive to proactive, with communities coming together, either under RoL-POP or as individuals, to encourage others to actively participate in river care through various efforts.

“We are slowly but surely seeing this positive change in the mindset of the public,” he said.

The RoL project is divided into three components –- river cleaning, river beautification and land development.

Under the river cleaning component, the public outreach programme was initiated in 2012 to foster partnerships; improve attitudes and behaviours of target groups as well as initiate long-term and sustainable change in behaviours towards protecting the river.

Target groups identified included the general public, local communities, educational institutions, industries, corporations and developers as well as food establishments, wet markets and workshops –- with different programmes planned for each target group.

RoL-POP was carried out in phases beginning with Phase 1, involving the upper Sungai Klang basin, proceeding to Phase 2 for the Sungai Bunus basin while Phases 3A, 3B, 4 and 5 were carried out concurrently from 2017.

GEC was appointed the consultant for Phase 5 which covers 98.49sq km of catchment areas including Sungai Gombak, Sungai Batu, Sungai Jinjang and Sungai Keroh that flows into Sungai Klang.

Reasons to care

Kalithasan said any sustainable environmental programme required an economic model.

“We need to show the communities that environment management can lead to something tangible.

“This can include the setting up of a community garden, where they are able to harvest their produce either for themselves or for sale,” he explained.

Under Phase 5, three successful community gardens have been established. They are AU2 Community Garden, Seri Terengganu Community Garden and Mutiara Magna Community Garden.

Asia-Pacific Environmental Consultants (Aspec) director Dr Jamie Chong said there had been increased willingness to participate in RoL-POP activities and learn more about caring for the river including its preservation and protection.

“The targeted communities now see river care and protection as their responsibility and most are concerned about the state of the river.

“This was especially noticeable among educational institutions,” she said.

DID appointed Aspec to spearhead the initiatives under Phases 3B and 4 and collaborate with target groups to tackle river pollution and improve water quality.

Phases 3B and 4 involves working with communities around the Ampang Jaya and Selayang municipalities.

Chong said a recent social survey among 2,000 respondents in a catchment area showed that the programme had succeeded in raising awareness as well as changing public attitudes and behaviour towards river care, including advocating for its protection. “As a public outreach programme, it has managed to reduce river pollution and improve water quality,” she said, adding that the targeted communities also possessed in-depth knowledge about the importance of river care and preservation.

Stricter enforcement

However, Kalithasan pointed out that community efforts must be complemented by enforcement such as hefty fines to prevent people from littering or throwing rubbish into the river.

“Empowering and educating by action is good but this must be backed up with enforcement by the various agencies and authorities. “If any river-related complaints are reported, there must be swift action. Otherwise community engagement would be a failure.“This is not to say there has been zero enforcement, but there is a lot of room for improvement,” he said, adding that the relevant agencies should work in unison and not in silos when addressing river-related issues.

On the response from target groups, Kalithasan said their biggest challenge was development projects.

“Even with environmental management plans, we still find many cases of pollution.

“Activities like illegal sand washing and land clearing are also not being addressed fast enough.”

Despite the challenges, he was confident that river care efforts in the country were moving in the right direction.

“Efforts by local communities are very encouraging and will continue with or without programmes like RoL-POP.

“Even within government agencies, many of the officers genuinely care about these issues but are often hampered by bureaucracy,” he added.

More to be done

With the deadline looming for the end of the programme, DID river basin management division director Md Khairi Selamat said the department had proposed to Federal Territories Ministry to extend the programme.

“We had suggested focusing on the community target groups because there are rapid development and population increase upstream of the Sungai Klang basin, which can increase wastewater and sewage.

“These community programmes should be continued,” he told StarMetro.

He noted that many communities had responded positively to RoL-POP since it was implemented three years ago.

“From there, they have set up community groups such as Friends of Sungai Klang, Friends of Sungai Batu and Friends of Sungai Ampang.

“These groups are among the RoL-POP initiatives to prepare the community to take care of the rivers themselves,” he elaborated.

Md Khairi highlighted that community gardens, murals and riverside cleaning programmes were some of the projects that had been carried out.

“The only way to ensure that these initiatives will be sustained is if the communities and the government work together to make sure our rivers are clean and cut down pollution,” he said.

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