Dispatches from South India: Alleppey’s dirty waters

Kerala’s backwaters are beautiful and a growing tourist magnet, but they hide a dirty secret as tourist boats ignore the rules about polluting the lake waters and threaten this lovely environment and the people who live there.

Alleppey, or Allapuzha in the local language, is an instantly likeable place. Frequently referred to as The Venice of the East”, it tops the list of Kerala’s most touristic spots, but retains the feel of a chilled out, small neighbourhood-town. Alleppey is not a constant tourist trap. One can easily wander its side streets and escape rickshaw ride offers and insistent spice-sellers. And maybe, this has to do with the fact that 90 per cent of the tourists visiting Alleppey are directly ushered to the place they came here for: the backwaters.

Take any tourist brochure for Kerala or South India; the picture likely to grace the front cover – and if not, it will be illustrating the editorial – is a beautiful, traditional-looking houseboat cruising the still, coconut-fringed waters of Vembanad Lake. Two km (1.5 miles) inland, linked to the sea by a couple of canals, the lake stretches out 95km (60 miles) to the north.

On the shore of the lake, the picture will usually show Indian women washing their clothes or children playing in the water. Boats take off at midday, leisurely making their way to one of the islands dotting the lake, where they dock overnight. Delicious food is brought from the boat’s kitchen to the upper-deck veranda, where one can watch the sunset before retiring to the honeymoon bedroom. In the morning, the boat slowly returns to the city. For most tourists, it is the highlight of their journey through South India.

What’s wrong with this picture? Well, anyone bothering to take their eyes off the islands and on to the water will understand the first issue here: the water. Some 1,200 boats are reportedly cruising the Alleppey’s backwaters, and Vembanad Lake is hardly coping. Countless studies have been undertaken that show alarming results about the toxicity of the water, the disappearance of fish and amphibians, and the high content of human faeces –even deep in the lake. Cancer rates among people living around the lake are reportedly through the roof. Although houseboats cannot be the only thing blamed for the toxicity of the water (pesticides used in nearby fields do as much harm), the faeces and exhaust fuels released daily into the water account for a large portion of the problem. Take a look at my video to see how the local live.

Islanders have been provided with clean city water, but the supply often dries out, leaving them no other option but to use the lake’s water for all their needs. The few tourists enquiring about the problem will be assured that the boat they’re on is certified, has a sewage tank on board and doesn’t contribute to the filth that can be seen around. This is the law – a boat is not allowed on the water if it doesn’t have a tank, and every boat must stop by the nearby sewage plant before disembarking its passengers. When I asked, the claim was that 90 per cent of the boats abide by the rules. But it only takes turning off my camera and swearing not to give out names to get the truth:

  • Only about 15 – 20 per cent of the boat drivers bother to make the trip to the sewage plant. A reading of the plant’s electricity usage quickly confirms the numbers (electricity is used every time a boat “hooks” up to the system to unload). One of the reasons is the extra time and petrol needed to get to the plant, but the main roadblock seems to be the presence of a small mafia that claims a “toll” from boat drivers wishing to empty their tank.
  • Controls of the boats’ compliance are rare at best. Some drivers have never seen an inspector on deck. Drivers and owners I’ve talked to feel vaguely guilty. Some would like things to change. But nobody is willing to make the first step. What difference would it make, with 1,199 other boats still polluting.

Yet, I can’t completely blame them either. Nor can I point the finger at the tourists who are enjoying the ride, though their thoughtless lack of concern by some tourists for the privacy of local houseboat families is disturbing. To me, the mafia taxing the sewage plant, or the government closing its eyes to the matter, are the biggest offenders. The laws are in place – it’s a matter of applying them. But this seems to be an on-going problem.

Are the police short on resources? Are they not aware of the extent of the issue? Not really. The reality is that not enough fuss has yet been made about the issue. The Islanders, the most affected people, have not yet demonstrated loudly enough or in big enough crowds. The tourists haven’t been told to boycott the offenders. Wondering why such fights are necessary is not relevant, nor is it efficient. Wondering how to amplify the voice of those who are objecting the situation is the way to go.

Informed tourists can help too, by spreading the word to others bound for southern India. I wouldn’t recommend asking the boat company whether they follow the rules, as the answer will always be ‘yes’. Instead, when organising a trip, pre-select one of the companies that has already been vetted by a third party. Currently, a code of practice is being developed by Tourism Concern.

Once on the boat, insist to be taken by the sewage plant before returning to the jetty. I know it’s a tricky thing to ask – by that time you’ll be relaxed, happy, and explaining what you want might not be easy with the language barrier. But just try. I have, twice. Once I’ve been successful, once not. But the more people ask, the more the message will sink in.

Veronique Meunier was a Tourism Concern volunteer

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