Blog a book
May 29, 2012
Flush away the problem
May 29, 2012

Saving Sungai Klang

Long treated like a sewer rather than a river, can Sungai Klang be revived?


BY NOW, many people would have noticed that something is up in several rivers within the Klang Valley. In Ulu Klang, shady trees that line Sungai Klang have been sacrificed for slope protection works. Where Sungai Kerayong flows through Cheras, a water treatment plant is under construction. In Selayang, the banks of Sungai Gombak have been beautified.


We are cleaning up Sungai Klang – again. These works are all part of the mega River of Life (ROL) project to mop up Sungai Klang in its upper reaches and where it passes through Kuala Lumpur. Once the river runs clear, beautification schemes and commercial development will come up along 10.7km of the river in the city centre, in areas like Titiwangsa, Masjid Jamek and the Putra World Trade Centre.


It is a bid to emulate successful riverfront developments seen in cities the world over. However, one question persists in the minds of many: Will the river rehabilitation work this time?

The past 30 years have seen billions of ringgit spent on numerous projects to revive Sungai Klang. Yet, the river remains as murky as ever. Needless to say, scepticism is rife that the latest project will be like its predecessors – so-called clean-ups which focused on river beautification rather than the crucial task of improving water quality.


Department of Drainage and Irrigation (DID) director Datuk Lim Chow Hock, however, brushes aside such doubts, asserting that things are being done differently this time around.


“In the past, most of the attempts to clean up the Klang River systems have been in an ad hoc manner by different agencies and municipalities. There was a lack of high-level (ministerial level) co-ordination and no regular follow-up monitoring. Previous projects were not on such a big scale. We’re looking at a wider area now, and not just one stream,” says the head of the river basin and coastal zone management division.


The ROL project area covers Sungai Klang from its upstream until its confluence with Sungai Kerayong, as well as its tributaries, the Gombak, Batu, Bunus, Jinjang and Kerayong rivers – altogether totalling 110km. The clean-up effort will target pollution sources in Kuala Lumpur and the municipalities of Selayang and Ampang Jaya.


Early, proper planning also sets the latest river clean-up endeavour apart from past schemes, adds Lim. “We identified what the pollutants are and where they’re from, and zero down to the agencies responsible. That’s how we came out with the 12 initiatives to clean up the rivers.”


The main culprits which are fouling Sungai Klang are: effluent from sewerage treatment plants (80%); commercial and residential centres (9%); industries and workshops (5%); food industries, restaurants and wet markets (4.2%); and squatters and others (1.8%).


The clean-up initiatives aim to tackle the problem at the source – that is, curb pollution from entering the river in the first place.


So, the plan is to: better-treat sewage; handle wastewater from wet markets; install gross pollutant traps in main drains; treat the water in flood retention ponds before releasing downstream; build facilities to filter and treat river water; trap greasy waste in food courts; reduce pollution from squatters; prevent industrial discharges; upgrade drainage and stormwater systems; check erosion from urban development; improve rubbish disposal; and study on other pollutants.


The Government has allocated RM3bil for the task of raising the river water quality from the current Class III and Class IV (not suitable for body contact) to Class IIb (suitable for body contact and recreational usage) by 2020. The project kicked off a year ago and different parcels are in various stages of completion.

“When completed, the bulk of the contaminants in Sungai Klang will be captured. The river will be transformed into a vibrant and liveable waterfront with high economic value,” says Lim.


He says some 77,000 tonnes of rubbish end up in Sungai Klang annually and currently, only a third of that is trapped. Under the ROL project, more trash rakes, trash screens and floating booms are being placed along rivers and in flood detention ponds. Also, gross pollutant traps (GPT) will be installed in major drains to prevent trash, silt and grease from ending up in rivers.


While only a few drains had GPTs in previous clean-ups, the ROL project will have some 300 units. Lim, however, hopes to see less of such devices in future. “They will not be necessary if people stop littering. We would have failed if we need to add GPTs.”


To improve the city’s drainage and stormwater management system, river banks are being shored up to prevent erosion, which clouds up waterways. To maintain a natural riverine habitat, DID is moving away from concrete linings of river banks. At Kampung Sungai Mulia in Gombak, stacks of Green Terramesh (which are made from coconut husk fibres sandwiched between layers of wire mesh) protect the banks of Sungai Gombak.


“These slow down the water flow and allow natural filtration,” explains Anita Ainan, chief assistant director at DID Kuala Lumpur.


Along Sungai Kerayong, the “soft rock” is used. These are heavy-duty geo-textile bags filled with sand to a weight of two tonnes each. Arranged in stacks along the riverside, they protect the waterway and offer a substrate for vegetation to take root. Anita says the choice of river bank protection technique depends on the flow velocity and availability of riverside land.


“We are going towards more eco-friendly methods but for areas with space constrain, we still have to use concrete walls,” says Anita.


Filtering the dirt


As raw or partially treated sewage is a major culprit, the ROL project emphasises the upgrading of sewage treatment plants (see story on P4). It will also see an approach to river clean-up that is new to Malaysia – treatment of raw river water. Fourteen river water treatment plants will be built to cleanse the Gombak, Batu, Klang and Kerayong rivers.


One RM10mil plant is under construction for Sungai Kerayong in Taman Yu Lik, Cheras Baru.


Nazri Yasmin, chief assistant director at DID Kuala Lumpur, says river water will be diverted to the plant and run through filters consisting of various microbe-enriched media, to remove pollutants.


The cleansed water is then released back into the river. The type of filtration system will depend on how badly polluted the river is. DID is also planning such water treatment facilities for the Puah and Benteng flood detention ponds.


Most of the foul waste of wet markets end up in streams. The newer ones of Kuala Lumpur’s 28 wet markets are connected to public sewers but not the older ones. Under the ROL project, Kuala Lumpur City Hall (DBKL) will build wastewater treatment plants at markets in Selayang, Old Klang Road, Air Panas, Sentul and Pudu.


Hew See Seng, senior deputy director (drainage) at DBKL, says there are no sewer lines near enough to the five markets. Furthermore, Indah Water Konsortium prefers not to have raw effluent flowing into public sewers as this will burden sewage treatment plants.


“Laying long sewer lines and upgrading treatment plants might end up being more costly and time-consuming (than building the treatment plants),” says Hew.


DBKL deputy director-general (project implementation and maintenance) Mohd Najib Mohd says construction will start within the next two months for the plants in the Selayang and Old Klang Road markets, with completion due for early next year. He says due to space constrains, DBKL has chosen a membrane bio-reactor which is a compact treatment system. The plant in Selayang market along Jalan Ipoh, for instance, will sit on a 100sqm space. The Korean technology is being provided by Buditranz Consult.


Hew says designing the plant for the Pudu market, however, will be challenging as the over 1,000 stalls there are spread all over, and there is hardly any space for a treatment plant.


DBKL has received RM3.5mil this year alone for the plants but with one costing between RM2mil and RM4mil, Najib fears that funds might run short.


Not widespread enough


The ROL project might have zeroed in on many pollution sources but many others have been omitted. Communal oil and grease traps have been installed in 26 food courts in Kuala Lumpur and 20 each in Ampang Jaya and Selayang but there are thousands of other restaurants and hawker centres that still discharge waste straight into drains.


Off the Middle Ring Road II in Ulu Klang, scores of polluting businesses such as car workshops line the banks of Sungai Klang. These premises have drains that discharge directly into the river. By right, these businesses have no place sitting on the river reserve – but do the Ampang Jaya Municipal Council or Selangor Government have plans to relocate them?


Likewise, riverine squatter settlements often foul up streams with trash and raw sewage but the ROL project only has plans for stormwater treatment plants at Taman Melawati and Kampung Fajar in Ulu Klang. Lim says this is an interim measure to handle the pollution as relocation of squatters will be a long-term effort.


Each time it rains, Sungai Klang turns the colour of teh tarik because of land-clearing for residential development in the upstream areas such as Taman Melawati, Kemensah and Ukay Perdana. The siltation not only starves the river of oxygen but makes the river shallow, raising the possibility of flooding. The ROL project will only upgrade two sediment ponds, in Taman Bukit Mulia, Bukit Antarabangsa and Bukit Botak, Selayang – which does little to stop eroded soil from fouling up Sungai Klang,


There are concerns that the ROL project focuses too strongly on hard engineering measures – such as treatment plants for river water and wet markets effluent and GPTs – which are costly and work only with proper operation and maintenance. And treating river water is an “end-of-pipeline” solution. It does nothing to prevent pollution. Also, GPTs need regular removal of the trapped trash and silt if they are to perform their role. Same goes for oil and grease traps.


Lim asserts that the structural measures are necessary, but have to be completed by non-structural measures such as beefing up enforcement and raising public awareness.


“We can’t be cleaning the river and on the other hand, people continue throwing rubbish into the river.” To prevent river siltation, he says municipal councils will have to enforce earthworks bylaws requiring development sites to have sediment ponds.


To ensure smooth implementation, he says the ROL projects are being closely monitored by three committees right from the planning stage to the implementation, operation and maintenance stages, according to Key Performance Indexes.


But one contentious point remains: the ROL’s scope of only the upper catchment tributaries and the stretch of Sungai Klang which flows through Kuala Lumpur, which is where the lucrative riverfront development will be sited. So beyond the city centre, Sungai Klang will again be fouled by nasty discharges as it passes through other highly developed areas of Selangor.


Lim says clean-up of the rest of the Klang river basin will be in future phases but there have been no official announcements on this. Without similar efforts, Sungai Klang will never be truly clean. So now, we are cleaning up the river – only to mess it up again downstream.


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