Universiti Malaya is leading the efforts in humanizing river management
Malaysia possesses a rich network of rivers across the country, flowing through untouched land, villages and cities, a beating heart that gives life to all even in a period of heavy modernization. As such, river management has become a vital part of our nation’s environmental management and in addition to the groundwork and science that goes into it, we must also consider the human aspect, how we interact with and benefit from our rivers. This aspect forms the basis for what is known as ‘heartware’.
River management in Malaysia and other countries is but a part of the Integrated watershed management (IWM) process, which involves managing human activities and natural resources within a watershed (everything that covers water bodies such as rivers, lakes and ponds) while considering the social, economic and environmental issues. When it comes to river management, we naturally focus on the environmental aspects and issues, often forgetting about the human elements. Ironic, given that it is the human elements that often lend the most support to our IWM projects and thereby ensure their success.
As an example of how the human element can make or break a project, we have the KL River of Life. Located at the convergence point between the Klang and Gombak Rivers near the beautiful Masjid Jamek mosque, River of Life is one of Malaysia’s best known river revitalisation projects, and in 2019 it was named one of the “World’s 10 Best Waterfront Districts” by British online news portal, Independent. This technically puts it on par with famous waterfronts such as Japan’s Shibuya Streams, United States’ Tampa Riverwalk and Hong Kong’s Victoria Dockside. Unfortunately, this recognition is skin-deep at best for the waters in the Klang and Gombak still run with the infamous murky brown ‘teh tarik’ colour that resulted from years of pollution and inadequate garbage disposal. Part of the problem was that when it came to the “Hardware-Software-Heartware” approach, the project put far more emphasis on the technical (hardware) and management (software) side of things, working to make the waterfront look presentable without addressing the local communities and businesses (heartware) who are contributing to the river’s continued pollution.
Associate Professor Dr. Zeeda Fatimah Mohamad of Universiti Malaya (UM) defines ‘heartware’ as “the promotion of public participation and engagement via community shared values to ensure continuous motivation by the local communities to participate in these efforts”. In other words, it represents human involvement and support with ‘hardware’ being the science and technology and ‘software’ the management, laws and policies. The heartware is a relatively new term to many in Malaysia – which only makes raising awareness and knowledge of it even more vital, for heartware is an emotional mechanism that incorporates the behaviours and conduct of humans while interacting with the environment.
When it comes to rivers, heartware is a non-tangible driver that pushes people to act or at least relate to water bodies, influenced by a set of shared values and ethics. An example of the shared values of a river basin community would be the 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 something as simple as water usage for daily activities.
Because of this, the concept and application of heartware became a primary motivation for collaborative research conducted by UM and Kyoto University in developing a tool for community-based water quality monitoring called Eco-Heart Index. Led by Dr. Zeeda and Kyoto University’s Dr. Sakai Nobumitsu, this research was performed 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 river’s water quality as part of Malaysia’s IWM.
The inception of this WQI tool began when Dr. Zeeda and her research team participated in a IWM project in Lake Biwa, Japan through their interest in the heartware approach to IWM. There, the team observed and learnt about the local participation of the residents in the lake’s conservation driven by their shared values. “We were all in awe at witnessing the spiritual and sociocultural behaviour demonstrated by the locals,” says Dr. Zeeda, “it was this wide-scale participation by local communities that made the IWM in Lake Biwa an exemplary case study”. After this project, the research team followed up with the study at the Langat River basin where Dr. Sakai first developed the Eco-Heart Index based on six simple WQI parameters: pH, heavy metals, dissolved oxygen, transparency, ammonia nitrogen and chemical oxygen demand.
The Eco-Heart Index, as one would imagine, utilises the shape of the heart to plot and indicate the quality of the water, with each shape indicating a different situation for that area of the river tested. A full-plotted heart shape would show that the water is clean whereas broken-hearted shapes such as ‘thin heart’, ‘rabbit ear’, ‘finger’ and ‘diamond’ will show different degrees of water pollution. The shapes are then mapped out along the river basin to give a bigger picture of its current condition. For example, during the Langat River basin study, the map showed more heart shapes at the upper-stream sites indicating clean water bodies due to less human activities at the untouched land. By contrast, as one goes down towards the mid-stream and downstream sites, they will find more broken hearts 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 due to utilizing 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 medium conceptualized to be creative, attractive and capable of evoking 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 their mind, one would be able to relate more to the river. It is only through opening the hearts and minds of people towards the river that social-learning and co-management of IWM can be encouraged and supported, hence creating a healthy multistakeholder collaboration involving more implementation on the ground.
Moving forward, Dr. Zeeda sees the potential of the 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 standardized instructions and training modules to provide the best performance as a locally adapted WQI tool” she says. This is a principle that she carries in projects organized by Water Warriors (WW) UM (now continued as Sekitar Kita), together with the group’s founders Affan Nasaruddin from the Faculty of Science and Siti Norasiah Abd Kadir from the Faculty of Engineering. By following this standard, Dr. Zeeda, Affan and Norasiah all hope that the various activities organized by Sekitar Kita can help us better understand how sustainable science can be used pragmatically and to create better solutions for our current challenges. The heartware approach was already utilised during the Tasek Varsiti revitalisation project which saw heavy participation and support from the campus communities in WW’s efforts to restore the campus lake to its former glory, a goal that they ultimately succeeded at. “Hopefully, in the 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” says Dr. Zeeda.
Our country’s rivers need our help to thrive, it is time to put your heart into helping this nation’s waterways.
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 riversCHARLES KURALT