[OPINION] Eco-Heart Index: The science of loving our rivers

The Heartware Index will help make river management accessible by all. (Photo: Unsplash)


By Nurul Nabila and Dr Nurulaini Abu Shamsi

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.” – Charles Kuralt

This quote speaks directly to Malaysians because we too belong to a nation that has a rich network of rivers across the country. The bodies of water, flowing through untouched land, villages and cities, are a beating heart that gives life to all forms even up to this point of modernization.

Recognising the importance of revitalising rivers, infamously called ‘teh tarik’ due to the rivers’ murky brown water filled with all sorts of trash, various efforts have been carried out to revitalise our rivers.  In 2019, the KL River of Life; the converging point of the Klang River and Gombak River at the beautiful Masjid Jamek mosque; was named one of the “World’s 10 Best Waterfront Districts” by a 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, which is a high honour for our nation. 

The KL River of Life is one of the perfect examples of Malaysia’s river revitalisation projects that demonstrates strong debates and actions involving three river management approaches – hardware, software and 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 interacting 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 and ethics. An example of shared values of a river basin community could be an economic factor (where 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.

Eco-Heart Index developed by Dr Sakai Nobumitsu

The concept and application of heartware became a motivation for collaborative research between Universiti Malaya (UM) and Kyoto University in developing a tool for community-based water quality monitoring called Eco-Heart Index, led 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).

Overall Concept of Eco-Heart Index and Water Pollution Trend

The inception of this WQI tool started when Dr Zeeda’s research team participated in an IWM project in Lake Biwa, Japan. Their interest in the heartware approach in IWM was deepened as they observed and learnt the local participation of the Japanese in the conservation of the lake driven by their shared values. They were all in awe as they witnessed 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 the Langat River basin where Dr Nobumitsu 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.

Shapes and Indications of the Eco-Heart Index

The Eco-Heart Index, as one would imagine, uses the shape of the heart to indicate the quality of the water, in which each shape indicates a different situation for that particular river. A full-plotted heart shape shows that the water is clean whereas broken-hearted shapes such as ‘thin heart’, ‘rabbit ear’, ‘finger’ and ‘diamond’ show the different degrees 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 midstream and downstream sites, more broken hearts are shown which is indicative of polluted water as these sites are developed and populated by humans.

Example of water quality map at Langat River Basin

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 as 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 conceptualised 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 opened the hearts and minds of people towards the river, only then can social learning and co-management of IWM be encouraged, which will create a healthy multi-stakeholder 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 socio-technical 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 modules 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 known as Sekitar Kita. She hopes that activities can help enhance the understanding of how sustainable science can be used pragmatically and to create better solutions for our current challenges. 

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.

Edited by Laviinia Dhanagunan

* This is the personal opinion of the writer or publication and does not necessarily represent the views of Science Media Centre Malaysia

Dr Nurulaini Abu Shamsi is a senior lecturer at the Department of Science and Technology Studies, Universiti Malaya. Having a deep interest in media and health communication, Dr Nurulaini pursued her PhD in health communication at the School of Population Health, The University of Auckland, New Zealand. Her thesis focuses on understanding the media role in disseminating non-communicable disease information in a developing country, Malaysia. To date, she expands her research on science communication and public engagement in science. 

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