IN the early 1970s, when the southwest monsoon hit Klang Valley without fail annually, heavy rain that came with it at the beginning of the year was much feared by villagers living along Sungai Mulia in Gombak.
At the village where I spent my childhood, villagers often lost the back portions of their houses to the swift currents. Toilet renovations were often an annual affair.
Sungai Mulia was one of the two rivers upstream that fed -- and still feeds -- Sungai Gombak. The other river is the Sungai Batu which meets Sungai Gombak at the Putra World Trade Centre.
Sungai Gombak joins the Kelang river a few kilometres downstream at Masjid Jamek from which confluence Kuala Lumpur got its name.
In the days when most houses were powered by kerosene lamps and water came from wells, families who lived along Sungai Gombak depended quite a lot on the river.
From the bridge along Jalan Kampung Bandar Dalam, which linked Gombak to Sentul, womenfolk could often be seen cleaning their laundry on the rocks under the shade of the Lian Hin rubber smokehouse.
I recall hot afternoons and during school holidays, the area became a children's playground.
A dhoby operator used water from the river to clean its laundry and clothes were dried in long lines along the bank.
That section of the river teemed with life. Small river carps that belonged to the lampam family could be seen in the almost crystal clear water. Freshwater shrimps, too, were plentiful. Freshwater turtles, or labi-labi in Malay (or tsui yue in Cantonese), were found in abundance during the months when the ara trees upstream bore fruit.
White-breasted waterhens, known as wak-wak or kedidi in Malay, were also many. They could be seen foraging along the waterline with their chicks in tow. Village folk used snares or bird traps called jebak puyuh to trap these birds.
Pollution those days came mainly in the form of domestic rather than industrial waste. The only big factory upstream was Lee Rubber.
As I remember it, Sungai Gombak remained visibly clean until the late 70s when pockets of small factories and workshops sprouted.
Its demise came, I think, around the 1980s when housing estates came up and more people found it easier to dump garbage into the river than throwing them in communal garbage bins.
Recently, when I read that the Selangor Government had appointed four companies to carry out a RM50 billion project to rehabilitate the Kelang river, I was delighted.
Having seen how the Malacca river had been successfully transformed, I cannot help but feel hopeful that Sungai Kelang and Sungai Gombak can be returned to their glorious states in the 1970s.
However, unlike the Malacca river, which is shorter and less populated, save for the section when it ran through town from Kampung Morten to the estuary, the upper reaches of Sungai Gombak and Sungai Kelang will be a bigger challenge, especially with many illegal factories and squatter areas still dotting the riverbanks.
To clean up the rivers, it will take more than just stretching floating rubbish booms across them.
Those responsible for rehabilitation must first clean up the mentality of city folk and riverine dwellers that the two rivers are not open sewers.
They may even need to employ a river warden like some countries do to patrol the rivers to nab litterbugs.
The state government's projected 15-year rehabilitation period looks like a reasonable time to do so, if they start now.