THE ENCHANTINGLY PLACID BACKWATERS OF KERALA
Fringing the coast of Kerala and winding far inland is an intricate network of innumerable Lagoons, Lakes, Canals, Estuaries and the Deltas of forty-four rivers that drain into the Arabian Sea.
Over 900 kms of this labyrinthine water world is navigable. As characteristic of Kerala as the 600km long coastline of dazzling beaches is the dense, lush Backwaters of the Kerala state.
And while hill stations are all over the country and palm-fringed beaches too, the Backwaters are unique to Kerala. These Backwaters are both the basis of a distinct lifestyle and a fascinating thoroughfare. Travelling by boat along the Backwaters is one of the highlights of Kerala.
The boats cross shallow, palm-fringed lakes studded with cantilevered Chineses fishing nets and travel along narrow shady canals, where Coir, Copra, and Cashews are loaded into the boats. The largest backwater stretch in Kerala is the Vembanad Lake, which flows through three districts and opens out into the sea at the Kochi port.
Backwaters are the accumulation of Sea Water at the sea beach during the to-fro motion of sea-waves in the form of lagoons, esturies etc. Today, Kerala Backwaters has become the most exciting tourist spot in India.
The Ashtamudi Lake (literally, having eight arms), which covers a major portion of Kollam district in the south, is the second largest and is considered the gateway to the Backwaters. Each district of Kerala is marked by the presence of the inviting Backwaters, which form a prominent part of the panoramic landscape of Kerala.
The most popular backwater cruise is the eight-hour trip between Kollam and Alappuzha and vice versa. The regular public ferry service on this route has been suspended but tourist boats are as popular as ever.
There are essentially identical daily cruises operated on alternate days by the Private Alleppy Tourism Development Co-Operative and the State Government's District Tourism Promotion Council.
THE DWINDLING ECOLOGICAL BALANCE
Although the backwaters have become an important tourist destination, they are severely threatened by the population growth and industrial and agricultural development.
The attractive African Moss that often carpets the surface of the narrower waterways, is a menace to small craft traffic and starves underwater life of light.
It is a symptom of many serious ecological problems currently affecting the region, whose population density ranges from two and four times that of other coastal areas in southwest India.
This has put immense pressure on land and hence a greater reliance on fertilizers, which eventually make their way into the water causing the build up of moss. Illegal land reclamation poses the single largest threat to the already fragile eco-system.
The Naked Truth
In a little over a century, the total area of water in Kuttanad has been reduced to two-thirds, while mangrove swamps and fish stocks have been decimated by pollution and the spread of towns and villages around the edges of the backwater region. Kerala has 29 major lakes on the backwater system, seven of which drain into the sea.
Its estimated that the area of these lakes has fallen from 440 sq. kms in 1968 to less than 350 sq. kms due to illegal and legal land reclamation projects and urban development.
The vast Vembanad lake has dropped from 230sq. kms to 179 sq. kms. Ecological damage includes pollution, the extinction of mangroves, crocodiles and migratory fish and the destruction of oyster beds.
Many migratory birds no longer visit the backwaters and destructive fishing using dynamite, poison and very fine nets has caused great damage.