Bengaluru, it’s time to wake up and see the realities of water!

Bengaluru gets Cauvery water for drinking. True. But did you know only 8 lakh houses out of 22 lakh receive Cauvery water? And that 43% of Cauvery water is unaccounted for? What's the way forward?

Water shortage has been a matter of serious concern in Bengaluru.  While the city contributes about 50% of the state’s GDP, this problem, if not corrected timely, could seriously threaten the revenues of the state government and the IT/BT investment that the city has been able to attract.  The population of Bengaluru is also increasing substantially. As against a population of 85 lakhs in 2011, it is expected to be around 188 lakhs by 2030, which will further exacerbate the city’s water supply woes.
What’s the scenario in Bengaluru?

 The piped water supplied by the Bangalore Water Supply & Sewage Board (BWSSB) reaches only 8 lakh of the 22 lakh households in Bengaluru. The remaining unserved portion is serviced by borewells and this is expected to continue for a long time. However, based on tests of borewell water samples, the Karnataka Public Health Institute indicated that more than 33% of the supplied borewell water was not potable.  This could either be due to high levels of nitrates or contamination by Escherichia coli and other hazardous bacteria species. 

One reason for the borewell water not being potable is the fact that more than 50% of the 1,300 MLD of sewage generated in Bengaluru every day is not treated. The untreated sewage flows into lakes as well as storm water drains. This not only pollutes the underground water, but also contributes to the flooding woes of the city during periods of heavy rainfall. 

Prior to 1975, the main sources of water supply to Bengaluru city were some well-known tanks, most notably, Tippagondahalli and Hessarghatta tanks. After 1975, the city planners adopted the Cauvery water supply scheme. Since 1982, Cauvery water supply stages I–IV have added 1,360 MLD to the city’s water supply. In future, however, addition from Cauvery River would be limited on account of the Cauvery Award regarding interstate sharing of waters passed by the Cauvery Tribunal, which restricts the supply of water from Cauvery River to Bengaluru city. The high capital cost of the Cauvery water supply schemes also acts as a deterrent.

Unaccounted for Water losses

It is necessary to look at other strategies such as reduction of UFA (unaccounted for water). About 43% of the water (430 MLD) pumped into Bengaluru city water supply from Cauvery and Arkavathi basins is lost as UFA; of this, 250 MLD is on account of leakages of pipes and ground-level reservoirs, and 180 MLD is on account of commercial losses.

If taken up in right earnest, about 250–270 MLD of water can be recovered by reducing UFA.  Commercial losses can be reduced by strict vigilance to identify unauthorised connections and faulty water meters, installation of automated meter readers and use of sophisticated electronic equipment to detect underground leakages. The BWSSB is already working on the same, by revamping water network and metering in many areas.

Pricing the water right

Reduction of UFA can also bring about a more rational pricing for Bengaluru’s water supply. The tariff in Bengaluru has not been revised for several years, on account of the fact that any increase in tariff will adversely affect the urban poor. Ironically, a study by ISEC indicated that the poor pay more for water than the middle-class consumers.

In any case, pricing of water requires an important philosophical question to be answered, viz., whether the poor have the right of access to water at affordable prices or do they have the right of access to free water.  The lower prices of BWSSB water act as a disincentive for the consumers to be more economic and prudent in the usage of water.  As against BWSSB water being supplied at Rs. 6 per kilolitre (kl), the cost of borewell water could easily exceed Rs. 15 per kilolitre and the cost of water available through rainwater harvesting (RWH) could be Rs. 60–70 per kl.

BWSSB has not made adequate efforts to reduce leakages on a large scale because it involves heavy capital expenditure on account of improved system maintenance; replacement and rehabilitation of old pipe lines, as well as better pressure management and level control.

Treatment of sewage

About 1,300 MLD of sewage is generated in Bengaluru every day, as against existing sewage treatment plants of 721 MLD capacity and only about 450 MLD of water being treated. Additional sewage treatment plants with capacity of 339 MLD are under construction and need to be completed with utmost urgency. 

The main reason for not utilizing the full capacity is that many of the pipes carrying sewage are not connected to sewage treatment plants.  All the sewage, both treated and untreated, flows into the storm water drains and into the lakes of the city.  Bengaluru city has many interconnected lakes. So even if one tank is polluted with untreated sewage, it would have a cascading polluting effect on all interconnected tanks.

Rainwater harvesting

Some feeble efforts have been made to implement RWH in Bengaluru city. Section 72A of the BWSSB Act amended in 2009 has been made it mandatory to implement RWH in all existing buildings with a floor area of 2,400 sq. feet and in new buildings with an area of 1,200 sq. feet.  The response has, however, been very lukewarm, with only about 50,000 of 18 lakh eligible properties having completed RWH.

Future challenges

The future challenges lie in complete treatment of sewage, reduction of Unaccounted Flow of Water, involvement of local communities for adopting RWH and use of recycled water. These strategies appear rather simple, but in practise, it is easier said than done. There is a need for a very-high-quality Administrator/ Manager with proven leadership qualities to be appointed as Chairman of BWSSB. The existing BWSSB staff needs to be sensitised to these challenges and therefore capacity-building on a big scale is the need of the hour.

There are several parastatal organisations in Bengaluru other than BWSSB such as BBMP, BDA, LDA and KSPCB who contribute formally or informally to the water supply woes of Bengaluru city.  There is need for more accountability of these multiple stakeholders and for them to act in unison. This will also ensure that there is more citizen participation through ward committees of the BBMP, which would encourage maximum possible recycling and reuse of water through stakeholder consultation.

A specific legislation on some of these focus areas could be considered by the policymakers, which should also include a comprehensive engineering plan to tackle the problem of flooding.  The involvement of ward committees will probably help in bringing about greater citizen awareness on the efficient use of water. It is also necessary that all multi-storied buildings have a sewage treatment plant; the treated water could be reused in these buildings for the purpose of flushing, maintenance of gardens and washing of vehicles.

What has been suggested is not something which has not been tried elsewhere in the world.  Singapore, which was facing a similar water supply problem, has effectively solved it by reduction of leakages, treatment of sewage and using recycled water.  The city of Phnom Penh in Cambodia is a shining international example of what the determined effort of the Chief of the city water supply (EK Soon Chan), who won a Magsaysay award for his relentless efforts, can achieve.

Bengaluru can continue ignoring the water supply problems at its own peril. The fate of cities that have ignored water problems such as Fatehpur Sikri needs no reiteration. At this point, the policymakers should realise the need to immediately address this pressing problem to avoid a lot of unpleasant consequences in the future.

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