Are houseboats to blame for the slow ruin of Kerala’s backwaters?

A ubiquitous presence in the state’s much-vaunted tourism industry, houseboats are an easy punching bag for anyone looking to explain why Vembanad Lake is dying. TNIE looks at the bigger picture

Published: 23rd January 2023 07:10 AM  |   Last Updated: 23rd January 2023 07:10 AM   |  A+A-

Express News Service

KOCHI: For long, Kerala has relied on three features to remain one of the world’s most sought-after tourist destinations – homestays, backwaters, and ayurveda. Nowhere else do these three come together so effortlessly as on the Vembanad Lake.

The kettuvalams of yore that plied these waters ferrying rice, bricks, coconut, and spices have all been converted into floating homestays, some even boasting onboard spas. Now, these boats ferry travellers through the 560km network of canals and lagoons that make up Kerala’s famous backwaters. At dusk, hundreds are seen lined at Punnamada in Alappuzha. As per data, the number of houseboats on these waters is as high as 1,400.

Houseboat tourism is a very visible sector. It is no wonder then that these floating castles are blamed for the slow ruin of Vembanad Lake – a UNESCO Ramsar site. However, a probe by TNIE revealed another story. It is true that the lake is dying. A study conducted by the Thiruvananthapuram-based National Centre for Earth Science Studies estimates that the lake may cease to exist in another 50 years. But the reasons for this are several.

The bowl that drained the lake
“There are multiple problems plaguing the lake. But 1888 is when it all began,” said K M Poovu, a member of the lake conservation forum. According to him, a large section of the lake was reclaimed for agriculture. Bunds were created and paddy polders were formed.

“Though the King of Travancore Moolam Thirunal Rama Varma VI had ordered an investigation, the famine that plagued the land in subsequent years saw his officials turning a blind eye. Several more polders were soon created and thus came to shape what people call ‘rice bowl of Kerala’,” Poovu said.
At least 24,000 acres of the lake were lost during this period (1887-1928).

However, there was an unanticipated symbiosis between the paddy polders and fish diversity. However, this changed with the introduction of pesticides in independent India. A surge in population and a looming food crisis demanded that more harvests be had in a single year. This meant more fertilisers and pesticides.

Son of a fisherman, Poovu was disheartened. He knew that all these chemicals were going to end up in the lake, affecting the sustenance of nearly 1.6 million people. Thus began his mission to save the lake.
But neither he nor his cohorts could have envisioned what happened next.

The lake’s real monster
In 1976, a sinister structure rose from the lake, cleaving it into two – a saline north and a more-or-less freshwater south. The Thanneermukom Bund. It disturbed the seamless flow of the waters and created an ecological imbalance that continues to this day.

“It was the unanticipated flood of 1949 that paved way for the construction of the barrage,” said Dr S Bijoy Nandan, Dean, Faculty of Marine Sciences, CUSAT.

“In the flood, several paddy polders in the reclaimed fields of Kuttanad were lost, including that of the then state agriculture minister. The barrage was his answer to prevent further calamity, but it now threatens the very existence of the lake,” said Nandan.

Tojo T D, project coordinator of ATREE Community Environment Resource Centre (ATREE-CERC) in Alappuzha, concurs. The increased closure time of the barrage as well as its unscientific management have enhanced aquatic weed growth and accumulation of silt deposits on the lake’s southern side.
When the barrage was constructed, there was a slew of conditions. One of which was that it will remain open every fourth year. This has not happened yet.

“The barrage is only open for a few months. There is no fixed calendar. The incursion of saltwater is essential not only to cleanse the lake system, but it is also vital for fish to breed and thrive. The irregularity of barrage operations makes this difficult,” Tojo added.

ATREE’s yearly fish count, which has become a celebrated event, recently revealed an alarming trend. The fish found in the survey were mostly freshwater species and their count had dwindled to 47 from 150 a few decades ago.

Not only that, the water samples taken from 15 points in the lake tested for zero salinity. “This means that the lake is slowly turning into a freshwater system,” Tojo said.

With summer rains intensifying on account of climate change, now even if the bunds are opened, it is unlikely that the brackish seawater can push back the fast-moving river waters flowing into the lake.

The early houseboats
“Everyone is quick to blame the houseboats. They forget that they have been instrumental in reviving the region’s economy. Houseboats and backwaters are the backbone of state’s tourism sector. One need only look at their brochures,” said Gopakumar, crewmember of a boat.

“But unlike the houseboats of old, what plies on these waters today are alien aberrations – with their air conditioners, TVs, and music systems blaring Hindi music. It is far detached from the romanticized idea we all harbour.”

Legend has it that the first houseboats were fashioned out of a drydocked kettuvallam by a clutch of friends. It was the early 1990s, a time when homestays were also mushrooming.

Soon, as word of houseboats spread, foreigners started arriving here seeking a more rural experience. Carrying them, the houseboat – scant in amenities – was punted through the lake and its network of canals.

“It was the golden age of houseboat tourism,” Gopakumar recalled. It took them an entire day just to navigate the lake. “No air conditioners, TVs, or music system. Just kerosene lamps for light. It was a very basic boat, but the foreigners preferred this simplicity,” Gopakumar added. 

There was however one major problem: no toilets on board. It was to remedy this that the first modifications were made. Soon enough, a bedroom was added, and shortly after, provisions to make tea.

“The list grew from there.”

When posed if the houseboats were dumping sewage and kitchen waste into the lake, Gopakumar mentioned a sewage treatment plant not far from where the boats dock.

“Sewage waste is collected in bio-tanks on the boats. Every three months, we take our boats to the sewage treatment plant and get the tanks cleaned. No boats discharge their sewage into the lake,” he said. But he refrained from answering the second part of the question on kitchen waste. Gopakumar is a cook.

Alexander George, environmental engineer with the State Pollution Control Board, has a  plausible theory. According to him, kitchen waste from almost 90% of houseboats was in fact released into the lake.

However, he expressed confidence that sewage discharges were indeed collected in tanks and later moved to the plant. “We have to, every three months. Only then will we get our licences renewed. You can’t skip the paperwork,” said Abhilash, a boat operator.

The paperwork
Perhaps the loudest voice in support of houseboats comes from the Alappuzha port authority office. When asked about the paperwork necessary for a new vessel to enter the lake’s waters, port officer Abraham V Kuriakose took on the case himself.

“No matter their size or purpose, or who it belongs to, no mechanically-propelled vessel can enter the waters without these things – registration, survey papers, pollution control board’s sanction letter, and insurance,” Kuriakose said.

In addition to these, the crew operating the vessel also needs to have and carry a slew of papers. The vessel must also comply with a set of conditions. This multi-pronged validation process is equally backed by regular checks and random inspections, Abraham pointed out.

“This makes it almost impossible for houseboats, or any vessel for that matter, to falter,” the captain said. He admits that before the Kerala Inland Vessels Act came into force in 2010 and perhaps even for a few years after, effluents from houseboats were indeed a concern. However, in the years since, this has declined.

The verdict
In truth, the Vembanad Lake is a victim of good intentions. Its plagued existence, a visible concoction of the many power struggles that exist today: between paddy field owners and fisherfolks, of the three districts that share the lake’s waters, of the many tribes of politics, and the tussle between change-seeking environmentalists and leave-us-alone natives. If anyone is to blame, it is all of us.

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