Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia - In the hills to the east of Kuala Lumpur, the Klang River is clean enough for visitors to play in. But just a few hundred metres downstream, the water darkens and rubbish clogs the banks.

By the time it reaches the city centre, the river is the pale brown of milky tea and so toxic it's dangerous to touch.

But after decades of neglect, the government is spending more than $1bn to revive the Klang and Gombak rivers that gave Kuala Lumpur - which translates roughly as "muddy confluence" - its name.

"The River of Life is one of the cornerstone projects in Kuala Lumpur, in addition to public transport," said Mohd Azharuddin Mat Sah, a director of the government's Performance Management and Delivery Unit, who is coordinating the project.

"We learned from other cities like Seoul, Vancouver, upgrading and beautifying the areas around the river really helps a city become more livable. And Kuala Lumpur is naturally lucky to have two rivers flowing through it."

Murky waters

In total, the project covers 110 kilometres of water within the city and aims to transform the rivers from Class IIIv - toxic to touch - into Class IIb, or water clean enough for leisure activities, by 2020.

As Kuala Lumpur has grown and expanded, the waterways have become a dumping ground not only for homeowners, but factories and business owners too. 

When it rains, sewage from overloaded septic tank systems is washed into the river, along with the soil from the scores of new developments under way around the city.

"They changed our river to look like a drain so people stopped thinking of it as a river," said Jagedeswari Marriappan, who runs the River Care Programme at the Global Environment Centre, a Malaysian NGO.

"People don't see the rubbish because the river washes it away. It's an attitude and a lack of enforcement."

Kampung Warisan, beneath the world's largest quartz ridge and the dam that provides much of Kuala Lumpur's drinking water, marks the point at which the Klang River enters the city.

The river here is not much more than a stream, but for years was neglected and filthy.

Two years ago, residents took matters into their own hands. Some 250 volunteers collected enough rubbish from the water to fill 80 bin bags. Four locals now monitor the water quality. The men have built pebble dikes to filter the water and ensure it meanders more naturally towards the sea.

Every day they collect rubbish, monitor the water quality and take samples as necessary.

In 2015 they plan to release native species of fish back into the river. "Before you could not see anything clean," said Abdul Sharriff Walat, 48, one of the volunteers and a life-long resident of the settlement, which is only a 20-minute drive from the city centre.

"I felt I should do something. It's the place I live after all."

Community effort

A little further downstream, wealthier residents of neighbouring Taman Melawati are also trying to do their bit.

"The attitude of Malaysians is to just throw the rubbish," said Dhileepan Nair, an engineer who chairs the Society of ECO Greater Melawati.

"It has to start with the community. We can blame the local authorities, but they didn't throw the rubbish. We have to make the change [and] do our duty as a citizen."

The group has set up a community centre where they aim to educate people about the river and its environment and is working closely with schools - at least two of which back onto the river.

A spice garden, composting site and even bicycle hire are also in the pipeline.

The government is focussed on more infrastructure. The project, which requires coordination among 20 different government agencies and local councils, also aims to disguise the concrete banks and raise the water level through the use of collapsible weirs.

Work is slightly behind schedule because some residents - mostly in illegal settlements - have refused to move, but officials are confident the project will be completed on time.

The government aims to recoup some of its costs by selling prime land along the banks in the city centre to developers.

Kuala Lumpur's heritage district where the Klang and Gombak Rivers meet, giving the city its name [Kate Mayberry] 

The computer-generated images of what it will look like when its complete show a vibrant waterfront district of cafes and tree-lined boulevards, populated by happy families strolling along the banks, cycling their bikes or enjoying a drink while taking in the view.

Appreciating culture

In the city's historic heart, rehabilitation work continues even amid the monsoon when heavy rain can swell the river to a torrent and trigger flash floods.

Excavators scoop sodden heaps of rubbish from the brackish water, dumping them in forlorn piles on the river's graffiti-covered concrete banks.

Close to the landmark colonial-Moorish style Masjid Jamek mosque where the Klang River meets the Gombak River, a riverside park and promenade are taking shape beneath gnarled trees that were first planted in colonial times.

When labourers on the project removed some of the concrete around the banks, they discovered, buried beneath the crust of silt and dirt, a series of steps down into the river.

In the early 20th century, the city's Muslims washed their feet in the waters of the Klang River before praying in the mosque.

"In the old days the river was clean enough that people could go down the stairs and perform their ablutions at the river itself," Azharuddin said.

"It's a part of Kuala Lumpur's history; part of us. [This project is also about] finding ourselves as a city and appreciating our culture."

Source: Al Jazeera