World Water Day: The Sungai-Longkang Problem
Affan Nasaruddin, Water Warriors, Universiti Malaya
“River or drain?”
“Rivers are clean, drains are dirty.”
“Sungai atau longkang?”
“Sungai bersih, longkang kotor.”
So went an exchange with a group of students when the teacher presented a photograph of a polluted urban waterway. And yet, according to the maps, it was a river.
Countless images of pastoral landscapes have imprinted in our minds that rivers are pristine, sparkling entities, a source of sustenance and life. How many of us can recognise the deep monsoon drains, with their concrete banks, for the rivers they once were—and in fact, still are?
There is a history to this. Towns and cities tend to develop near water: ports on the coast, or by rivers further inland. In the case of Kuala Lumpur, at the confluence of two rivers—the Gombak River and the Klang River. About a century ago, flooding was commonplace in downtown KL. At some point, the engineering wisdom was to dig rivers deep and wall them up, to increase both the volume of water collected and the velocity of water transported. Get lots of water out of the city quickly.
But as more and more of the city was developed over the decades that followed Independence—accelerated between the 1960s and 1990s—greenspace that would typically absorb rainwater was converted into concrete or tar surfaces, which do not absorb water. Instead, water becomes surface runoff, carried by networks of drains into rivers.
How many of us can recognise the deep monsoon drains, with their concrete banks, for the rivers they once were—and in fact, still are?
Perhaps the canalizing of rivers to mitigate floods have sent an indirect message: that rivers exist to get rid of what we do not want.
A river’s capacity is limited, and there is only so deep we can dig, so wide we can go. 100 years later, flash floods are commonplace, bringing us back to square one.
There is something about a river with reeds and trees on its banks that tells you it is a place of life. Conversely, there is something about a monsoon drain with concrete banks and bed that tells you it is not. Canalized rivers and backyard drains alike have become de facto receptacles of rubbish and wastewater—even though used water from kitchens and laundry machines are supposed to go into sewer systems, not storm drains. Perhaps the canalizing of rivers to mitigate floods have sent an indirect message: that rivers exist to get rid of what we do not want. This is how urban rivers become rubbish avenues.
Clean neighbourhood drains can support a lot of life, like tadpoles and fish. Observe the wildflowers: even nature knows that the banks of a river should be green, not grey. Photo credit: Benjamin Ong.
Children are often advised not to play in drains because they are dirty and dangerous. But do they have to be? There are clean and calm drains. There are dirty and depressing rivers. Yet, they are one and the same. Well-kept drains can harbour life; the more drains we keep clean, the cleaner our rivers will, in turn, be. Our urban rivers are the way they are today because we have treated these rivers like drains. If we are to have any hope of saving urban rivers, it will be because we have changed our understanding of and behaviour towards drains.
Find out more about sungai (rivers) vs. longkang (drains) in this talk.
If we are to have any hope of saving urban rivers, it will be because we have changed our understanding of and behaviour towards drains.
The teacher sits some twenty metres away from a “drain” near the edge of an urban forest, awaiting a group of students who climbed in to scoop some water out. They run a series of simple chemical tests. The results astonish the students—the water is clean. Sungai atau longkang?