Evaluating India's Wastewater Practices

Photo of Dr. Kelly Alley in India

Kelly Alley, the Alma Holladay Professor of Anthropology in the College of Liberal Arts, has carried out research in northern India for over 25 years. Her focus has been on public culture and environmental issues in the Ganges-Brahmpautra-Meghna basin, combining inquiries into religious practice and doctrine, government policy, law, and activism.

Recently, Alley presented a paper at the University of Edinburgh. The paper, “Draining Legal Activism: Delay and persistence in India’s legal discourse,” was presented as part of a two-day symposium, Taking Nature to the Courtroom in South Asia. The symposium brought together international scholars with established records on the topics of environmental issues, and the relationship between ecology and religion in South Asia.

“Dr. Alley’s research has proven to be crucial to the environmental issues surrounding India,” College of Liberal Arts Dean Joseph Aistrup said. “Her work continues to merit attention from international leaders and scholars. We are proud and pleased with her collaborations and with the important inroads she’s developed over the past 20 years while conducting research in northern India.”

The National Science Foundation (NSF) awarded Alley and her collaborators $252,798 to examine the potential of decentralized programs of wastewater management in India. According the abstract Alley submitted to NSF, her team will “study the interactions between institutional structures, governance mechanisms, geophysical landscapes of wastewater flows, and cultural practices in the context of decentralized responses to water contamination and shortage.”

A decentralized project is a small-scale treatment system operated in a city drain, a neighborhood, or an institutional setting without long distance transfers of wastewater through underground and above-ground pipes. Decentralized plants can save energy and may involve lower maintenance costs.

“Increasing water shortages and contamination have pushed communities and policy makers to reconsider their reliance on centralized wastewater treatment systems and to experiment with decentralized ones,” Alley said.

Alley said that cleaning up the Ganges is complicated by the fact that the river is, on the one hand, culturally significant as a Hindu Goddess while, on the other, it is being diminished by escalating extractions for agriculture, industry, power, and urbanization.

“It is the combination of these factors that makes a sample of Ganges-related projects ideal for investigating the intersectional effects of decentralized wastewater treatment approaches.”

Approaching these complex issues with cultural sensitivity is why Alley is a sought-after and highly-respected authority on India’s waterways. She was recently asked to contribute to a blog called “South Asia Networks on Dams, Rivers and People,” and she continues to teach at Auburn.

In addition to her research in India, she is past-president of the Anthropology and Environment section of the American Anthropological Association. She has worked with the World Water Forum and UNESCO to incorporate understanding of cultural diversity into water management—this research has been supported by the Center for Forest Sustainability, and the College of Liberal Arts at Auburn. In 2011, Alley was awarded the President’s Outstanding Collaborative Units award with members of the Center for Forest Sustainability at Auburn.


Written by Vicky Santos, director of external affairs in the College of Liberal Arts at Auburn University 

Last Updated: February 02, 2018