It is somewhat hard to appreciate now, but when Kuala Lumpur started life, it was a frontier settlement, deep in the jungle. Of the original 87 miners who landed at the confluence of the Klang and Gombak rivers in 1857, more than two-thirds died within the first year, principally of malaria. But the fortunes that could be made from tin mining kept wave after wave of settlers coming. Around their needs grew up a town, which over a century and a half turned into the modern metropolis of KL.
Before roads and railways were built, KL’s only effective link to the outside world was via its navigable rivers. Over time though, the city’s residents turned their backs on these once crucial waterways, and they became the sad specimens that can be seen today. Smelly, polluted and brown-coloured, they are used now primarily as run-offs for storm water and effluent.
In tourist terms, KL’s rivers are probably the city’s most underused resource. Though travellers may hang out in green areas, the vast majority of visitors barely seem to register the existence of the rivers, never mind see them up close. It is surprisingly easy though to take a riverside stroll, and get a completely different perspective on KL. Be warned, this is not advisable during or after heavy rain.
By 2020 however, visitors to KL may well be presented with a completely different picture. An ambitious initiative called River of Life is underway, which aims to reverse decades of neglect. The project is taking a three-pronged approach: cleaning up 110km of waterways in and around KL; beautifying a 10.7km stretch of the riverfront in the city centre; and commercial development.
Whether the artists’ impressions of what KL’s rivers will look like by the end of this decade prove fanciful is of course anyone’s guess. Malaysia has come up with umpteen grand projects since independence; none of them has lived up to their hype. But cynicism aside, at least the River of Life is a solid, well-thought out plan.
KL’s waterways may never prove the tourist draw that the Seine is for Paris, or the Grand Canal is for Venice, but if they are cleaner and greener, then that will be no bad thing, for tourists and visitors alike. Paradoxically, if the project does bring about a major transformation, it will be even harder to appreciate the challenge facing the city’s first settlers when they arrived by river all those years ago.
By Pat Fama
Last updated on 27th February, 2015.