As we headed downstream in our motorboat, the water became visibly dirtier. Heaps of plastic bottles and other waste could be seen trapped on the edges of the riverbank or floating on the water.
Further downstream, dark green stuff floated on the surface; we were later told they were a mixture of algae and oil waste.
We were at the Moyog River of Penampang, near Kota Kinabalu, Sabah to visit the community-based organisation Clear, which stands for Community-Led Environmental Awareness For Our River. The group was set up in 2012 to protect the Moyog River, which supplies water to all of Kota Kinabalu.
Our boat ride started from Kampung Kuai to Kampung Kodundungan, during which volunteers from Clear carried out water quality monitoring tests. The reason they were doing this can be traced back to 2014, when a major river pollution incident killed many fish.
Beginning July 2015, they tested the water quality at 13 points (over a distance of about 18km) along the river every week. From mid-2016 onward, the monitoring frequency was reduced to once a month.
The team checks for dissolved oxygen, pH (acid or alkaline levels) plus phosphate and nitrate levels in the water. All of these are factors which affect the survival of fish.
If the readings are high, they will then alert a water expert and consultant from Universiti Malaysia Sabah, who will then inform the authorities about it.
Noel Seanundu Kely Jitilon, technical coordinator with Clear, said that before the organisation was set up, there was a lot of rubbish in the river downstream. People could stand on bamboo branches that had fallen into the waters as they were supported by huge amounts of rubbish underneath.
“Today, even though the river is much cleaner, its water is still not suitable for drinking nor swimming. However, the phosphate and nitrate levels are no longer as high as last year,” said Jitilon, adding that phosphates come from chemicals and pesticides used in agriculture while nitrates come from organic waste and decomposing plants and animals.
The main source of pollution for the Moyog River comes from urban areas – at least five monsoon drains from there are connected to the river downstream.
Residents living along the river, especially downstream, also throw rubbish into it, with some homes still draining their sewage (toilet waste) straight into the river.
Clear chairperson Winnie Jimis said there was no concerted effort to clean up the Moyog river before 2012.
“Our ancestors really took care of the river before this,” she said. “But today, there is no more connection between the people and the river because many do not directly depend on it for their livelihood anymore.
“We felt that people who live here and grew up with the river should get it clean again,” said Jimis, adding that at night, fireflies can still be seen along the riverbanks.
To reconnect people to the river, Clear has been organising the Pesta Rakit (Raft Fiesta) event since 2012. Activities include a decorated bamboo raft competition and a tug-of-war on the rafts. Local fig trees are also planted, as they help prevent soil erosion and provide food for fish via their fruits.
Due to its success, Pesta Rakit was declared an official event of Penampang district by the local government last year, with the 2016 event attracting over 1,000 people. This year, the event is co-organised by the Penampang District Office, Sabah Department of Drainage and Irrigation and Clear.
“Every village takes part in the Pesta Rakit, so they make sure they keep the river clean, as we will invite politicians and other guests to the event,” said Jimis.
In fact, in 2015, Clear was challenged by the Sabah Tourism, Culture and Environment Minister Datuk Seri Masidi Manjun to get the Moyog River cleaned up in five years.
Clear was awarded RM30,000 by the Natural Resources and Environment Ministry, through the Penampang Department of Irrigation and Drainage, for its community initiative related to water waste this year. In addition, Shell Malaysia (which made this writer’s trip possible) has also given RM100,000 as Sustainable Development Grants in 2015 and 2016 to Clear.
Last year, the Sabah Tourism, Culture and Environment Ministry also granted Penampang district RM200,000 to build jetties for tourism purposes.
The Sabah Tourism Board is also helping the communities along the river to develop tourism-related products this year.
“With ecotourism, everything will be connected to the river,” said Jimis. “When we first started, the amount of plastics in the river was a lot worse. Now, after five years, we see more than half of the plastic and rubbish being reduced.
“Rubbish from monsoon drains is still a problem, but now that the Government has come in, we hope that our collaboration with them will further improve the situation.”
Clear will be holding the Run 4 River Moyog 2017 on Sept 9, in conjunction with Pesta Rakit Daerah Penampang 2017 and World Rivers Day 2017 in Penampang, Sabah. The Pesta Rakit event will be held on Sept 23-24. For more info, go to www.facebook.com/RiverAwarenessClear/ or email noel.Clearriver@gmail.com or call Noel at 013 885 5118.