From Biodiversity Gardens Capacity Building Workshop with Affan Nasaruddin, Water Warriors (Co-Founder)
Affan Nasaruddin is a project officer of Water Warriors (WW). WW is an in-campus NGO which focuses on water conservation efforts. It is under University of Malaya’s (UM) Sustainability and Living Labs. Affan co-founded WW with his wife, Siti Norasiah Abdul Kadir (Asiah) in 2013. They are supported by volunteers, university staff, students and lecturers who are concerned about water bodies in UM, and work together to solve water-related issues. WW also has been working on water – related environmental education, teaching kids about wetlands, ponds, restoration of lakes and river monitoring.
How Water Warriors started
In 2013, Affan had just finished his undergraduate program. He got the opportunity to work as a research assistant with Dr. Zeeda Fatimah Mohamad. While working as a research assistant, he went to Japan to present a poster. This was Affan’s first academic journey in UM. He was quite impressed with the people of Japan, especially their way of taking care of the environment.
Affan realized that academics tend to do research about other places but seldom look at the context of the university itself. As researchers or environmentalists, how can we talk about other places without solving problems closer to home first? That really hit Affan.
So began the first task of WW — to restore the Varsity Lake in UM. In the Malay language, it is known as Tasik Varsiti. At the time, the Tasik Varsiti was in a very bad condition due to eutrophication (increased nutrient content in the water). The abundance of nutrients led to algal bloom that killed off fishes and other aquatic life in the lake. It was a dead place, and nobody dared to go near the lake. One could see rubbish and dead animals floating on the lake surface. As a fresh graduate back then, Affan was spirited and determined. With Asiah’s assistance, he spent a lot of his time at the lake, to clean and monitor the quality of its water. He didn’t expect other people to help him. People looked at them as if they were weird. However, Affan just kept on with the work.
Asiah went through UM’s archive to uncover the history of Tasik Varsiti. When people speak of history, Affan says, we often refer to certain individuals or buildings, but not a park or a place like Tasik Varsiti. But, when they looked through the archived magazines, they could see that Tasik Varsiti was much more alive in the past. Asiah and Affan felt that Tasik Varsiti is part of UM’s history and that it was important to highlight that. So, using the photos taken in the 1960s and 1970s, Asiah made a video about the history of Tasik Varsiti. In the photos, we can see how students used to carry out all kinds of activities at the lake, including catching ducks!
Affan and Asiah’s work and initiative soon came to the attention of the UM’s top management. This led to the initiation of a project known as ‘Revival of Tasik Varsiti’ in 2014. The project had 3 phases: the first phase focused on research activities, the second phase aimed to fix the lake water, and the third phase was to bring in aquatic lives e.g. fish.
Affan and his team wanted to involve the campus community in this revival project. Usually, development projects in the campus only involve the development unit and contractors. However, in this lake revival project, Affan and his team tried to get the campus community, i.e. staff and students, involved so that the campus community would understand the aim of the project. They also wanted to foster a sense of belonging to the campus environment. Throughout the project, students and lecturers from different faculties went into the lake and helped remove trash. Some of the interesting findings include digging out a washing machine, a diskette and a hand phone from the bottom of the lake.
The project took around 10 to 11 months to complete. As a result, the water quality of Tasik Varsiti improved greatly. The lake water is today safe for body contact, and the campus community can carry out recreational activities such as kayaking and water sports at the lake.
After the revival project, WW was required by the university management to look into other aspects of water conversation such as water-saving efforts, rivers, and drains. They have been given a greater responsibility. Currently, WW is working closely with the development unit of UM on water conservation.
Drains vs Rivers
What are the differences between a drain and river? Affan first asks us to imagine the typical drain: smelly, oily, full of pests (such as mosquitoes) and trash. Actually, such things happen because of sullage i.e. wastewater from house kitchens. But let’s look back at the actual function of a drain. There are many people who think that drains are meant to channel wastewater and that they are allowed to release anything into the drains. But this is not true. The ONLY function of a drain is to drain rainwater.
It is common in Malaysia for people dispose of the water from kitchens or washing machines into the drains. This should not happen. But, how do we solve it? One of the proper ways is to channel the wastewater to the sewers. Or, we can develop filtration systems such as directing wastewater into a container filled with sand, pebbles & living plants before discharging the water to the ground.
What does a good drain look like? Dry, clean, structurally in good condition, has water flowing (instead of being stagnant), odourless, and much better if it sustains some lifeforms such as mosses, guppies and tadpoles.
In Malaysia, the structure of some rivers and their surrounding environments makes them look like a longkang (the word ‘drain’ in BM). The implementation of such river modifications started back in the 1960s and 1970s to solve flooding issues. By channelising and straightening the pathway of a river, the river water flows much faster towards the main river. Affan has surveyed the UM community. He finds that most people do not realise that there is a river in UM. They assume the river is a big drain, despite the fact that the river is officially known as Sungai Pantai. The construction method, people’s mindsets and the bad habit of discharging wastewater into the river makes our dear sungai look like a longkang.
Lives in Rivers
What sort of life can be found in urban rivers? Frogs, fishes, wildflowers, dragonflies, fig trees, palm trees. When WW did a biodiversity survey of the urban river in UM campus, they found butterflies, dragonflies, wildflowers, tadpoles, fishes, and many other wild animals. There are so many interesting lifeforms that you can encounter around the river. This happens especially when the river has concrete walls. The animals often reside within the crevices of the concrete. The material is not meant to support life, but with the appearance of cracks, plants and animals miraculously manage to survive in a concrete environment.
Another case of agenda ‘me-longkang-kan’ was studied in Bukit Kiara where a stream was channelised into a drain. This is quite saddening because streams are precious in the urban context. Nonetheless, people often undervalue them. Once the stream was transformed into a drain, people started to dump rubbish and discharge wastewater into it. The channelization is a big loss to citizens as well as wildlife.
There is an alternative drainage system which is more eco-friendly: the bio-ecological drainage system. This drainage system was introduced in the Faculty of Engineering, University of Science, Malaysia (USM). With this system, there is no typical concrete longkang. Instead, the drains are enclosed with earth. Holes are created and a modular is inserted and covered. When it rains, water will seep into the modular and flow into lower areas. As the water enters the modular, filtration happens so that the water is purified and oxygenated. This process improves the overall quality of water. Aside from USM, there are a few places in KL that have implemented such drainage systems.
Ponds are common as they are multi-functional. Ponds can be used for aesthetic purposes, fish-rearing, educational and recreational activities as well as for sedimentation. Usually, a pond is created with a specific purpose. However, in the urban context, a pond often becomes a source of water or food for wildlife such as birds. With ponds, humans and wildlife share benefits.
So, why don’t we make wildlife ponds? There is a wildlife pond at the courtyard of Rimba Ilmu in UM. The pond itself attracts wildlife. There are lots of animals, such as frogs, dragonflies, water striders and so on, residing in the pond. The concept of wildlife ponds is not very popular in Malaysia, although it is quite common among Europeans.
There are many online references that guide beginners who want to build a wildlife pond. If you are concerned about mosquitos, you can add fishes such as guppies in the pond. The fish will eat mosquito larvae.
There is also a reference book: A Guide to Freshwater Fauna of Ponds in Singapore that provides detailed information of some water-loving animals that will visit your pond.
Wetlands are known as Tanah Bencah in the Malay language. In Malaysia, there are a lot of wetlands. One of the most famous wetlands in Malaysia is Putrajaya Wetlands Park. It is a man-made wetland that helps improve water quality. How does a wetland work? As the stream water enters the lake, the plants in the wetland will take up nutrients through their roots for growth. By doing so, the plants help to remove contaminants from the water. They also help remove sediments from the water. One can see the whole filtration process at Putrajaya Wetlands Park. Its incoming river water is quite turbid but the outflow is much cleaner.
The functions of a wetland include water-filtering, flood and erosion control, and habitat and food source for fishes and other animals. There are many people who view a wetland as a place that is unstructured and messy. However, this kind of environment is able to accommodate high biodiversity and provide food, resting and nesting place for wildlife. Wetlands are also great spots for fishing, canoeing, hiking & bird-watching (as there are many water birds and migratory birds). And they can serve as enjoyable outdoor ‘classrooms’ for people of all ages.
However, this may not always be appreciated. Wetlands have their unique ways of sustaining plant and animal life, and the way they appear may not be aesthetic enough for some people (think about the murky, swampy atmosphere that they create). When developers advertise new houses, they tend to state that the houses are in proximity to a lake or pond, to set higher prices and make better sales. But, in many cases, the houses are not near to any of the water bodies advertised. Instead, it is that muddy, messy wetland that is not ‘aesthetic’ enough for the residents. This is the cause of many complaints made by property buyers when they find out the truth.
Drains, Ponds and Wetlands
Looking at the big picture, how are these drains, rivers, ponds and wetlands inter-linked? How do they affect our daily life? One of the most important effects is in flood control. In addition to existing flood preventing measures, we need more systems to help mitigate flooding. Affan mentions the concept of a ‘sponge city’. In a city, we need to have clean ponds, lakes, green roofs, rain gardens and open canals that help us to absorb excess rain water, especially during sudden heavy rains.
For example, in Bangkok, people are facing similar challenges, as the city is built near a river. They are also experiencing rapid population rise. A landscape architect, Kotchakorn Voraakhom has conducted a landscape design project in which she gets the city park arranged in a vertically diagonal way. There are slopes in the park to direct rainwater to targeted areas. This is a creative way of using space to manage rainwater.
In Malaysia, there is a manual entitled Urban Stormwater Management Manual for Malaysia. In this manual, several topics related to conserving water and water quality are discussed, including ponds and wetlands, drains and swales, bioretention systems, gross pollutant traps, and so on. Many experts are needed to solve water problems together. This includes landscape architects, hydrologists, and many more people with different backgrounds. We will need interdisciplinary efforts to overcome climate issues as well.
Affan shares the story of two water rehabilitation projects in UM. One is at the Faculty of Science, UM, where he and his friends helped to install filtration layers to the big drains by introducing plants and fishes. Another project is at Sungai Mustafa, UM. The water of this river comes from nearby hills. Initially, the water quality was poor due to poor management. However, after a series of restoration efforts, the water quality improved. WW also created a park along the river for recreational activities.
The most recent project of WW is the UM green belt. WW has collaborated with Kuala Lumpur City Hall (DBKL) to create a small pond and a patch of wetland around it. The pond is then linked to the Tasik Varsiti as a source of lake water. Since the lake was originally built higher than surrounding water bodies, directing water to the lake was a challenging task but WW team was able to achieve its mission. Drain water is purified by the wetlands before entering the lake, and the green belt becomes a place for recreational and educational activities.
During the process of urbanisation, we are losing lots of spaces for water infiltration. We need to get these spaces back, by conserving more wetlands, making wildlife ponds, green roofs, and rain gardens. There are many more things that we can do to save our water. Let’s do it together!
This article is supported by The Habitat Foundation Conservation Grant
You can watch the entire session here.