5 February 2023

Eco-Heart Index: The science of loving our rivers

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“Rivers run through our history and folklore, and link us as a people. They nourish and refresh us and provide a home for dazzling varieties of fish and wildlife and trees and plants of every sort. We are a nation rich in rivers,” quoted by Charles Kuralt. Such is resonated with Malaysians and our rich network of rivers across the country, flowing through untouched land, villages and cities, a beating heart that gives life to all forms even up to this point of modernization.

In 2019, the KL River of Life, whereby the convergence point of Klang and Gombak River at the beautiful Masjid Jamek mosque, was named one of the “World’s 10 Best Waterfront Districts” by British online news portal, Independent. This puts the waterfront on par with famous waterfronts such as Japan’s Shibuya Streams, United States’ Tampa Riverwalk and Hong Kong’s Victoria Dockside. It is indeed a recognition that caries many stories of the various efforts done to revitalize these rivers that were infamously called ‘teh tarik’ due to the rivers’ murky brown water filled with all sorts of trash.

The KL River of Life is one of the perfect examples of Malaysia’s river revitalisation project that demonstrates strong debates and actions involving three types of river management approaches – hardware and software supported by the newest approach, heartware. Generally put, hardware refers to the scientific and technological solutions while software includes management and sets of rules such as institutions and policies. The term ‘heartware’ is relatively new to many in Malaysia – it is an emotional mechanism that incorporates the behaviours and conduct of humans while interaction with the environment.

In the case of rivers, heartware becomes a non-tangible driver that pushes people to act or at least relate to water bodies, influenced by a set of shared values, ethics. An example of shared values of a river basin community could be economic factor (whereby the river provides income for fishermen and tour guides), historical sentiment as displayed through the Tagal system in Sabah, religious stewardship or it can be as simple as water usage for daily activities.

Thus, the concept and application of heartware became a motivation for a collaborative research conducted by Universiti Malaya (UM) and Kyoto University in developing a tool for community-based water quality monitoring called Eco-Heart Index, lead by Associate Prof. Dr Zeeda Fatimah of UM and Dr. Sakai Nobumitsu of Kyoto University. This research was conducted at the Langat River basin in 2018 to study the effectiveness of this humanistic Water Quality Index (WQI) tool in attracting and inspiring the heart of communities to monitor the water quality as part of Malaysia’s integrated watershed management (IWM).

The inception of this WQI tool started when Dr. Zeeda’s research team participated in a IWM project in Lake Biwa, Japan through their interest in the heartware approach in IWM, to which they observed and learnt the local participation of the Japanese in the conservation of the lake driven by their shared values. All were in awe to witness the spiritual and sociocultural behaviour shown by the Japanese that made the IWM in Lake Biwa an exemplary case study. This was then followed by their research at Langat River basin whereby Dr. Sakai developed the Eco-Heart Index based on six simple WQI parameters which are pH, heavy metals, dissolved oxygen, transparency, ammonia nitrogen and chemical oxygen demand.

The Eco-Heart Index, as one would imagine, uses the shape of the heart plotted to indicate the quality of the water, in which each shape indicates a different situation for that particular of the river tested. A full-plotted heart shape shows that the water is clean whereas broken-hearted shapes such as ‘thin heart’, ‘rabbit ear’, ‘finger’ and ‘diamond’ are shows different degree of water pollution. The shapes are then mapped out along the river basin to give a bigger picture of the current condition of the river basin. For instance, in the case of the Langat River basin, the map shows more heart shapes at the upper-stream sites indicating clean water bodies due to less human activities at the untouched land. Going down the mid-stream and downstream sites, more broken hearts are shown hence indicating polluted water as these sites are developed and populated by humans.

Following this research, the Eco-Heart Index is seen as an interactive citizen science tool in IWM due to its community-centric features. On the ground, it is user-friendly for citizens at it uses simple WQI parameters that can also be learnt and applied by citizens outside the technical field. In terms of generating results, the Eco-Heart Index is a visual conceptualized to be creative, attractive and evokes emotion not only among the citizens who monitor the water quality, but also the people who listen to the stories of the rivers. By bringing back a form of feeling, memory, or picture into the mind, one would be able to relate more to the river. Having open the hearts and minds of people towards the river, then can only social-learning and co-management of IWM be encouraged, hence creating a healthy multistakeholder collaboration involving more implementation on the ground.

Moving forward, Dr. Zeeda sees the potential in Eco-Heart Index as a strong tool to encourage more citizen science as a heartware approach in IWM. However, she noted that it is important to not only adopt the techniques but also the sociotechnical components of the heartware method inspired by the Japanese. More improvement of the Eco-Heart index is required in terms of forming standardised instructions and training module to provide the best performance as a locally-adapted WQI tool.

This is a principle that she carries in projects organized by Water Warriors UM (a citizen science initiative started in 2016, and now continued as Sekitar Kita) whereby she hopes that activities can help us understand how sustainable science can be used pragmatically and to create better solutions for our current challenges. Hopefully, in future, Sekitar Kita will be able to promote a place-based citizen science approach that incorporates citizen-centric tools like Eco-Heart Index, in Malaysia’s road towards sustainability.