Field visits and research have brought so many reports of water inequity that this map could not contain them all. Please take a look at the videos, images and articles attached to this report (browse the tabs next to the map on the right.)
You will see that pollution due to the sheer number of boats in the backwaters is linked to high cancer rate in the islands. The people who live on these islands are extremely unhappy and worried for their own and their children’s health. A field visit in December 2011 helped collect the videos and photos which are attached to this report. Some of the islands' inhabitants did not wish to be photographed but provided these quotes.
“Most of our parents/teachers meetings nowadays revolve around the issues of water and other problems related to the houseboats. Mothers and fathers are worried that the presence of tourists is a bad influence on the children. But they're mostly worried about their health, and them not drinking enough water as there are frequent shortages of drinkable water. It's a shame, given that we are surrounded by it!” - An elementary school teacher met on Kainakary Island
“People don't want to drink the lake's water anymore. It tastes of petrol and smells bad. There's oil floating on the top, even after it is boiled. They're worried because they see the fish floating dead on the water, and the fish tastes bad as well. So they've asked for water from the city, but they don't give enough. Every morning they worry about the water.” - A man who walked into the office of GSGSK, a local community support non-profit. He asked to speak to Kabani's field officers but to remain anonymous
Many groups are involved in the fight against these well-known issues. Yet, the large majority of visitors to the area are not aware of them. Therefore, an effort in raising awareness is one of the key activities for the years to come. Policies have been put in place, mandating the houseboats’ sewage to be disposed of in the appropriate facilities, and the boats to be docked away from the lakeshore at night – but these regulations are often overlooked by the boat drivers and owners. It is up to the tourists to request that they be applied, until proper inspection procedures are in place.
Sources: official documents; newspaper articles; direct interviews by campaigning organisations in Alleppey; reports from local groups (women’s groups, etc.)
- Video: interview of a local man speaking about water pollution (anonymous)
- Video: interview of a local woman washing her clothes in the lake
- Photo: AC units and engines at the back of one houseboat
- Photo: Water lillies and waste floating on Vembanadu Lake (these plants thrive on faeces and compost)
- Article: Abstract of a report released at the 12th World Lake Conference (2008) and outlining the pollution facts in Vembanadu Lake.
Article: “House Boat menace in the Kerala backwaters “Reprinted from Contours, Vol15, No.3 (Sept Dec 2005) publishing from Chang Mai, Thailand
"It’s water, water everywhere in Kuttanadu, in the famous backwater region of Kerala on the western coast of South India. The coconut-fringed lakes, rivers and canals around Alappuzha (Alleppey) have become a must-see destination for Indian and foreign tourists alike. Children are bathing on the river banks, men are catching fish and collecting mussels, women are washing clothes and cooking utensils. Scenic as it may look to tourists, Kuttanadu is far from a water paradise.
Local families are suffering from water scarcity – from a serious lack of drinking water that has been affecting their lives in many ways, and that has become even worse with the development of tourism.
“Earlier, the water in the lake was very good, we took drinking water from there. Now it is very bad because of the pollution from houseboats and other tourist boats”, says Lillykutty, a housewife from Kainakary near Alappuzha. She complains that she now has to go far by boat to collect drinking water – which costs money, takes time and means an additional burden for Lillykutty, and for many other women in Kuttanadu.
Thankamani, a local resident from Valiyakary, points out how tourism has changed their bathing routines: “Earlier we used to take bath on both sides of the canal. Now tourists are taking photographs from the boat without our permission and intrude our privacy. Now we are taking bath in the night.” She does not have any alternative.
According to the Centre for Water Resources Development and Management (CWRDM) at Kozhikode (Calicut), more than 80 per cent of the people in Kuttanadu rely on the canal water for their daily water requirements – water that is contaminated with germs, pesticides and petrochemicals, and that causes serious health problems.
Many of the families in the area belong to the "people without access to safe drinking water" whose proportion world leaders have pledged to reduce to half the 1990 level by 2015. So far, there is no indication that this Millennium Development Goal for poverty alleviation, formulated by world leaders at the United Nations in 2000, may be achieved in Kuttanadu. And tourism falls short of supporting this goal – though the World Tourism Organisation (WTO) has included in its definition of sustainable tourism that it should contribute to poverty alleviation.
On the contrary: As far as the water situation in Kuttanadu is concerned, tourism has not only failed to improve local infrastructure, it has also become a major source of pollution to the detriment of the people, and it is far from sustainable.
Houseboats are the main attraction in the area and play their part in luring ten percent of all foreign tourists visiting India to the small state of Kerala. The number of international tourists to Kerala has increased by 24 percent in 2003-2004, and the growing Indian middle and upper class has also discovered Kerala as a holiday destination. It comes as no surprise that local tourism businesses do whatever they can to meet the increasing and prospective demand.
However, with the growing number of houseboats, pollution of the backwaters also increases. The current number of houseboats in and around Alappuzha alone is estimated at 600. Oil and kerosene residues, sewage and kitchen waste from the boats are directly discharged into the water. "The houseboats are a big menace now", says R. Visakhan, president of the Kainakary grama panchayat (local self-government).
"They are discharging human excreta, condoms and other waste into the lake. The bottom of the lake is full of plastic carry bags and bottles."
“Outboard engines are creating most of the pollution", says Pavithran, an elderly ferryman who uses a small country boat to take people to the other side of the Pampa river – often obstructed by houseboats and tourist boats. A film of petrochemicals has been spreading over the water in the Vembanad lake. It is alarmingly thick in Punnamada and Kumarakom where the largest number of houseboats anchors.
Petrochemicals released from two-stroke engines (the most common houseboat engines) float on the surface micro layer and settle within the estuarine and shallow ecosystems of bays, lakes and rivers, where marine life is youngest and most vulnerable. The gills, though which the fish breaths, are coated with oil.
“The fish have been showing a tendency to migrate en masse to the area of the lake where the film is thin or absent. If the situation goes unchecked, fish and other aquatic organisms will perish soon”, warns K.G. Padmakumar of the Kumarakom Regional Agricultural Research Station. According to ornithologists, both the diversity of bird species and the bird population in the area have decreased dramatically.
And the local population is suffering in many ways. “Kuttanadu life is very much related to water. The livelihood of the people, like agriculture and fishing activities, depends on the quality of the water here”, explains Visakhan. More than 10,000 people make a living from fishing – but for how much longer will they be able to? "Fish and mussels are not in a condition to eat because of the kerosene content”, complains ferryman Pavithran, and he is not the only one to complain. “Husbands have blamed their wives for the kerosene taste of the food. They might have spoiled the food while cooking”, says K. Raju, a local fisherman. “Now we know that the kerosene taste is from the fish itself.” He feels that the houseboats are threatening his livelihood: “We are not able to sell fish because of this kerosene.” He also worries about the declining fish stock.
“We have taken a loan from the bank for the small fishing boat and net. Now we are unable to repay the loan because we are not getting enough catch and sale”, adds his colleague Sibichan. He also points out conflicts between the fishermen and the houseboat operators: “At night, houseboats are anchoring on the lake. They are destroying the fishing nets”.
Madusoodanan, president of the Rice Cultivators Collective at Valiyakary, two kilometres from Alappuzha, complains that the houseboats are disturbing the agricultural activities. “Kerosene and oil are spreading to the paddy fields and are adversely affecting the rice cultivation. But government authorities are ignoring the plea of the people to prevent pollution and supply drinking water. Government should bring some regulation!”
Panchayat president Visakhan also hopes that the government will consider the carrying capacity of the region and introduce regulation to prevent the number of houseboats from increasing further. In his evaluation, tourism does not benefit his community: “We have to really look into the statistics - the foreign exchange, local people employed in tourism, subsidies given by the government. We can see that this tourism is not profitable and does not help the people.”
(Please note: Tourism Concern, Kabani or our partners are not responsible for the content of unverified reports.)