Authorities must pursue new options to augment water supply to Bangalore and ensure equitable distribution, says M. A. Siraj

With the city fathers envisioning Bangalore to hold a crore plus people by the turn of this decade, can we expect equitable access to water and the few remaining water bodies in the city?

Rotting mountains of garbage have effectively soured the dream of a city which was once dubbed to be on the trajectory of being the next Singapore. The clogged traffic arteries and the noxious fumes emanating from them have made things worse. Now, the looming water crisis is encouraging the painters of doomsday scenario to predict — God forbid — an evacuation of at least half the population by 2023.

A report by the Department of Mines and Geology of the Karnataka Government reveals that 52 per cent of the borewell water and 59 per cent of tap water in the city is contaminated with sewage and is unfit for drinking. Of the nearly 200 lakes that existed once upon a time, barely 140 remain on the map, albeit for namesake, and are gasping for breath. Having been put under a toothless body called the Lake Development Authority, environmental activists fear that the ground has been officially paved for their eventual disappearance. Most of them are vast cesspools being dumped with rubble in order to be grabbed by the land mafia.

Irreversible damage

The only river flowing close to the city, Arkavathi, had ceased to be a source of water supply of any consequence long ago. Ecologists opine that the T.G. Halli reservoir and Hessarghatta lakes have suffered irreversible damage to their watershed area and will never get filled sizably as in the past. The BWSSB figures suggest that nearly 41per cent of the water being drawn from the Cauvery to quench the thirst of the growing city goes unaccounted. Over half of the nearly four lakh borewells in the city have gone dry, the water table having fallen deeper than their ability to extract the precious liquid. The water being supplied by the remaining ones is increasingly turning non-potable with fluoride content rising by each year. It is feared that even this measly quantity and awful quality would be beyond their grasp by 2018.

Though not everyone in the know of things is pessimistic about Bangalore as the Mines and Geology report would like to project, most would acknowledge that the situation is grim. Reason: not at all because Nature has turned unkind in any measure but because the distribution is totally inept and cares a damn about equity. Currently the Bangalore Water Supply and Sewerage Board (BWSSB) supplies 1,458 million litres of water per day.

The Board reports transmission losses to the tune of 41 per cent, thereby only 860 million litres reaching the consumers who occupy 16 lakh property in the city sprawling over an area of roughly 800 sq. km. One could question as to what happens to nearly 500 million litres, or nearly 34 per cent of water every day. According to experts, 10 per cent transmission loss is forgivable and even the best water-administered cities report between 10 to 15 per cent leakage. But in Bangalore’s case, the theft, leakage and faulty/defective or lack of metering combine to deprive the majority of residents what should justifiably reach their taps. It is said, a whopping 56 per cent of property are unmetered.

It is here that the question of equity and insecurity-led storage comes into the picture. According to A.R. Shivakumar, rainwater harvesting specialist at the Indian Institute of Science, who has done considerable amount of work on water management practices, while the privileged in the city pay Rs. 6 to 9 for each 1,000 litres of water supplied to them by the BWSSB, the underprivileged pay Rs. 20 for the same quantity. But that’s not all. There are sections of people in slums in the city who have to cough up even Rs. 250 for the same quantity of water fetched through autorickshaws or home-delivered on bicycles.

It is this uncertainty that leads the people to store water and invest heavily on building storages, be it huge sumps, overhead tanks or drums or plastic bingis, as the case may be. Shivakumar estimates that Bangalore homes can store 8,000 million litres of water on an average day.

The insecurity thus makes each consumer invest an average Rs. 5 for storing a litre of water. This is besides 763 million litres that BWSSB underground reservoirs store before being pumped onto overhead tanks. Shivakumar says storing is a bad practice. It leads to wastages as 15 per cent of all civil work has cracks. Stored water is vulnerable to contamination. More than anything else, it leads to an insecure mindset among consumers of this basic necessity, restricting access for the needy.

The four lakh borewells in the city — half of them being currently defunct due to fall in water table — too were sunk to augment the supply to residents at a huge cost of Rs. 16,000 crore, given that each single borewell cost Rs. 40,000.

The solution?

So, where lie the solution? Currently, 35 per cent of the water supplied by BWSSB goes for domestic consumers; 41 per cent remains unaccounted and is presumed to be transmission loss; non-domestic consumers take another three per cent; industries consume one per cent while Defence establishments and the Railways claim three and 0.7 per cent respectively. Public taps take another 16 per cent. With BWSSB drawing almost the full quota of 19 tmc ft. of water from the Cauvery, and the rains being constant in their precipitation i.e., 920 mm annually, where do we look for water?

Shivakumar says the city could have a sustainable supply if authorities energetically pursue options such as rooftop rainwater harvesting which could supply as much as 20 per cent of the needs and retrieve another 10 per cent through recycling of wastewater. Besides, all efforts must be directed to keep the ground charged for which lakes must be rejuvenated. Needless to say, the authorities would be required to introduce measures to cut transmission losses through effective metering and monitoring and ensure that the poor and the unwashed multitudes get it when they need it.