River of Life is important for Kuala Lumpur, as it highlights the birth context of the city and raises awareness of the importance of the rivers, as well as their delicate ecosystem. -NSTP/Syarafiq Abd Samad

Rivers and kampung, or villages, have existed side by side for centuries.

Besides offering subsistence to village inhabitants through fishing and other activities, rivers are the backbone of life and economy for villages.

As the population grew and demands were placed on villages’ natural resources, rivers became unimportant. All over the world, urban rivers have been redirected, confined, turned into channels and streams, built over and, in some cases, forgotten.

In many major cities, rivers have been reduced to urban drainage systems that have left the water polluted and ecosystems destroyed.

Enter the river of life (RoL), river restoration or save the river projects. Major cities are now embracing their rivers to breathe new life into them. Together with a heightened awareness of climate change, local governments have brought up “river-talk” at international summits.

In England, the United Kingdom, for instance, 44 rivers, stretching some 2,500km, are legally protected as sites of special scientific interest (SSSI), but some have been affected by large-scale historical damage, agriculture and urban development.

Physical restoration of river channels, therefore, is necessary to bring the affected rivers into “favourable condition”.

Unfortunately, Malaysia’s RM4.4 billion RoL project, while it has beautified the areas near the Gombak and Klang rivers in the city centre, has failed to protect the city’s history and heritage, as claimed by conservationists.

RoL, scheduled for completion next year, was supposed to bring the community “back” to the river through connecting, transforming and invigorating the river into a vibrant waterfront, embracing the city’s rich historical, cultural and heritage values, and reconnecting it to the surrounding urban fabric.

What happened? Suffice to say the project was carried out at the expense of the city’s heritage. There was a lack of coordination between local authorities and the RoL team, and historical buildings fronting the river were not integrated into the project.

But, it’s not too late to save it. Review the project, rope in independent experts. Clean up the landmark Klang and Gombak rivers, which ecologists say are still muddy. Do it in stages.

“RoL is important for Kuala Lumpur, as it highlights the birth context of the city and raises awareness of the importance of the rivers, as well as their delicate ecosystem,” says a RoL planner and landscape designer.

Consider South Korea’s Cheonggyecheon River linear park in Seoul — dubbed one of the world’s greatest urban renewal projects. River restoration has turned the area around it into a “green oasis” — a 5.8km-long, crystal clear waterway, much like a “day-lit” stream corridor, which attracts more than 60,000 visitors daily.

The “failed” RoL could serve as a lesson for town planners as they contemplate plans for the proposed Kampung Baru development. One need not look far for an example of a development that incorporates the best elements of conservation and heritage.

The KLCC public park, for instance, is an urban sanctuary for all. Unique in its theme and concept, the park features a playground, symphony fountain, wading pool, jogging track, shelters and benches, patterned foot-paths and sculptures.

The verdant park also has some 1,900 indigenous trees and palms. It would do well for town planners to bear in mind that conservation “is key to preserving many of the world’s natural beauty”.

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