A river restored breathes new life into Kuala Lumpur

Ridiculed at first, this Malaysian megaproject has made notable strides towards its goals, and officials say it is on track to be completed on time and below budget.

klang river malaysia
Inspired by a global trend of urban river restorations, then-prime minister Najib Razak in 2012 launched a megaproject to clean up Kuala Lumpur’s rivers and beautify riverfront areas. Image: Tianyake,CC BY-SA 2.0, via IFPRI Flicker

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 20thcentury’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.”

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.”

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. 

Najib Razak, former prime minister, Malaysia

“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.

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 per cent 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.

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.

This story was published with permission from Mongabay.com. Read the full story.

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