“I am the river, and the river is me”

Navigating the Baram river with the Penan community from Long Kerong, Sarawak. -Photo by TRCRC team.

EARTH is often referred to as a water planet, being that water makes up over 70% of the earth’s surface. Over millennia, rivers have been the defining feature of human settlements as a source of drinking water, food, irrigation, power and transport.

The natural state of rivers is extremely diverse habitats that provide refuge and resources to an astonishing amount of biodiversity. Today, most water bodies are no longer in their natural state as the intensification of agriculture and development continues to degrade our natural ecosystems. Historically, human settlements were shaped by proximity to rivers.

The relationship we have with water has drastically changed with advances in technology for access to water and shifting modes of transport from waterborne modes to land or air through anthropological studies. The water bodies that first attracted human settlements and civilisations are now encased with pipes and concrete banks and often heavily polluted. We’re guilty of draining wetlands, building dams and excessively diverting water in an attempt to control where the water goes. We’re now learning that water does what it wants as we witness communities around the world struggle with extreme weather events of floods and droughts.

We’ve overlooked the natural processes of our hydrological systems that interact with soil, plants, animals and us.

The story of the Whanganui River tells a more hopeful tale. According to the Whanganui River Report, the Māori reside in settlements along the Whanganui River in New Zealand, a 290km-waterway that has served the community for hundreds of years and is considered an ancestor to them.

Alternate approaches on rivers from settlers resulted in the river being carved up to be owned and governed by separate legal entities. In a prolonged litigation battle, the local Māori fought to express their grievances and have their views – that the river is a singular and indivisible entity – recognised. In 2017, the Whanganui River became the first in the world to be granted environmental personhood status. The river was bestowed the same rights, protection and privileges as a legal person.

This novel approach set a precedent and inspired other countries to adopt similar protection of rivers. In 2019, The Supreme Court in Bangladesh declared that all of Bangladesh’s rivers had the legal status of “living entities” in an attempt to protect rivers from growing pollution and encroachment. Three Himalayan rivers converge in Bangladesh to form the world’s largest delta and close to 80% of the population resides along these floodplains.

A natural river stumbled upon during TRCRC’s Banun team’s seed collection expeditions. -Photo by TRCRC team.A natural river stumbled upon during TRCRC’s Banun team’s seed collection expeditions. -Photo by TRCRC team.

While this is not an end-all solution and the pursuit to save the rivers that have gained legal rights continues, it is transformative to how people relate to rivers and brings attention to the conservation efforts to better manage and safeguard these rivers.

We must recognise that nature’s rights come first because, in the absence of living systems and ecosystem services such as clean water and fertile soils, there is no human life.

To put it into perspective, the Klang River located in the west coast of Peninsular Malaysia has 11 major tributaries that flow from Federal Territory of Kuala Lumpur, some parts of Selangor state (Gombak, Hulu Langat, Klang, Petaling Jaya, Ampang Jaya, and Shah Alam) and eventually flow into the Straits of Malacca. Half of the river basin has been developed for various residential, commercial and agricultural uses and around 20% of it has also been declared as permanent forest reserves which was also previously reported in the news.

The approximate length of 120km of the Klang River falls under the purview of multiple different governing bodies which poses a challenge to how the river can be best managed.

Through nonprofit environmental engineering organisation The Ocean Cleanup, considerable efforts have been undertaken to improve the water quality of the Klang River that is deemed to be among fifty of the most polluted rivers in the world.

TRCRC planting trees with the local Temuan community from Kampung Kemensah along the Klang riverbank. -Photo by TRCRC team.TRCRC planting trees with the local Temuan community from Kampung Kemensah along the Klang riverbank. -Photo by TRCRC team.

Clean ups need to be coupled with restoring the riparian zones along the Klang River. The riparian zones are the land area between the aquatic and terrestrial habitat. When intact, riparian zones are important habitats for biodiversity and provide ecosystem services such as water quality improvement, flood mitigation, riverbank stabilisation and natural wildlife corridor.

For instance, the Lower Kinabatangan river in Sabah is one of only two places on earth where ten primate species are found, including the orangutan, proboscis monkey and Bornean gibbon. It is also home to over 250 birds, 50 mammal and 20 reptile species as well as 1,056 plant species.

The Lower Kinabatangan River is protected under the Sabah Wildlife Conservation Act 1997 and is actively being restored by the local communities in partnership with civil society organisations.

The increase in fragmentation of tropical rainforests underscores the importance of maintaining riparian zones as corridors and connectivity for biodiversity conservation. More significant efforts and investments are needed for habitat and species recovery. The restoration of human-altered riparian zones will eventually help to increase biodiversity value and allow ecosystems to perform their beneficial functions.

TRCRC partners with indigenous communities for collecting plant material for restoration projects to ensure the highest level of floristic diversity. -Photo by TRCRC team.TRCRC partners with indigenous communities for collecting plant material for restoration projects to ensure the highest level of floristic diversity. -Photo by TRCRC team.

Waterways are an excellent habitat for various species which would facilitate ecological functions such as pollination and seed dispersal which are vital for the survival of riparian vegetation.

As biodiversity conservation and climate change mitigation become more mainstream, we urge everyone involved to pay attention to conservation priorities, particularly the restoration of riparian corridors which can slow the unprecedented biodiversity loss we are experiencing today.

By maintaining and rebuilding these highways for biodiversity, we can ensure that species and their genetic diversity can survive for many more generations to come.

You can do your part by advocating for projects that plant the right tree in the right place, ensuring that we maximise benefits gained for the resources invested into conservation efforts.

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StarESG , river , nature


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