The battle for water in Bengaluru

Enhancing wastewater treatment facilities and promoting the reuse of treated water can mitigate demand for freshwater sources

May 06, 2024 12:44 am | Updated 10:17 am IST - bengaluru

Water supplied by BWSSB at Gandhinagar in Bengaluru on April 14, 2024.

Water supplied by BWSSB at Gandhinagar in Bengaluru on April 14, 2024. | Photo Credit: The Hindu

In recent months, Bengaluru’s acute water shortage has dominated headlines, sparking conversations in households and newsrooms alike. The city’s residents have been grappling with disrupted water supplies, exorbitant tanker prices — experiencing an 80% inflation in pricing — and stringent usage restrictions. This crisis, however, is not solely a consequence of mismanagement but rather a complex interplay of geographical challenges and unplanned urbanisation.

Situated 900 metres above sea level without any natural freshwater sources, Bengaluru has historically relied on lakes and tanks to meet its water needs. Regrettably, only a fraction of the water bodies remain today. Groundwater, a vital supplement, is rapidly depleting due to over-extraction and inadequate replenishment. Water from the Cauvery only fulfils ~50% Bengaluru’s water requirements. The remaining 50% currently comes from groundwater which is depleting very quickly. Of the 11,000 borewells in the city, 800 have been completely out of service and even in the ones that continue to be functional, water levels are receding. Erratic rainfall patterns exacerbated by climate change have further strained the city’s water resources. The Bengaluru crisis serves as a harbinger of what many Indian cities may face in the coming years. To avert a nationwide water catastrophe projected by 2030, we must adopt a multifaceted approach encompassing immediate actions, medium-term solutions, and long-term strategies. Immediate measures must focus on demand management, led by local municipal bodies. Municipalities could run campaigns that incentivise citizen action for demand management and foster a culture of water conservation. Such campaigns can be supported by technology such as smart water meters, engineering solutions on pressure management as well as plug and play aids like water aerators to empower citizens to reduce consumption effectively and curtail wastage at the household level.

Simultaneously, medium-term structural solutions like rainwater harvesting and wastewater treatment must be implemented on a broader scale. With proper collection and management led by programmatic solutions like percolation pits and tech-led innovations on rainwater harvesting and storm drain management, rainwater can substantially alleviate water stress.

Similarly, enhancing wastewater treatment facilities and promoting the reuse of treated water can mitigate demand for freshwater sources. For example, around 77% of Bengaluru’s wastewater is currently treated through a combination of municipal corporation operated central treatment plants and distributed treatment plants, but most of this water is not reused — it’s either let go of as run off or used to fill up lakes in Chikkaballapur, Kolar, etc. Encouraging the use of tertiary treated water will be a good first step for cities to mandate. At a larger level, leveraging innovative wastewater treatment solutions like Indra Water, an electrically-driven modular system that’s designed to treat wastewater in a decentralised manner at the point of source, can expand the purposes for which the treated water can be used. Better pipeline management and regular maintenance are also crucial. There is a huge play for technology here as well; the example that comes to mind is Solinas Integrity, that is building robotic solutions to address issues within water and sewer pipelines.

From a long term point of view, cities must reduce their reliance on distant water sources. The Cauvery water, for instance, comes from a reservoir that is 90 km away and at a height of 300 metres lower than Bengaluru and the city spends ₹3 crores on just electricity per day to pump the water up. Sustainable urban planning and measures on lake conservation and borewell management coupled with initiatives to replenish groundwater and preserve lakes, is imperative for resilience.

Bengaluru’s plight must serve as a wake-up call for all Indian cities as several cities are vulnerable to similar water crises. Collaborative efforts involving city administrations, startups, research institutions, and civic groups are essential to address this looming threat.

(Sailee Rane is Fellow, ACT For Environment. Alankrita Khera is Director, ACT For Environment)

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