ONLINE: Volunteers help to keep Sungai Way clean

Source: The Star Online

KUALA LUMPUR, 1 April 2012 - A company's community service efforts have helped bring a river back to life.

Volunteers help to keep Sungai Way clean

FIRST there was a river, and it was filthy beyond belief. Nothing could live in it except for blood worms, which were indicators that something was not right with the health of the river. The stench from the water was so bad that people dared not approach it.

In fact, no one regarded it as a proper river because it looked more like a big monsoon drain with its concrete banks. Everyone treated it like a big dumping ground. The water was the colour of teh tarik. It was a dead river.

Today, if you go to the Sungai Way river in Petaling Jaya, you'd be surprised to see plants, fish and insects thriving there. You could even have a picnic on the grassy ground above its concrete banks, under shady trees. The stench is no more.

It is hard to imagine that just a couple of years ago, it was a dead zone. The river has come back to life, thanks to an environmentally-conscious community and a certain organisation's corporate social responsibility (CSR) efforts.

Sungai Way is located in an industrial landscape surrounded by factories. One of the companies there, Guinness Anchor Bhd (GAB), saw that it could carry out a community service in its own backyard by leading the way in cleaning up the river.

The GAB Foundation, established in 2007, is the company's CSR entity that carries out initiatives in three areas - environmental conservation, education and community. That same year, the foundation kickstarted the WATER (Working Actively Through Education and Rehabilitation) Project.

With the Global Environment Centre (GEC) as its partner and the support of various government departments, the foundation began to work on rehabilitating the 2.5km-long Sungai Way. It is a tributary of the Penchala River which connects to the Klang River.

Volunteers help to keep Sungai Way clean

Since time immemorial, people have built communities along rivers, and Sungai Way has had settlements since the 1870s. The area became a New Village settlement in the 1950s and was even visited by then US vice-president Richard Nixon and his wife.

In modern times, river communities, especially urban ones, do not rely on streams for their water supply. Thus the lack of appreciation for rivers and their biodiversity.

The WATER Project uses two approaches: the hard approach which involves the rehabilitation of a river, and the soft approach which is to educate the community and create awareness.

Dr K. Kalithasan, coordinator of GEC's River Care Programme, remembers his childhood days when he used to play and swim in the river near his home.

“My parents taught me to appreciate nature, to care for the river, because they were dependent on the river for drinking water, for catching fish, and for swimming and bathing,” said Dr Kalithasan. “That's how we know how important a river is. Unfortunately for the younger generation now, they don't care about the river, because their water comes from the tap and their fish, from the supermarket. If they want recreation, they go to a waterpark.”

As such, it was important to engage the community and encourage them to volunteer in the cleaning up process. The foundation also gathered GAB employees for the effort.

“There were limited places for volunteers, or else we would have had more employees,” said Renukah Indrarajah, director of GAB Foundation. “There was a lot of excitement in carrying out the project because it was a way of getting back to nature.”

GAB's area sales manager Jeevan Sandragasam led three teams of about 40 GAB staff members to clean up the river, paint the banks and cut the grass there.

“The river was filthy. We even found a bloated dead dog; it was disgusting but the teamwork showed by everyone was commendable. They remained cheerful even under the hot sun,” said Jeevan. “At the end of the day, we could see the difference after the river was cleaned up, and that made us happy.”

Volunteers help to keep Sungai Way clean

It was not easy to engage the surrounding community, as Dr Kalithasan and his team from GEC found out. They had to practically knock on doors to get people to listen. But over time, the people came to accept the importance of caring for the environment.

“The communities are running their own recycling projects,” Renukah proudly declared. “Instead of dumping rubbish into the river, they are now looking at ways to make money, by composting or recycling. Used cooking oil, which they used to pour down the drain, are now used to produce candles which are sold for some side income.”

Said Dr Kalithasan: “Most people regard volunteering as going out once a month or once a year to do their part. That's only one way. But after we rehabilitated the Penchala River, some of the GAB staff members began to learn how to prepare compost with their organic waste. This is also volunteerism. It means you and I can do something within our means. To help once a year is good, but it is not going to help the environment that much.”

Rubbish and grease traps were installed at the river, trees were planted along the banks, and small islands of vegetation were created on the river itself.

Educating the community does not stop there. The foundation continues to hold workshops and other activities such as the River Carnival and “Storytime with Gabby” sessions for children to learn about water and the environment. There is the River Care Education Centre in Taman Desa Ria in the neighbourhood, where there are books and other resources for children and adults. There is also a small laboratory where visitors can carry out their own water tests.

Volunteers who run the River Care Education Centre are residents from the surrounding communities. Muhamad Zaini Abdullah Thani, 45, and Zinal Abidin Kamarulzaman, 52, who are both self-employed, have been helping out at the centre since it was set up. The centre is also a collection point for used oil, and offers candle-making classes.

“We are open on weekends, from 8am to 4pm,” said Zinal. “The community here sends us their used cooking oil.”

“Sometimes they call us after 4pm and we open up the place for them to send their cooking oil,” added Muhamad Zaini.

A Mobile River Care Unit, which is based on the same concept but in moveable form, visited 15 schools and communities last year.

“The van turns up at a community. We set up chairs and tents. There are computer games. Dr Kalithasan and his team explain to the people how their daily activities affect rivers. They are given a chance to check out the specimens that live in a river. They get to do their own water-testing. And we also teach them about composting and candle-making,” said Renukah.

GAB's assistant brand manager of marketing, Kelly Chng, was one of the volunteers at a storytelling session for children. She helped to facilitate group activities, and found the session to be a real eye-opener.

“The storyteller was very creative,” said Chng. “We went to a school where the children came from the lower income group. As a city girl, I've never experienced something like that. A simple story could captivate the children so much.”

The foundation currently receives RM2mil yearly from GAB. About RM1.2mil has been spent on the river rehabilitation project. The employees are all very involved with the project, said Renukah, and some of them even sent their children for the Gabby activities. Every year, the company holds a Big Day Out, where all employees are given a day off to participate in a community project of their choice. They are put into teams and given some seed money.

“Last year, we wanted the projects to be linked to our water project,” said Renukah. “We had employees going out and restoring habitats at riverbanks.”

The team from the marketing department raised funds and bought water-purifiers which they installed in villages in Kuala Selangor and Kuala Kubu Baru to provide clean drinking water for the rural folk.

“We try and encourage teams to give those who are not in leadership positions the opportunity to lead so that they have a chance to shine. They also get to tell their bosses what to do!” said Renukah with a laugh.

“In the first year, the staff members came back and exchanged stories; it was so enriching. Everyone was on a natural high, and they all looked forward to the following year,” Renukah added.