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Is Bengaluru heading towards Day Zero?

  • In a city divided into two by access to water, every day is Day Zero for some residents of Bengaluru
  • As the city expands and urbanizes rapidly, with a projected population of 20 million by 2030, how worried should we be?

Women from a low-income area line up to fill water from a private tanker.
Women from a low-income area line up to fill water from a private tanker. (AFP)

Saul Kere Lake, off Sarjapur Road in Bengaluru, is a pleasant sight early in the morning. A slight mist hangs over it and the ground is still wet after the light rain that fell in the night. Despite the chill in the air, several morning walkers take the lake path. The lake itself is not exactly brimming over with water, though it looks less dry than it did a month ago when Bengaluru witnessed a weak early monsoon through June and up to the middle of July, with 30% deficit in rainfall.

Surrounded by mammoth apartment complexes and tech parks, in a part of Bengaluru that has transformed in the past decade and a half from farmlands cleaved by a straggly highway to a bustling area of high-tech commerce, Saul Kere is part of the city’s legendary network of lakes, once linked by a system of interconnected stormwater drains called raja kaluve.

About half a kilometre from Saul Kere is a square plot enclosed by concrete walls. The plot is surrounded by squat two-storey houses, small apartments, “PGs for men", a few “Iyengar bakeries" and grocery stores—the kind of buildings that invariably spring up around large special economic zones (SEZs) in Bengaluru, serving the needs of the security guards, maintenance workers and low-income employees who keep the mega tech parks running. This plot is not likely to be built over though, for it is a “borewell farm"—farmland that is entirely given over to the extraction of water.

Over the years, even as farmers and landholders started selling their land to developers interested in building large-scale commercial and residential complexes in this part of the city, some patches of land continued to be cultivated till the water economy kicked in. Rising demand for water in these outlying areas of the city, which largely don’t have access to piped municipal water, led savvy businessmen to invest in fleets of water tankers. Alongside, they bought or leased the remaining small farms to sink borewells, often zeroing in on land near lakes where the water table was shallow.

This morning, there are four tankers drawing water from the three borewells on the small farm near Saul Kere. One of the drivers says a couple of borewells are 800ft- 1,000ft deep (the average depth of borewells in Bengaluru is around 600ft). The drivers are not very talkative—once their tankers are full, they drive off quickly, dripping a trail of water from the crude taps attached to the end of the drum-like body of the tanker.

These tankers are the lifeline of Bengaluru, supplying at least a third of the city’s water needs (some estimates put this as high as 50%). But most of the estimated 4,000-5,000 tankers have been operating illegally, according to multiple reports in Bengaluru newspapers. There is no clarity on which government body regulates tanker operators. Even in areas of the city where the Bangalore Water Supply and Sewerage Board (BWSSB) supplies “Cauvery water" from reservoirs like the KRS dam near Mysuru, many residents need to supplement it with water from tankers. It is a well-established system going back over a decade, when the city started expanding in all directions and the infrastructure in its peri-urban areas remained underdeveloped compared to the core, older neighbourhoods.

The availability of groundwater and the tanker network that plumbs it are some of the factors that set Bengaluru apart from Chennai, which famously “ran out" of water this summer when the four reservoirs supplying water to the city went dry. Chennai also suffers from the problem of a shallow aquifer, which hits the saline water table after a depth of 500ft or so. Even as images of Chennai residents—especially those from the hardest-hit low-income areas—lining the streets for a few bucketfuls of water emerged, the question of “who’s next" started doing the rounds.

Predictably, Bengaluru, which has often been in the news for water-related crises—be it violent protests over the sharing of Cauvery water with neighbouring Tamil Nadu or the burning Bellandur Lake—was in focus. Will Bengaluru be the next Indian city to hit Day Zero? After all, a little over a year ago, the government policy think tank NITI Aayog had listed it as one of the 21 major Indian cities which would run out of groundwater by 2020, and the BBC had run a story naming it as one of 11 cities in the world that would soon hit Day Zero, like Cape Town in South Africa and Sao Paulo in Brazil.

The truth is a bit more nuanced: Whether or not Bengaluru runs out of water depends on which Bengaluru you are talking about. Challenging as the city’s water story is, it is made more complex by the fact that Bengaluru is not one but two cities divided by access to water, says Veena Srinivasan, fellow at the Ashoka Trust for Research in Ecology and the Environment (Atree).

For some residents, every day is Day Zero, if you define Day Zero by its universal meaning of no reliable municipal water supply, Srinivasan says. “The KRS dam, which supplies water to Bengaluru, also supplies water for agricultural needs in Mandya district. But even if the monsoon fails or is scanty (as it has been this year), it is the farmers who get cut off, not the city. Bengaluru won’t reach Day Zero easily," she says. “Of course, it depends on the area. Bengaluru’s water story is a suburban story," she adds.

Srinivasan herself lives in Sadashivnagar, one of the older areas of the city, which has constant municipal supply; the water table in this area is as shallow as 10-20 ft owing to seepage from pipes bringing in Cauvery water. She says it’s common to see tankersfilling up water from empty plots in these areas to supply other parts of the city. The city’s core and peripheral areas have different problems and should have different solutions, Srinivasan says.

BWSSB engineer-in-chief, Kemparamaiah, acknowledges this dimension even as he says that currently there is “no crisis" within the 575 sq. km jurisdiction of BWSSB, approximately 70% of the city. “We are spreading to 110 villages, adding another 225 sq. km to our jurisdiction," he says. “But they are not too interested to take our water connection." The 110 villages he’s talking about are on the periphery of Bengaluru—small villages that are being added to the city as it continues to spread.

Anxiety and unease were evident in these outlying areas earlier this year, through a relatively dry April, May and June. According to data from the India Meteorological Department, there continues to be a rainfall deficit of 13% in Bengaluru for the season starting 1 June, largely because of scanty pre-monsoon showers and a weak early monsoon. There was widespread water rationing in several apartment complexes and panic when residents faced a scarcity of tankers. The situation was so precarious in April and May that often they didn’t know when the next water tanker was coming while overhead tanks had already run dry.

M. Venkatesh, the duty manager at a 150-apartment complex on Haralur Road, a busy residential locality off Sarjapur Road, saw this firsthand. “Most days, I would go and stand on the main road at 4am and hail passing tankers, begging them to come to our apartment. They would charge exorbitant amounts, but we were forced to pay because tankers supply 90% of our water needs—we have just one borewell, which supplies about two tankers worth of water while we need 20 every day," he says. Prices of each tanker went from 550 a year ago to 800 (they have since come down to 620).

In the skewed demand-supply situation, tanker owners called the shots and went to the highest bidder; there were even scuffles between residents and estate managers of neighbouring apartment complexes.

The BWSSB’s assertion that “many of these areas are not interested in taking our water" sounds bizarre, but has a kernel of truth—a situation unique to Bengaluru. Since these newer areas are already dependent on a tanker-based supply system, and since it costs money to get a BWSSB connection, many apartment complexes are reluctant to pay upwards of 1 lakh per household for it. The situation is complicated by the fact that many homeowners had paid builders this money while purchasing their flats and villas—in some cases, over 10 years ago, when a BWSSB connection wasn’t even a glimmer in their eye—and are reluctant to pay up another 1 lakh-plus now that the civic agency is finally extending its services to their areas. Some have filed court cases against the builders to retrieve their money, but it’s an uphill battle.

The BWSSB connection might not ensure a permanent solution in any case. In apartments that have started getting piped water, supply is rudimentary and erratic.

Firefighters at Bellandur Lake after it ‘caught fire’ in January 2018.
Firefighters at Bellandur Lake after it ‘caught fire’ in January 2018. ( PTI)

Historical anomaly

If we were to take a bird’s-eye view, Bengaluru’s water situation may well resemble the proverbial elephant being inspected by six blind men. In the urban analogy, the latter would be represented by the various stakeholders of the city, while the elephant would symbolize the nebulous issue of supply and sustainability of water reserves. And as in the legend, there is no unanimous verdict about the shape of the beast we are dealing with here.

At one end of the spectrum are those who believe the city will run out of water, like Chennai, and hit Day Zero in the foreseeable future. With water rationing and water wars looming, they see no sign of redemption, and certainly no cause for optimism. Then there are those experts who claim that the city has enough water to meet the demands of its 12 million residents if the civic authorities harness existing resources better.

Somewhere between these two views are the everyday realities faced by citizens whose relationship with water is defined by their economic and social standing as well as the parts of the city they live in. Their current predicament is the result of centuries of mismanagement of water resources, aggravated by geographical peculiarities.

Historically, the question of access to water has always been fraught in Bengaluru. Lying in the semi-arid rain-shadow region of the Western Ghats, Bengaluru is an anomaly of sorts, since urban civilizations are usually known to grow and thrive around areas close to steady, and preferably perennial, sources of water. In stark contrast, Cauvery, the river closest to Bengaluru, is some 100km away from the city, and is the cause of a long-standing feud with Tamil Nadu over water sharing. However, this has not stopped state authorities from transporting water from the river to the city through a network of pipelines—around 1,450 million litres per day (MLD) every day. Over the next five years, an additional supply of 775 MLD from Cauvery under the fifth stage of the Cauvery Water Supply Scheme will be added, says the BWSSB.

But will this be sufficient to cater to a sprawling city that is projected to hit a population of 20 million by 2030?

“The future of Bengaluru’s water depends not so much on the projection of the volume available but on what people and civic institutions choose to do with it," says Harini Nagendra, professor of sustainability at the city’s Azim Premji University. In her research, Prof. Nagendra has repeatedly drawn attention to the steady degradation of the ecosystem of man-made tanks, now called lakes, which once supplied water to its population in ways that were sustainable, socially equitable and ecological.

Water levels at the KRS dam continue to be low this year, with live storage at 8.5 TMC on 1 August, compared to 42.4 TMC on 1 August 2018.
Water levels at the KRS dam continue to be low this year, with live storage at 8.5 TMC on 1 August, compared to 42.4 TMC on 1 August 2018. (iStock)

City of lakes?

In the 16th century, when the local chieftain Kempe Gowda founded Bengaluru, the bulk of the city’s water needs were supplied by over 1,000 lakes spread across an undulating terrain. Rainwater collected in each of these structures and the excess flowed into the one at the level immediately below it. This self-sustaining model was disrupted in the 1890s as the city began to expand, and piped water became its lifeline.

With the transformation of Bengaluru into India’s Silicon Valley over the last two decades, leading to massive population pressure (the city’s population is slated to grow by an incredible 124.4% between 2011-2031, according to the Bangalore Development Authority) and a real estate boom, the interconnected system of lakes has been broken. The lakes have been encroached on steadily to build houses, leading to the disintegration of the water ecology—the number of lakes has dwindled to 200-300. Today, much of the city’s waste is dumped into these water bodies, turning them into toxic swamp land. Bellandur Lake, covered by a layer of noxious froth and periodically bursting into flames, has attained notoriety, making headlines worldwide.

While citizen initiatives to revive some of these lakes have brought in transformative change, not every change is an unqualified blessing. The Kaikondrahalli Lake on Sarjapur Road, for instance, is a case of a polluted water body being given a fresh lease of life by the collective efforts of the locals and municipal authorities. Once out of bounds for residents because of its foul state, it now provides a reprieve from the concrete jungle around it.

But the flip side, as Prof. Nagendra says, is that “from being a productive ecosystem that once supplied food, fodder and water", this urban lake has become “visualized exclusively as a pristine ecosystem, to be mainly used for recreation and nature watching, and perhaps for groundwater recharge".

Lakes like Kaikondrahalli were once used by people in the adjoining slums to wash clothes. Edible greens, meant as cattle fodder, used to grow at the shallow ends, while permissions were granted for fishing at the deep end. Turning such a vibrant social ecosystem into a cultural landmark for the rest and recreation of an urban population is akin to taking away layers of historical dimensions.

The question of water security is thus linked to many parameters that may not be obvious to ordinary citizens. Traditionally, lakes also had open wells on the sides belonging to communities, even though access was segregated by caste. The number of these structures has fallen over the years owing to rampant encroachment. Boundary walls built around lakes disrupt the flow of water into the next lake. As a result, urban planning consultant V. Ravichandar points out, “for a city facing water scarcity, Bengaluru also, ironically, suffers from seasonal urban flooding."

A private water tanker at a south Bengaluru apartment complex.
A private water tanker at a south Bengaluru apartment complex. (Jithendra M/Mint)

Who owns groundwater?

It is telling that for a city so dependent on groundwater, the main civic agency monitoring groundwater in Bengaluru, the Karnataka Groundwater Authority (KGA), is a six-member organization “to manage 4 lakh (400,000) borewells", says S. Vishwanath, director of the Biome Environmental Trust, a non-profit that has worked extensively on rainwater harvesting and groundwater recharge.

Meera K., a citizen activist and editor of the civic news website, pithily calls the BWSSB “a bus service for water". “There is complete apathy towards groundwater. They are only focused on transporting water from one place to the other, and they don’t even have a trained hydrogeologist," she says.

To dig a borewell, one must take permission from the KGA, but the truth is, a large percentage of borewells in the city are illegal, says Vishwanath. If a borewell is found to be operating illegally, the owners can pay a nominal fine and get it legalized. The absence of any reliable data on how many borewells Bengaluru’s deep aquifers can sustain is perhaps the biggest hindrance in managing the city’s water.

In an essay in Mint in 2018, Rohini Nilekani, founder-chairperson of Arghyam, a foundation working to provide safe, sustainable water, pointed out the paucity of reliable data about borewells in India. “There are estimated to be more than 33 million borewells and open wells in India, though no one has an exact number," she wrote. “Most of these are privately owned, largely by farmers. There is no published data on how many of these wells have failed permanently, or on how many new wells are being dug or drilled every year."

Getting this data is immensely complicated because groundwater is tied to the complex issue of land use. While you may be within your rights to dig on a track of land that belongs to you, the water you may end up extracting actually belongs to a natural aquifer which is much larger than the land designated to you, says Priya Desai, coordinator and manager of the knowledge platform India Water Portal. In such a case, you are encroaching on resources that belong to a common pool.

“We think 50% of citizens rely on alternate sources of water—but there’s no good data, it is a best-guess scenario," says Anu Sridharan, co-founder and CEO of NextDrop Technologies, a non-profit that aims to use Internet of Things (IoT) device data mashed with human crowd-sourced data to create what they call the “internet of water (IoW)". They hope their work will allow cities to answer three key questions: How much water do they have? What is its quality? And what is it used for?

A couple of years ago, NextDrop started working with tanker operators in Bengaluru to collect data on groundwater. “It was a hard place to start though it was also the most interesting," says Sridharan about the project, which has hit pause—largely because the data was hard to come by.

NextDrop is joining a consortium of organizations working for water security to quantify and test water in the city’s lakes. Sridharan admits that this is possibly an easier task, given the active citizen-led movements for lake rejuvenation and a more organized environment. “Every year someone asks me how much water Bangalore has, and I have to say I don’t know. Nobody will be able to answer this fundamental question—and it is scary that we can’t."

“Digging borewells is a quick fix, as opposed to rainwater harvesting, which requires long-term investment," Desai says. “Often, we get people writing on our portal about their borewells going dry, asking how they can recharge those. But the more important question that doesn’t strike them is, why have their borewells gone dry in the first place?"

The question of supply alone shouldn’t be the emphasis of policymakers. V. Balasubramaniam, a retired public servant who is known for his dire views on Bengaluru’s water woes, says contamination of water sources should concern both citizens and authorities. “As we know, a bulk of Bengaluru’s sewage ends up in the lakes, which then percolates into borewells," he says, mentioning the possibility of the spread of germs like E. coli.

Hope floats

This doesn’t mean attempts are not being made by the government and civic-minded private organizations to replenish groundwater. Bengaluru is blessed with an engaged and aware citizenry—perhaps more than in any other Indian metro—which takes an active interest in the city’s governance. From citizen-led urban beautification project The Ugly Indian to Vishwanath’s Biome, Meera’s and collectives like Friends of Lakes, Bengaluru’s residents have relentlessly pushed for change.

In a recent heartening development, treated sewage water from three treatment plants in north Bengaluru is being used to recharge lakes and groundwater. Krishna Byre Gowda, MLA of the north Bangalore constituency of Byatarayanapura, tweeted on 15 July: “Extremely happy to share with you—started filling up of 13 lakes in Jala Hobli of BTPura constituency with treated waste water from BLR. This will recharge depleted ground water, help increase green cover, boost agriculture, nurture plants, birds, animals."

The project involves supplying 210 million litres of treated water every day to water bodies—even those upstream, by using pumps. Authorities are hopeful that in the long term this water will help revive four rivers that flow close to the city, improving its water security, reported The Times Of India on 18 July.

Alongside, there are public-private initiatives. The Biome Environmental Trust is currently engaged in a project called A Million Recharge Wells, a campaign to revive the city’s open wells and recharge groundwater through recycled water and rainwater harvesting.

What about that ominous pronouncement of the city hurtling towards Day Zero? Perhaps not just yet.

Sharan Poovanna contributed to this story.

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