Averting Day Zero: How Bengaluru should manage its water

A slew of regulations are needed to arrest Bengaluru's worsening water scarcity. These include change in water pricing, integrated management of various water resources, and so on

Like many metropolitan cities in India, Bengaluru is facing a dire water crisis. There is an imminent need to manage the city’s water resources in a sustainable and equitable manner.

With population projection of 13.6 million in 2020, Bengaluru is experiencing high growth rates and predatory geographical expansion that subsumes surrounding peri-urban and rural areas. But necessary infrastructure is not established to meet the basic needs of housing, water, sanitation, and so on.

Lacking access to formal housing, majority of residents in informal settlements are forced to rely on water from private vendors, neighbourhood sources, or illegal networks of accessing municipal water.

The demand-supply gap

Established in 1964, BWSSB (Bangalore Water Supply and Sewerage Board) is responsible for providing water and sewerage services to Bengaluru on a ‘no-profit, no-loss’ basis, with no involvement of the BBMP. At present, BWSSB supplies treated Cauvery water to the city under the Cauvery Water Supply Scheme (CWSS) Stage I, II, III and Stage IV Phase I & II.

The BBMP area of 800 sq km includes core area of 245 sq km, eight ULBs spanning 330 sq km, and 110 villages of 225 sq km. BWSSB provides water supply only to the core area and ULBs, and not to the 110 villages. CWSS Stage V, which is primarily a comprehensive water supply and sewerage system for the 110 villages, is still in the works.

Since water to the city is mainly pumped from the Cauvery river 100 km from the city, BWSSB has to spend about 65 percent of its total revenue towards power charges to pump the water alone. According to BWSSB’s own estimation, the demand for water in Bengaluru is 150-200 litres per capita per day (LPCD) but the actual average supply is only 100-125 LPCD, and for poor and low income communities it is as low as 40-45 LPCD

Challenges around water supply

While 24X7 piped water supply has consistently featured on BWSSB’s agenda, it has been unable to fulfil this. Hence Bengalureans are forced to tap into groundwater to meet their needs.

An estimated 60 percent households in Bengaluru use groundwater, either supplied by the ‘tanker mafia’ or from private borewells. The city’s groundwater reservoirs are being rapidly exploited without adequate opportunity to recharge. With an estimated 80,000 private borewells and increasing number of illegal ones, little is being done to insure against the depletion of groundwater resources.

Most Bengalureans are forced to rely on private tankers for water supply. File pic: Sankar C G

BWSSB needs to fill the growing gap between water demand and supply through a coordinated, sustainable resource use policy and efficient utilisation of existing systems.

There are physical, economic and ecological issues involved in the water scarcity facing Bengaluru.

  • The heavy dependence on Cauvery water without effective regulation of groundwater extraction, rapidly falling water tables, improper sewage treatment, pollution of lakes, are all factors that contribute to physical scarcity. A 2013 report by the Central Ground Water Board, for example, identifies sewage and industrial pollution, along with high nitrate concentration, as two major reasons for non-potability of groundwater in Bengaluru.
  • The inefficient system of transporting water, high levels of unaccounted for water (UfW) and non-revenue water, low water tariffs, lack of infrastructure, all contribute to making BWSSB economically insecure and unable to cope with the pressure of planning for and supplying water. The huge loss due to unaccounted for water (UfW) is directly attributed to water seepage at various stages of supply. According to BWSSB, UfW has come down 10 percent – from 48 percent in 2012-13 to about 38 percent in 2018-19. But this is still an abysmal number.
  • The ecological issues with urban water include pollution of surface water and groundwater resources, lack of protection for lakes, and increasing erosion and encroachment of catchment areas. These result in deterioration of local water resources. For instance, while Bengaluru generates more than 1440 million litres per day (MLD) of sewage, BWSSB has an installed sewage treatment capacity of only 1057 MLD. Despite the existence of 24 Sewage Treatment Plants (STPs) in the city, none of them comply with the norms prescribed by the Central Pollution Control Board. This is a lost opportunity for reusing treated water to meet the city’s non-potable water needs.

To manage existing water resources sustainably, it may be prudent to treat water as a scare resource, and regulate supply based on consumers’ choice and willingness to pay.

Pricing water

There is a growing consensus that safe water is scarce and needs to be treated as an economic good. Though pricing is considered crucial for efficient use of water, treating it as a pure economic good may be difficult owing to the larger public interest and various externalities associated with water. However, treating water as a social good in the past has resulted in a variety of problems, including the increased financial burden on BWSSB.

A delicate balance must be maintained in treating water both as an economic good and social good by a body which is not involved in water supply – ideally, by an independent water tariff regulator. The Government of India, in several of its policy papers, have urged states to establish a water tariff regulator.

Time is ripe for Karnataka to set up such a body, along the lines of the Karnataka Electricity Regulatory Commission. However, for this body to be successful, its independence from the state government must be ensured, and the tariff must be arrived at in consultation with relevant stakeholders including consumers and local water user associations. 

Integrated approach to urban water management

Last, an Integrated Urban Water Management (IUWM) approach is needed to manage different types of water resources in the city.

Integrated water resources regulation is a holistic approach which acknowledges the interrelationship between various sources of water. In this approach, freshwater, wastewater, and stormwater are managed as integrated components of a basin-wide plan in an urban area. In particular, the principles of IUWM should be followed in making policy towards urban water management.

Also, in line with the Model State Water Regulatory Systems Bill proposed by the Planning Commission of India, an urban water regulator should be established. This body would formulate policy, and carry out regulatory functions such as setting priorities for resource allocation, and allocating lines of accountability between agencies involved in urban water governance. Regulatory functions must also be devolved so as to ensure effective community participation in decision-making.

[Shashank Atreya, Research Fellow at Vidhi Centre for Legal Policy, contributed to this article]

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