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River of Life project has fallen short of objectives

Source from: New Straits Times, Original Article


THE River of Life (RoL) project, which was supposed to breathe new life into the areas near Sungai Gombak and Sungai Klang in the city centre, has come under the microscope on whether it has met its objective.

Touted as a means to revive the polluted rivers and transform the city centre into a vibrant hub for its citizens, the RM4.4 billion project, expected to be completed next year, is reportedly already in less than stellar condition.

The long pool with fountains and sunken gardens modelled after Spain’s Alhambra, built behind the iconic Sultan Abdul Samad building, is showing signs of wear and tear.

The main spouts behind the buildings are rarely switched on, while the Turkish floral tiles are covered with moss. Its marble steps are cracked and the cobblestone pathway of Jalan Mah-kamah Persekutuan are loose and crumbling under the heat.

Conservationists have criticised the project, questioning whether its development was done at the cost of sacrificing the city’s heritage.


Dr Shuhana Shamsuddin, lead consultant for City Hall’s heritage trail master plan, said her unit was commissioned only after the construction for the mega project had begun.

Shuhana, a town planning and urban design specialist, said the job came with the understanding that RoL took precedence.

“We were just roped in to fulfil a requirement of completing the job on schedule. Whatever we did, we had to incorporate what they did.

“We had to play second fiddle to the RoL team and accept their proposals even if we had better ideas. There was no way we could counter propose.

“If by the time you want to implement something, the damage is done, you can’t restore the authenticity and time (age) to a place,” she said.

She said the river, being at the heart of KL, played a key role in the evolution of the city.

She said a crucial opportunity was missed to integrate RoL’s development in the city centre, especially in the historic area.

“KL has great potential to integrate the river corridors with its fragmented developments, but what it did was change it into something new instead of conserving the landscape.”

She said consultants and urban planners hired by the RoL team should have known better.

“The problem is the government commissioned a ‘beautification’ of the area. Had they approached it like a heritage trail, they would have seen things differently and looked at the rivers’ linkages and the historical context.”

She claimed there were no joint meetings with the RoL team, which comprised agencies, master planners and landscape architects, and when she reached out to them, they were not at liberty to comment on the proposals.

Shuhana said she had to point out to City Hall that the gradient of the pathway at Medan Pasar was too high for wheelchair users.


Heritage Urban Landscape specialist Dr Rohayah Che Amat believed that from a conservation standpoint, the project had failed as the ambience and historical setting had been altered with new features and structures.

“RoL should have stuck to just cleaning up the river,” she said.

She took aim at consultants and landscape architects who she felt should have stood up for the optics that had survived for a century.

“Yes, DBKL (City Hall) is responsible as the planner and regulator, but on the part of the consultancy firm and architects, there can’t be excuses such as (saying) they were only doing what they were told.

“They installed a long marble fountain near the plaza to cover the RoL pump. There are chips and cracks on the material, tiles and stones at water features and paths installed behind the Sultan Abdul Samad building.

“Does the landscape architect know that Malaysia is a tropical country? Now everything has to be maintained by DBKL at a high cost,” Rohayah said.

She cited a recent report stating that City Hall had to fork out RM1 million on repairs.

She also took issue with the lack of effort to preserve old rain trees behind St Mary’s Cathedral when they could have been incorporated into the plan.

The authorities, she said, also missed out on integrating into the project the crumbling and vacant colonial riverfront buildings, especially the old courthouse and the Land Survey Office.


Conservationist Mariana Isa called for the project to be revisited to see where it went wrong.

She said remedial efforts should be taken by City Hall in consultation with the Heritage Department and stakeholders.

“For better or worse, money was spent. It’s landed us with buildings that are empty and falling apart and new things that don’t make sense.”

She criticised the decision to install the umbrella structure in the area.

“The umbrella structure reminds you of Masjid Nabawi in Madinah, but there is only one Masjid Jamek and it’s unique to Malaysia. And unlike the mosque in Madinah, the structures here are not retractable.”


Institute of Landscape Architects Malaysia vice-president Dr Nor Atiah Ismail called for a review of the RoL project as the sum pumped into it did not justify a beautification project, but a rejuvenation of the river and a conservation of the urban ecology and heritage of KL.

“I was very excited about RoL. It was touted as the most expensive and ambitious river cleaning project by the international press.

“But I was sad when I visited the place. The mist and the fountains were piped water and the river was still muddy.

“There could have been more plants, better water quality and the use of more sustainable material,” said the academic, who was on the panel of judges appointed by the government to assess the submissions of five final consultants competing for the project in 2011.

Nor Atiah said the consultants were only judged on paper, but later, when judges were invited to two technical meetings to give their views, they were only shown the landscape master plan.

She said technical drawings or detailed construction drawings were not presented to them.

“Even how much input the consultants took from our advice was beyond our control. The final decision on the construction was made by the technical advisory committee under DBKL.”

However, she said, it was important to move forward by keeping the features and measures that work, while dropping those that did not.

She said the review of the RoL project should be steered by independent experts while involving relevant agencies to discover what went wrong.

She believed the spirit of the project had to be retained.

“The issue with RoL is with how the money was spent, but it is still a very important project. We can’t say that the project is a failure because there are more people going there compared with before, when it was a dumping ground. The water quality has improved, although minimally.”

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