A river restored breathes new life into Kuala Lumpur

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  • Inspired by a global trend of urban river restorations, then-prime minister Najib Razak in 2012 launched a megaproject to clean up the Kuala Lumpur’s rivers and beautify riverfront areas.
  • Ridiculed at first, the River of Life project has made notable strides towards its goals, and officials say it is on track to be completed on time and below budget.
  • The initiative is part of a complex legacy left by Najib, who was swept out of power amid a corruption scandal and is currently awaiting trial for breach of trust and abuse of power.
  • This is the third article in a six-part series about infrastructure projects in Peninsular Malaysia.

KUALA LUMPUR — By 2012, when then-prime minister Najib Razak formally launched the River of Life project to improve water quality and restore the aesthetic virtue of the Klang River, France had already demolished obsolete dams in the magnificent headwaters of the Loire River.

Oakland, California, was busy jackhammering the concrete culverts that served for decades as straitjackets on streams flowing from its coastal hills. Seoul, South Korea, had spent $384 million to demolish a central city highway and construct wastewater treatment plants that turned the Cheonggyecheon River into a promenade of reedy banks and tranquil pools of clean water.

In short, the 21st-century idea of mending rivers dirtied and damaged by the 20th century’s industrial hydraulics and waste was taking hold around the world. In forward-thinking cities, the old principle of harnessing flowing water for the unbridled use and convenience of man was being replaced by a new operating program. Restoring river habitat and ecological processes not only enhanced the quality of the human experience, it also added resilience to local economies.

“I believe there will be a drastic change to Kuala Lumpur’s image,” Najib said in a downtown Kuala Lumpur ceremony. “This is what Kuala Lumpur folks have been waiting for. The Klang River has all the elements to become an attractive waterfront bustling with daily activities. I visited the Cheonggyechoen River project in Seoul. The project is the best example of the transformation of a polluted and dirty river into a model river complete with beautiful walkways, bridges and fountains.”

Once notoriously smelly, Kuala Lumpur’s urban riverfront has been transformed into an attractive destination for dining and strolling. Image by Keith Schneider for Mongabay.

At the time, in his third year as prime minister, Najib was building a reputation in Southeast Asia for developing national economic development strategies that kept environmental goals in mind. It was well before a corruption scandal in the 1MDB national infrastructure development fund cost him re-election in May of 2018. Najib’s overarching Economic Transformation Program, a national strategy published in 2010 to make Malaysia a “top 20 nation” by 2020, included among its foremost priorities a commitment to “meeting present needs without compromising those of future generations.”

“In economic terms, growth will have to be achieved without running down Malaysia’s natural resources,” wrote the plan’s authors. “Malaysia will not achieve high-income status simply through the income derived from extracting Malaysia’s natural resources. In environmental terms, the government is committed to the stewardship and preservation of our natural environment and non-renewable resources. The government will ensure that environmental resources are properly priced and that the full costs of development are understood before investment decisions are made.”

Projects to expand and build new wastewater treatment plants were included in the transformation program. Big projects to add new lines to electric rail transit in Kuala Lumpur, and intercity fast electric trains, also were part of the plan. Najib promoted these and other nation-building projects as positive steps in clearing the water and air of damaging pollutants.

The River of Life project met those objectives. The $1.3 billion redevelopment of 10 kilometers (6.2 miles) of the Klang River in central Kuala Lumpur, and the cleanup of its waters and shoreline running 100 kilometers upriver, ranks as one of the hardest and most expensive urban river restoration projects ever undertaken.

Najib’s stated aim with the River of Life and other mega infrastructure projects was to turn the Kuala Lumpur metropolitan region into a competitor to Hong Kong, Shanghai and Singapore as an efficient, inviting and ecologically sensitive place to live and do business. Najib included the River of Life in national budgets supported by parliament, and recruited pledges from state and local treasuries to also finance the project.

Kuala Lumpur is following a formula that works elsewhere – replenishing the ecological functions of the Klang; improving water quality; and creating safe, interesting, and well-lit spaces for strolling. Image by Keith Schneider for Mongabay.

By any measure it was a political advance. The two most important steps in successful infrastructure development are sound planning and firm funding. On paper, it sounds pretty straightforward. But in the realpolitik of too many democracies, every aspect of project design, finance, management, contracts and public acceptance can be a dispiriting battle of competing ideas. Conflict often leads to long and costly delays that frequently disable and generally kill big infrastructure projects.

The file cabinets and hard drives of government agencies all over the world are filled with infrastructure development plans that cost a fortune to draw up and turned out to be a waste of time. That was not the case with Malaysia’s Economic Transformation Program.

Almost a decade after Najib’s initiative was launched, Kuala Lumpur is a different city than it was when he took office in 2009. Fast-rail transit lines cross the metropolitan region. A huge new financial center is under construction in downtown Kuala Lumpur. The metro region’s population, now almost 7.5 million and growing by nearly 195,000 new residents annually, is also getting more prosperous, according to government economic data. Some of the world’s largest and most elegant retail malls are here, packed with shoppers.

The River of Life project, moreover, is 90 percent complete, and on time and within budget, say its government managers. Its primary shoreline promenade and parks, striking fountains and misty cobalt-blue nighttime light shows are now among Kuala Lumpur’s most noted and visited destinations.

Kuala Lumpur turned the River of Life into a nighttime cobalt blue promenade. Image by Keith Schneider for Mongabay.

Successful as it may have been in Kuala Lumpur, the Economic Transformation Program is, arguably, the principal reason that Najib lost his bid for a third term as Malaysia’s prime minister. The plan included vastly expanding Malaysia’s intercity rail transit network, investing in fossil fuel infrastructure and electricity generation, and enormous real-estate developments, among them a big mixed-use office, housing and retail district on Kuala Lumpur’s periphery.

The flood of investment, a sizable share coming from China, contributed to more than a doubling of Malaysia’s national debt during Najib’s term to $250 billion, or 80 percent of the country’s gross national product. A corruption scandal erupted in 2015 inside 1Malaysia Development Berhad, the national development fund that Najib started and directed. 1MDB financed a number of the real-estate and energy transformation projects; its debt now stands at an estimated $13 billion.

An investigation by the U.S. Federal Bureau of Investigation found that $4.5 billion is missing from 1MDB. Najib is accused of directing $731 million into his personal accounts, a charge he denies. After being arrested in July, Najib is currently on bail awaiting trial on three counts of criminal breach of trust and one count of abuse of power.

It is not yet clear if the cost of Najib’s infrastructure program, and the 1MDB scandal, will hurt confidence in Malaysia’s planning infrastructure. It likely will not. Since 1966, nine years after it gained independence from Britain, Malaysia has devoted considerable government time and expense to preparing successive five-year plans aimed at stabilizing its democracy and directing its economy.

The River of Life, one of the most expensive river restoration projects every undertaken, has transformed the Klang River shoreline in Kuala Lumpur. Image by Keith Schneider for Mongabay.

Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad, Najib’s one-time mentor, is also a loyal advocate of infrastructure planning and investment as tools for economic development. Economists in and outside the country credit Malaysia’s emergence as a modern contemporary state to infrastructure development during Mahathir’s first administration from 1981 to 2003. During those years he recruited Japanese, South Korean, U.S. and European financiers and institutions to invest in transportation, manufacturing and real-estate projects, many of them identified in five-year plans.

Mahathir’s most visible monuments from that era are the iconic 452-meter (1,483-foot) Petronas Twin Towers in Kuala Lumpur, the country’s most famous landmark. For five years after Mahathir dedicated them in August 1999, the towers were the tallest buildings in the world.

Not all of Mahathir’s ideas were as triumphal. Another of his big infrastructure projects was the Love Our Rivers campaign, launched in 1993 to clean up the Klang and several more of Malaysia’s most polluted rivers. The project is largely viewed as an expensive failure.

When it was launched by Najib, the River of Life project also received its share of public criticism over the projected cost and the government’s capacity to restore a river that has been grossly mistreated for over 150 years.

Much of the criticism has quieted. The River of Life project, well on its way to being finished in 2020, appears to have skittered past the current political disruption. In the post-election fallout, questions have been raised about waste management and public awareness efforts related to the project, but the riverfront itself is steadily ascending the stairway to prominence as one of Kuala Lumpur’s most attractive and recognizable landmarks.

The confluence of the Klang and Gombak River is where the impressive Masid Jamek Mosque was finished in 1907, and includes some of the city’s most historic government buildings and market areas. Image by Keith Schneider for Mongabay.

Getting there has been a feat of management, hydrology and engineering.

The Klang River flows west to east for 120 kilometers (75 miles) from its headwaters in the highlands outside the city to the Strait of Malacca. The Department of Environment —now a unit of the Ministry of Energy, Science, Technology, Environment & Climate Change — maintains nearly 1,000 water-quality monitoring stations on the country’s 477 rivers. More than half, according to the most recent report, from 2016, are classified as “clean.”  The agency classified the Klang as one of Malaysia’s five most polluted rivers.

The Klang drains a 1,288-square-kilometer (497-square-mile) basin that produces all manner of sewage, grease, farm chemicals, and thousands of tons of paper and plastic trash and food garbage, dumped into its fetid brown waters. Decades ago, people, businesses and neighborhoods turned their backs on the filthy river. Parcels of land were vacated only to become new informal neighborhoods for squatter households.

“Doing this project involves a hard approach and a soft approach,” said Mohamad Nasir Bin Mohamad Noh, director general of the water ministry’s Department of Irrigation and Drainage, the lead agency charged with stemming pollution and trash in the Klang. “Most rivers in Malaysia have good water quality. A few years after we finish, this river will have good water quality, too.”

One of the primary goals of the River of Life project is to turn water quality from class 5, a designation that makes it dangerous to approach, to class 2b, or clean enough to swim in. The idea is to do the same thing Shanghai did with its Huangpu River, a tributary of the Yangtze that flows through the city’s center, and was once one of the smelliest and dirtiest rivers in the world.

Shanghai constructed a network of new sewage treatment plants that eliminated the odor, cleaned up the water, and compelled the city to build the Bund, a shoreline promenade to showcase the cascades of light, like shimmering waterfalls, that tumble down the sides of Shanghai’s skyscrapers.

Mohamad Nasir Bin Mohamad Noh, the director general of the Malaysia Department of Irrigation and Drainage, the lead agency charged with stemming pollution and trash in the Klang and managing the River of Life project. Image by Keith Schneider for Mongabay.

Three-quarters of the budget for the River of Life project is dedicated to improving water quality. Two new wastewater treatment plants are nearing completion. Fifteen smaller plants are being expanded and modernized. A 748-hectare (1,848-acre) area in central Kuala Lumpur was torn up to build or replace miles of sewer lines to serve the plants. Several informal neighborhoods of squatters, some 1,300 households in all, were moved to new public housing.

Under the supervision of the Department of Drainage and Irrigation, project contractors also built five small wastewater treatment plants for wet markets, installed 460 traps to capture floating rubbish, and 231 grease traps at restaurants and food courts. A public education campaign to help city residents and business owners understand the value of the river and the usefulness of keeping it free of garbage and grease accompanies the construction.

The balance of the project budget, $337 million, was devoted to redeveloping the near-shore neighborhoods where the Klang meets the Gombak River, where Kuala Lumpur was founded in 1857. The confluence of the Klang and Gombak is also where the impressive Sultan Abdul Samad Jamek Mosque was finished in 1909, and includes some of the city’s most historic government buildings and market areas.

The confluence of the Klang and Gombak Rivers gave Kuala Lumpur its name, which literally means “muddy confluence.” The river restoration project has breathed new life into the area. Image by Keith Schneider for Mongabay.

In 2011, AECOM, a U.S. engineering and construction firm, was awarded the contract to tie the 10.7-kilometer stretch of central city river to neighborhoods. AECOM remodeled the grounds around the mosque to include new public spaces. It designed an inviting promenade along the river and several shady parks filled with flowers. These parks, with their views of the mosque and close proximity to a transit station on one of the city’s popular metro lines, add immeasurably to the beauty of this city’s birthplace.

These and other beautification steps set what AECOM calls a “strategic framework” for attracting more residents, businesses and visitors to the river. The company projects that the restored Klang will generate 35,000 new affordable residences, 1 million square meters (10.8 million square feet) of commercial space, and enough new businesses to employ 27,000 workers.

“Cities transform over time,” says Scott Dunn, one of the company’s senior executives, in a promotional video. “There are certain critical times that really spur a lot of transformation. This project will really be the catalyst for the city to change.”

In other cities, river restoration has proved to be a seminal feature of urban revitalization. Kuala Lumpur is following a formula that works elsewhere: replenishing the ecological functions of the Klang; improving water quality; and creating safe, interesting and well-lit spaces for strolling. The goal is to produce an urban asset from a long-neglected river that has never served that purpose except to carry away a tide of metropolitan waste.

Can the Klang River be contextually integrated into the quality of life and economic prosperity that Kuala Lumpur seeks? Judging from the stream of people strolling along its promenade by day and admiring its blue mist by night, the River of Life displays every indication of getting there.

This is the second in a six-article series on infrastructure in Peninsular Malaysia. Read the first article here and the second here.

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This story first appeared on Mongabay

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