The canals weaving through Alleppey, India, all lead to Vembanad Lake—the largest in the state of Kerala located just a few miles inland from the Arabian Sea. These urban rivers no longer serve much purpose, since they were created for transportation before the roads were built. Now, canals have become an easy access garbage can, or an out-of-sight place to route a sewage line. Last time I was here, the architecture firm Inspiration was just getting started planning out their pilot project to clean up Alleppey's canals. Since then, they've completely flipped not only a 3-kilometer sub-canal, but also the neighborhood around it.
Today the canals run clean and are decorated with colorful artwork encouraging residents to keep them that way. One area that this pilot project has impacted the greatest is a municipal colony (or a slum) where 53 families used to share a small toilet facility.
Now each family has their own toilet connecting to an on-site bio digester which uses bacteria and rooted plants to recycle nutrients and clean the water, so it is safe to drain into the canal. Thanks to the help of my guide and translator Midhun, I got to hear from the residents of the colony about what the area was like before—and how they feel about it now.
"Initially, we had a drain running through here and everything went into it," said Ligi Binoey, who lives in the colony with her husband. "When it flooded, it all came into the house."
These problems have been solved by plumbing the area with proper toilets, creating spaces where residents can drain water used for cleaning, and establishing a community compost and garbage collection program. Still there's a lot of work yet to be done. This stretch of canal represents just a small fraction of the system. And even while we were walking around Alleppey, we saw several people throwing waste into the canal. Without any strict enforcement for littering, efforts to clean the water will be counterproductive. The group has answers for that too—stay tuned.