Protecting the Kerala backwaters

Protecting the backwaters of Alleppey

For centuries the backwaters of Alleppey, Kerala have been used by local people for cooking, drinking and washing as well as for transportation, fishing and agriculture. They are also increasingly popular with tourists, who hire thatched houseboats to explore the tranquil palm-fringed waters and picturesque villages.

However, unregulated tourism expansion is threatening rural communities and their environment, as well as undermining the economic benefits it brings to local people.

Tourism Concern has worked with local partners and the Ministry of Tourism to develop a code of conduct for houseboat owners. See the links below:

  1. Alleppey Backwaters Tourism – A New Way Forward (April 2015)
  2. Alleppey Backwaters Tourism (May 2015)

What’s the problem?

Unregulated tourism expansion is threatening rural communities and their environment as well as undermining the economic benefits it brings to local people.

  • Sewage and plastic waste is being dumped into the waterways. Over 80 per cent of households living along or near the backwaters rely on its water for daily drinking and cooking. However, less than half of these residents reportedly treat the water before consuming it and many have no alternative water supply.
  • Local fishermen state that fuel, sewage and plastic are affecting fish and prawn catches.
  • Livelihoods within the agricultural sector are also being severely hit. Paddy fields are directly irrigated by the backwaters, which means that oil, sewage and rubbish from the houseboats easily flows into these agricultural units. Furthermore, farmers attribute recent incidences of ill health to prolonged contact with polluted water.
  • Locals people’s privacy and culture is being invaded. Tourist boats are mooring wherever they want, and often near to private houses and even directly overlooking them. Locals also tell of inappropriate behaviour by visitors, including drunkenness, noise and explicitly sexual behaviour etc.

With support from Tourism Concern, local groups carried out research on carrying capacity and developing a Code of Conduct for houseboat operators (and tourists themselves).


The coast of Kerala is fringed with a network of lakes, rivers and canals, which make up the idyllic backwaters. Alleppey (also known as Alappuzha) is the most popular backwater destination, attracting several thousand tourists every year, including many from the UK (Zacharias et al, 2008).

Most visitors spend some time on a houseboat – a converted rice barge complete with sleeping quarters, bathroom, kitchen and staff. However, while benefitting some, the exponential growth of houseboat tourism is being met with mounting concern and resentment from many local communities.

But poorly regulated houseboat tourism development is affecting water quality, ecosystems, and traditional livelihoods. Alleppey’s waterways are home to over 10,000 people. Their entire way of life is intimately connected to the backwaters, which they rely upon for fishing, drinking, bathing, cooking, and other livelihood activities, such as rice farming and toddy-tapping (harvesting of mildly fermented coconut water).

R. Visakhan, president of a local panchayat (village-level government) states: “Life is very much related to water. The livelihood of the people, such as agriculture and fishing activities, depends on the quality of water here”.

Fish catches down
Local fishermen confirm that fuel and oil pollution are affecting the quality of fish and prawn catches. “The houseboats are threatening our livelihood. The fish stock is also reducing,” said K. Raju, a fisherman from Kainakari. Another fisherman reported: “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.”

Drinking water
A primary school teacher reported: “Most of our parent-teacher meetings nowadays revolve around the issues of water… 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!”

Another local man stated: “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.”

Agricultural impacts
A farmer of Thankamani reported: “Our paddy fields are in a very bad shape due to the pollution. We are not getting agricultural workers, because they are afraid to work in the polluted paddy fields due to health concerns. I am also suffering from skin diseases because of the long contact with the contaminated water.”

Stemming the flow?
In its 2011 tourism strategy, Kerala Tourism acknowledges that houseboat pollution and density is a problem (Kerala Tourism, 2011). Its answer is to “to disperse houseboat operation and cruise activities to relatively underused stretches and regions”, while encouraging the use of improved waste management systems. However, unless it first establishes clear carrying capacities for all regions in consultation with local communities, and actively enforces and monitors boat numbers and their utilisation of waste management systems, it risks simply spreading the problem elsewhere.

Our work empowering local communities and campaigning for change
Our recently completed project  in India funded by the UK’s DFID aimed to empower local communities to engage with tourism issues more effectively. In Alleppey this work included consultation and training, working towards specific proposals on these issues. Possibilities now being explored by local groups include research on carrying capacity and developing a Code of Practice for houseboat operators (and tourists themselves). Our support was requested for campaigning for change in three areas:

  • Effective regulation – While there are some existing regulations to help ameliorate many of the above problems, they need effective enforcement. Further regulation may also be needed.
  • Listening to local voices – Tourism in Alleppey needs to be more people-focused. Policy currently focuses on the industry’s needs and on expansion, but does not adequately consult with local communities – those who are carrying the burden of this tourism.
  • Raising awareness – There are other backwater areas where houseboat tourism is also becoming popular – and the same issues hence increasingly apply – such as in Ernakulum (Cochin) and Kollam areas.
alleppey vid
Interview of a woman washing laundry in Vembanad Lake, Alleppey


A man speaks about the issues related to the water of Vembanad Lake, Alleppey

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