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FEATURE STORY June 4, 2020

Meet the Innovator Protecting Our Oceans in Malaysia: Dr. Kalithasan Kailasam


From a childhood spent around Malaysia’s Linggi River, Dr. Kalithasan Kailasam developed a deep passion and respect for rivers, the oceans, and the systems that feed them and live from them. Dr. Kailasam is now a Water, River and Waste Management Specialist, and the Manager of the River Care Program for the Global Environment Center, a Malaysia-based non-profit organization focused on environmental issues.

Tell us about yourself.

I was born in Negeri Sembilan, Malaysia, as the youngest of nine siblings. My childhood was largely spent in a rural area, close to nature, and back then, our lives depended heavily on the natural environment. I have fond memories of most of my family’s time being around the Linggi River basin, and the surrounding beaches and oceans. Since most of my younger days was spent around water, I definitely have a soft spot for it.

On completing my PhD in Life Science focusing on the impact of pesticides on water, I quickly grabbed an opportunity to work closely on and champion issues related to the environment, particularly water. Today, I am happy to be doing what I love everyday for work to contribute to a sustainable environment.


What comes to your mind when you think of the ocean? What does it mean to you personally?

I always say this: water in itself a source of life. Within this, rivers are an integral lifeline, and the oceans are our lungs. They are all interconnected. By managing our rivers, we are also helping oceans to thrive in a more sustainable manner.

In times like this, I see people, especially the younger generation, being disconnected from nature. They do not see themselves as a part of the environment. Life begins and ends with water and so this philosophy guides the way I think. I believe we cannot run away from the importance of water issues, regardless of where we live, our professions and our and daily lives.


What do you see as the biggest challenges facing our waterways/oceans in 2020?

Without a doubt, climate change is causing major impacts on our waterways and oceans. The main challenge we face now is in the quality and quantity of water especially due to human impact via anthropogenic activities, unsustainable development, land clearing and the like. This also has major impacts for our rivers’ capacity as a regulator. Rivers are a living entity that have the ability to regulate the environment and dilute pollution. But for the last 20 years, rivers have lost this ability as its carrying capacity has been affected by growing pollution.

The same logic applies to the ocean. With so many people being disconnected from nature and unable to see their impacts on the environment, this is a core concern. Even though humans make up a small percentage within the ecosystem, we have the biggest impact.


What does this year’s World Oceans Day theme, “Innovation for a Sustainable Ocean” mean to you?

People often think of innovation in terms of technology alone, but I also see innovation as a way of rethinking our role with nature and how we see ourselves in it. For me, the most important point is that all our actions will affect the ocean but because nature sustains our lives, we will in turn, begin to see its impacts on our lives too. We need to act now. With the oceans an end receiver of the cumulation of all human activity, this is ever more urgent.


(Photo: supplied)

Can you tell us about your work in river ecosystem management?

My answer is very simple when it comes to maintaining the health of our waterways and oceans: this responsibility lies on both you and I. And for the last 20 years, I have been emphasizing the role of communities in river care and consequently taking action.

At the Global Environment Center (GEC), our success lies not in the number of activities and workshops we have conducted but the kinds of action that our work encourages.

We advocate learning and caring for our rivers under the River Care Program. The first is a question I pose to people: ‘Where is your nearest river?’ Everyone should know the name of their nearest water body that connects to the ocean, understand how closely located they are to it and how significant their role is in maintaining its health. Next, we look at understanding river management. We have so far created a the ‘River Rangers 2.0’ program, which helps people understand nature better as well to mitigate and adapt tactics to tackle it. We have created an approach called civic science which emphasizes not just awareness and knowledge, but also skills to take action. Finally, we also champion the ‘heart’ approach which promotes caring for our own rivers.

As for the innovative aspect of our work, I see this first in our relationship with the environment, the way we think about the environment as its custodians, adopting new approaches to mitigating our impacts, and using technology or artificial intelligence for nature-based solutions. This should also include innovation in terms of education to empower our younger generations to mobilize and drive political will to solve these issues.


What drives you to do this work?

The first thing people think of when it comes to our rivers is the level of pollution. Solid waste is not usually involved in our calculations of water quality but it severely impacts how people perceive our rivers and this affects their attitude towards it. That’s why at the beginning, GEC started a program called SMART (Start Managing All Resources Today) Ranger making use of the 4R2C (Rethink, Reduce, Reuse, Recycle, Composting and Closing the loop) formula, to effectively manage resources, in particular, waste management. This was what initially motivated me at the start.

This is a practice I’ve always done ever since I was a child. I remember following my mother to the market and we would bring our own bags and tiffin carriers to buy food. We made it a point to reuse our containers or use organic materials to pack food. Back then, when I bought drinks in glass bottles, I would return the bottle after drinking and receive five cents in return. This is closing the loop. Practicing all of this is important, but slowly I see that more people are becoming to forget these practices in the name of convenience.


If you had a magic wand and could change or fix one challenge facing our oceans, what would it be?

If you had asked me this question at the start of this year, I would have said that the main cause lies in human factors and so the solution must tackle that. I would have liked to show people what the world would look like in the next 50 years and why it is so important to take action now.

But in light of the COVID-19 pandemic, I would advocate for us to ‘give nature a rest’. Giving nature a recovery period would be good. If us humans can take Sundays off, perhaps we can do the same for nature by ceasing human activity at least once a month. If I had magic power, I would like to be able to promote this to let nature recover and for our animals to be able to thrive in it.


What message would you like everyone to hear on World Oceans Day 2020?

I always encourage people to take action within their means. We all play a significant role in our environment, so the solution is in you and I.

We must do this not just for our families and our future generations but for other creatures in the ecosystem like the flora and fauna. As part of river management, a concrete and simple way to help would be to ensure our drains are clean. In essence, nothing else should go into our drains except rain water.

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**The views expressed in this article do not necessarily represent the views of the World Bank Group and its employees.