In Kedah canals were dug to irrigate. In Johor canals were dug to drain the peaty and swampy low lying plains. You see hundred of PARITS as they are known as you travel the length of the western coast of Johor.
It was an engineering feat. By the middle of the 19th century, the whole of the west coast Johore was opened up for agriculture. It became heavily populated. The combination of a visionary Sultan and the hardworking Javanese made Johore one of the wealthiest Malay state and no more the back water of Singapura.
My kampung, Bagan, was the second oldest settlement in Batu Pahat. Minyak Beku where the name Batiu Pahat got its name is located, is the oldest.
Almost all kampungs have been named after the Parits. Parit Besar where my family settled down was the biggest parit in the settlement or Mukim of Bagan, thus the name, Big Parit.
Now, at 20 feet wide and six feet deep, it is half of its original size.
I could still visualize a few images of the man made canal.
The Parit was directly draining to the Straits of Malacca. For all intent and purpose it was a man made river, with high and low tides .
In the 1800s, the parit was alas the main infrastructure for transport. Before the opening of Batu Pahat in 1890, the wealthy shopped in Singapore. The mode of transport were the sampan. It was door to door. Get into the sampan, sail to Singapore, do your shopping and sail back to Bagan and row upstream with the sampan fully laden.
The Parit was the source of fun for the kids a generation ahead of me. The weekends when there were the morning tides, meant Friday and Saturday mornings of fun in the water. My brother and cousins who were about 10 to15 years older then me , had their own dug out. They built their own dug out from trunks of pulai. They were the water babies.
I could visualize the school of belanak during high tide, swimming a good 2 km upstream. These are things you could not see even at the shore now. Then there were the belangkas which nobody bothered to catch.
At low tide, thousand of tiny red crabs would start appearing on the muddy banks of the Parit. There were even crayfish which the locals call lengkoro. I saw similar creatures on Christmas Island in Discovery channel. During low tide the cray fish would make openings out of its nest leaving a volcano like heap of mud called senjabut. Unsightly. These biological terms are no longer in use.
In the mid sixties, the West Johore Drainage Program started. Tidal dykes with tidal gates were constructed, along the whole length of the west coast of Johor. That was the end of marine life in Parit Besar. That was the end of the tide, the belanak, the sejambut, lengkoro, and the dug outs.
I wanted to have my own dugout but by the time I was ready, the man made river literally dried up.
Man versus nature. The landscape also changed. Instead of Coconut, rubber trees became dominant. Now it is oil palm.
The Parit got clogged up. In 2007 the upstream kampung experienced the worst flooding in years. The grandchildren of the buffalo soldiers and drainage engineers, just could not appreciate the importance of the parits. After 200 years, history is repaeting itself.