If only I could, I would have started a conversation with the river that afternoon, if only to console it by whispering that when the rain comes, it shall flow perhaps as gloriously as the Mississippi once again, or maybe to ask it “what happened, who did this to you?” But I couldn’t and instead felt as helpless as the struggling river and at times guilty as well for in my writings about the high offices, I may have overlooked nature’s very special gift to all of us.
The once mighty Sungai Pahang was a pale shadow of its glorious past when I sat on its banks in Temerloh last weekend, its flow reduced in that sweltering afternoon heat to more that of a stream, struggling to overcome the thickening sedimentation which must have come from elsewhere to slowly choke it of life.
It has become so shallow that a sandbar could clearly be seen lying mid river. Not only has its shallowness now taken the natural beauty out of the river, it also presents the risks of major flooding during heavy monsoon seasons.
At about 450km in length, Sungai Pahang is the country’s third longest. It has its beginning in the Titiwangsa mountain range, somewhere in the Cameron Highlands region, with two rivers, Sungai Tembeling and Jelai, which meet at a confluence in Kuala Tembeling to become Sungai Pahang, about 300km from its estuary. Sungai Pahang then passes through places such as Kuala Krau, Kerdau and Temerloh and towards the town of Bera, turning northeast at Mengkarak to the plains of Paloh Hinai and Pekan before reaching the South China Sea.
Far upstream, all these rivers originate from catchment areas within lush tropical rainforests which have become the subject of much headache in recent years, as development and man’s insatiable quest for profit have resulted in uncontrolled farming and logging which in turn has resulted in increased sedimentation in the waterways.
The sorry state of Sungai Pahang I witnessed that afternoon was a long-term impact of such activities. Somehow, what I saw that afternoon made the progress we have chalked up as a nation heading towards a developed state status by 2020 seems, hollow.
The profession has taken me to various countries classified as “developed”. Some have tall skyscrapers, excellent paved expressways, very efficient transportation systems and all the amenities one would expect from nations categorised as such. But most of them had clear and flowing rivers.
I remember sitting for hours a couple of years ago, just watching the crystal clear waters of the river in what to me must be one of the most beautiful places on earth, the small Swiss town of Lauterbrunnen. Or another instance before that when I gazed in awe when a train I was riding in across America made two crossings of the Mississippi, first in La Crosse, Wisconsin, and then in Hastings, Minnesota. The rivers were flowing unimpeded and seemed full of life.
Both were in countries categorised as developed but yet have taken great pains to preserve their environment with laws that were not only passed in the highest lawmaking institutions but more importantly, enforced. In addition, they are also developed nations with people of relatively high civic-mindedness that I could not find a single cigarette butt in the river flowing through Lauterbrunnen. I remember a time long ago when our rivers were like those I encountered in the foreign lands too. Sungai Pahang was once navigable by flat-bottomed boats for as far as 250km but I doubt that it is still possible to do so now, especially during the dry season.
The situation is worse for rivers that flow through towns and cities where it is not uncommon for them to be treated simply as rubbish dumps. When a rubbish trap was built somewhere in Sungai Gombak that flows through Kuala Lumpur some years ago, I recalled a picture published in a newspaper showing the things caught by the trap. They included a discarded sofa, a refrigerator and a motorcycle. Let us not even mention food waste from stalls operating in the city.
In short, when it comes to preservation of the environment and civic-mindedness, we simply do not care, which made me think that afternoon as I sat by the banks of the now lethargic Sungai Pahang that even if we do reach developed nation status by 2020, we will become one but only in form. In substance, we may still have a long way yet to go.
Mustapha Kamil is the newspaper’s group editor. The profession has taken him to all corners of the globe