Bengaluru’s battle for water continues, now with consumption cuts

As the Karnataka government brings in various measures to mitigate the serious water crisis in Bengaluru, experts say that only a change in people’s mindset to use water judiciously will make a real difference. The Hindu looks at various aspects of the city’s water scarcity

April 04, 2024 05:50 pm | Updated April 05, 2024 07:45 am IST

Water recharge wells at Cubbon Park in Bengaluru.

Water recharge wells at Cubbon Park in Bengaluru. | Photo Credit: K. MURALI KUMAR

“In our apartment community of 144 flats, residents who use reverse osmosis water purifiers have been given 10-litre cans in which they collect the water that is discharged. Every morning, the housekeeping staff pick up these cans and empty the water into two large drums, which are then used for cleaning common areas, vehicles, and gardens,” said Krishna Kumar, a resident of Kasturinagar, east of Bengaluru.

Most apartment complexes have stopped filling their swimming pools and have implemented various water conservation measures. Individual households are also cutting consumption. “Apart from fixing aerators on all our taps, the water used to wash vegetables, fruits, rice, and dal is later used for our plants,” said Divya C., a resident of New Thippasandra.

Ram Prasath Manohar V., Chairperson of the Bangalore Water Supply and Sewerage Board (BWSSB), says, the way forward is to cut consumption to reduce the overall demand for water in Bengaluru by around 20%. “We are looking at this at both macro and micro levels. The supply to bulk consumers [those who use more than 20 lakh litres a day, going up to 2 crore litres] is going to be reduced, and we are appealing to all households to conserve water,” he said.

Challenges and solutions

A study of Bengaluru’s water needs by the Karnataka government has pegged the daily demand at 2,650 million litres per day (MLD), of which 1,450 MLD is drawn from the Cauvery. The rest is being met from groundwater. While supply from the Cauvery is being ensured despite a poor monsoon, the depleted groundwater levels have led to a shortage and panic, especially in outer zones of the city that are completely reliant on groundwater, as the Cauvery water supply has yet to reach them. Of the 14,000-odd borewells dug by the government in Bengaluru, 6,900 — nearly half — have gone dry, and the city needs 2,650 MLD daily.

BWSSB has initiated several measures, bringing in several mandatory norms, to fill the gap, from banning the use of potable water for non-essential purposes, like construction activities, swimming pools, gardening, and washing vehicles, to mandatory installation of aerators in all taps to cut water consumption, a ban on digging of illegal borewells to a price cap on water tankers. The water board has had varying levels of success in enforcing these measures.

While bulk consumers face a 20% supply cut, others will have a 10% cut in April. This will save over 60 MLD of water daily, 12% of the overall deficit. If the situation demands, supply to big consumers — who use between 20 lakh and 2 crore litres a day — will be cut by another 10% in May. Bulk users consume nearly 525 million litres a day.

Despite a cap of ₹1,200 on a 12,000-litre water tanker load in Bengaluru, owners still charge over ₹2,000 in the outer zones of the city. Sources in the government said they were deliberately not taking an iron-hand approach against water tankers as that could lead to artificial scarcity in the city amidst a crisis.

Tanker operators are fetching water from borewells drilled in neighbouring districts, where the groundwater levels are relatively better than those in the city. While this is driving up tanker prices, it is also supplementing the water resources available in the city from those in neighbouring districts to fill the gap.

The RWH unit at Sir M. Visvesvaraya Rainwater Harvesting Theme Park in Bengaluru.

The RWH unit at Sir M. Visvesvaraya Rainwater Harvesting Theme Park in Bengaluru. | Photo Credit: Bhagya Prakash K.

Big and little changes

Mandating the use of treated water for construction purposes did not elicit the desired response initially, as builders complained of logistic challenges. BWSSB has now allowed apartment complexes to sell treated water from in-situ sewage treatment plants (STPs) and has now announced that the board will supply treated water in tankers within a 5-kilometre radius and would lay a dedicated pipeline up to 500 metres from apartment STPs to nearby construction sites. This has led to demand rising to 6 MLD. The board expects the figure to rise to 40 MLD, which will account for another 8% of the city’s shortfall. 

The board is now promoting the use of aerators in all taps in the city. “Aerators are like the face masks we wore during the COVID pandemic. We need to mask up all our taps during this crisis. They have the potential to cut down consumption of water by over 65%,” said Manohar. BWSSB has made aerators mandatory for all taps in public spaces. Failure to install them by April 7 may lead to a 10% cut in water supply.

“The water we are thus saving is being supplied to slum pockets and dry patches in need of water, trying to bring in equity in access to water amidst the raging crisis. We have installed 1,236 tanks in these dry patches and are filling them with water every day, which people can take freely. This has reduced the number of ‘no water’ complaints that we have been receiving every day. At the beginning of March, we used to receive around 300 complaints every day. The figure has come down to an average of 100 complaints every day,” Manohar said, adding that he is confident about tiding over the crisis over the next two months. The southwest monsoon is expected to bring rains by the second week of June. 

To mitigate the crisis at though, Manohar feels what is more important is a change in mindset to conserve water and use it judiciously. “We are enforcing some of the norms we have introduced. We are levying a hefty penalty of ₹5,000 for the first offence. We have booked over 400 cases for using potable water for non-essential purposes. However, our aim is not to collect penalties, but to create awareness. One case registered in an area has a ripple effect. Many others are taking to conserving water. We now see signs of hope, and people have begun to think of saving water. This is very visible in apartment complexes.”  

However, behavioural change is hard without suitable nudges, say water conservation activists. “As per the Ministry of Housing and Urban Affairs, 135 litre per capita per day (lpcd) is the benchmark for urban water supply. But in many apartment communities, it’s 300 lpcd. When I suggest cutting down on consumption, there is resistance, saying they have been used to this lifestyle and cannot change. This mindset needs to change,” said water conservation activist V. Ramprasad. 

The only way to bring about a mindset change is to make people pay for it, he says. “As water is an essential commodity, it is heavily subsidised (₹7 per kilo litre to ₹45 per kilo litre). We need to remove all subsidies for consumption beyond 135 lpcd per person in any household. Only that will push people towards using water judiciously,” he said.

This has been an argument of many activists for years now. The last revision of the water tariff happened in 2014, a decade ago. BWSSB has submitted multiple proposals for revision, but successive governments have rejected them. Deputy Chief Minister and Bengaluru Development Minister D. K. Shivakumar recently said the government will consider revising the water tariff after the Lok Sabha elections. 

Aerators are now mandatory for all taps in public places.

Aerators are now mandatory for all taps in public places. | Photo Credit: K. MURALI KUMAR

Re-imagining BWSSB 

While a cut in consumption seems to be the only way out of the crisis, the crisis itself points to the underlying malaise in the management of Bengaluru’s water resources. T.V. Ramachandra of the Centre for Ecological Sciences, Indian Institute of Science, said that if all of Bengaluru’s water resources were ideally harnessed, the city would have excess water. There is no reason why the city should face a drought and drinking water crisis. 

“On average, Bengaluru receives 700 mm to 850 mm of rainfall annually. If harnessed by both individuals and in the lakes, we will get 15 tmcft of water. The city presently uses 19 tmcft of water from the Cauvery. This adds up to 34 tmcft of water, in addition to what we draw from the Cauvery. As the catchment area of the Cauvery is increasingly seeing development and deforestation, the river water is not reliable. The only sustainable way is to move towards harnessing other sources of water,” he said.

Water conservation experts have said that the city has an institutional vacuum in managing its water resources, leading to today’s crisis. For instance, a multitude of organisations to regulate groundwater in the city has only meant that it is nobody’s baby.

Ramprasad said, “In the present system, Karnataka Groundwater Authority, BWSSB, BBMP, and Minor Irrigation Department all have a regulatory role. However, there is rampant digging of illegal borewells in the city, and no one takes permission. Not many are even aware that they should get permission from the government before digging a borewell on their land. Even when I have tried flagging illegal borewells being dug in my area, every agency points fingers at others.” 

Groundwater is meeting nearly half of the city’s water needs today. Of the estimated demand of 2,600 MLD, groundwater contributes 1,200 MLD, according to an assessment by the State Government. “Groundwater is public property and has to be treated that way. If an individual drills a borewell in a parcel of land they own, it is treated as private property. The government should commandeer these resources and make it a public resource with minimum inconvenience to the land owner,” Ramprasad said.

Nayandahalli Lake, filled with tertiary-treated water by BWSSB, as part of the lake rejuvenation project in Bengaluru.

Nayandahalli Lake, filled with tertiary-treated water by BWSSB, as part of the lake rejuvenation project in Bengaluru. | Photo Credit: K. MURALI KUMAR

Not all agree

Water conservationist S. Vishwanath said borewells and tankers are filling a gap left by the State. “The Cauvery Stage V, which provides river water to the outer zones, has been inordinately delayed. While these areas have seen dense development in the early 2000s and were added to the civic limits in 2007, we are yet to provide them with piped water supply. If the State had not been so late in catching up, the groundwater wouldn’t have been over-exploited in these areas,” he argued.

Cauvery Stage V is expected to be commissioned by May 2024 and will draw 770 MLD of water from the river in addition to the 1,450 MLD currently being drawn. Vishwanth said the institutional vacuum in managing water resources of the city only meant many sources of water were either unutilised or unregulated. “The BWSSB is only a water supply board, or rather a Cauvery water supply board, which is the crux of the problem. The organisation needs to be re-imagined as a water management board, and it should be given charge of all kinds of water resources and be held accountable for the water needs of the city,” he said. 

He listed out five sources of water in the city: water being drawn from the river Cauvery, ground water, rain water, surface water (water in the drains and lakes), and treated sewage water.

“BWSSB must first make an aquifer plan. Only then can we streamline how the aquifer should be utilised for the city’s water needs. In core city areas where groundwater levels are good, the agency can replace Cauvery water with borewell water and push river water to areas where groundwater levels have depleted badly,” he said. 

Some of the rules imposed now, like mandating the use of treated water for construction and banning the digging of borewells without prior permission, have been in the books for years but have been implemented only now, amidst a crisis.

“If some of these measures, especially regulating the exploitation of groundwater aquifers unless absolutely needed and promoting the use of treated water, had been implemented earlier, the crisis wouldn’t have been so severe,” said Vishwanath. “We have now picked up momentum on these issues. I hope we do not drop the ball once we tide over the crisis, and we persist with these measures to make the city water sustainable,” he added.

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