Water crisis 2024: Bengaluru parched, but cities across India struggling too

A round up of urban water crisis this summer, Bengaluru being the worst affected, and how governments are dealing with it.

With India witnessing one of the most scorching summers, water crisis is looming across many cities in the country. India’s main reservoirs have hit their lowest March levels in five years, according to government data, indicating a strain on drinking water and power availability this summer.

As per Central Water Commission (CWC) data, the 150 reservoirs monitored by the central government, which supply water for drinking and irrigation and are the country’s key source of hydroelectricity, were filled to just 40% of capacity in March 2024. 

India’s hydro generation in the last 10 months from last April is down by 17%, despite high electricity demand. “If the situation becomes worse due to lack of rains, drinking water supply will get priority over power generation,” said Sandeep Anirudhan, convener of the Coalition for Water Security.

Continuing depletion of water across states 

In industrial states such as Maharashtra, Andhra Pradesh and agricultural states like Uttar Pradesh and Punjab, water levels are below their 10-year averages. In Karnataka, the main reservoir was down to 16% capacity. Water reserves are the lowest for March since 2019, when reservoir capacity fell to 35% and saw cities such as Chennai run out of water.

The situation in rural India is even worse. Villagers living in water-stressed Marathwada and Vidarbha in Maharashtra receive tanker water once in eight days and have to pay up to Rs. 600 for a drum of water at a time when the prevailing water scarcity has wreaked havoc on their crops.

Several localities in Bihar’s Gaya face problems stemming from water shortages. In the Gewalbigha area, a Dalit dominant area, the problem is especially acute. Pinki Devi, a resident of Gewalbigha locality in the heart of the city of Gaya, has to fetch five buckets of water twice a day amid a scarcity of water in the area. Although there is a pipeline in the area, it does not suffice given that the water levels have gone down lower than 150 feet. The only source of water for the people in the area passes through a drainpipe.

More than 300 families residing in various parts of Vaduthala division in Kochi would struggle due to the water shortage even as the Kerala Water Authority (KWA) authorities are turning a blind eye towards the demand to increase the quantity of water being supplied to the region, said councilor Henry Austin.

As the temperature in Uttarakhand soars in summer, the water shortage in the hilly state has worsened. This water crisis has prompted the state government to ban the washing of cars using water, and instead clean via dry washing. Most complaints of the water shortage are being received from Dehradun, Nainital, Pithoragarh, Didihat, Kotdwar, and Champawat. Other areas in Uttarakhand, such as Nawada, Haripur, Majri Mafi, Mohkampur, and Badripur, have also reported water shortages. Residents are purportedly surviving the crisis depending on water tankers.

women fetching water in Chennai
For most women in urban slums, fetching water to meet the family’s needs constitutes a key element of labour. Pic: Laasya Shekhar

The crisis has escalated owing to severe heat waves in April and May. Bengaluru is facing its worst water crisis in decades, with Chief Minister Siddaramaiah having to admit that the city is facing a shortage of 500 million litres of water every day. But water scarcity is not limited to just Bengaluru. Mumbai, Hyderabad, Jaipur, Lucknow, Shimla and Dehradun are other capital cities facing acute water stress. India is awaiting its water resources to get replenished during monsoons in June. 

India’s Silicon Valley worst hit 

Bengaluru’s acute water shortage is slowing production in its garment factories, doubling restaurant water bills and forcing managers at some global firms in the city to accommodate unusual employee demands.

The shortage, caused by weak southwest monsoon rains that failed to replenish depleted groundwater and the Cauvery River basin reservoirs, has forced residents to ration water use and pay almost double the usual price to meet their daily needs.

Microsoft is using tap aerators to control water flow and recycling water in the washrooms at its office in Bagmane Constellation Business Park, an employee told Reuters. Walmart, which implemented similar water conservation measures well before the crisis, said it was also encouraging landlords to use recycled water for landscaping and gardening. Some employees who live in water-scarce areas prefer to work in the office, a senior Accenture employee said.

Authorities say 6,900 of the 13,900 borewells drilled in the city have run dry despite some being drilled to depths of 457 metres (1,500 feet). Those reliant on groundwater now have to depend on water tankers that pump from nearby villages. A new piped water supply from the Cauvery River, about 100km (60 miles) from the city, has also not been completed, adding to the crisis. 

Residents face severe water crisis with groundwater depletion and borewell drying. Dependence on RO water plants increase due to scarcity. IT professionals opt for work-from-home to conserve water. “We get less water, and we have to make 2-3 visits to check if water is available. Kaveri water is supplied only once or twice a week,” says a resident.

Residents have been advised to use water sparingly, encouraged to bathe on alternate days, use disposable cutlery, and limit washing clothes and utensils.

Read more: Water scarcity in Bengaluru: Drowning in problems, thirsting for solutions

Why is Bengaluru so low on water this year? 

During last year’s monsoon, Karnataka received rainfall that was 18% below normal, the least since 2015. Even the post-monsoon period did not bring much rain to the state. Like most other parts of the country, Karnataka receives a bulk of its annual rainfall during the monsoon, and it is this water that fills up the reservoirs and recharges the aquifers. A rainfall deficit in the monsoon months almost inevitably results in water stress.

Vimal Mishra, a professor of Civil Engineering and Earth Sciences at IIT Gandhinagar, points out that the nature of the underground aquifers in Karnataka is different from other states. The aquifers don’t hold a lot of water because of the rocky terrain, so that they empty out quickly, says Professor Mishra, but they also get recharged pretty quickly. This leads to groundwater insufficiency in the event of a prolonged dry spell. 

Another direct consequence of low rainfall has been the relatively low level of water in reservoirs. Latest data from the Central Water Commission shows that Karnataka reservoirs are currently holding water at only 26% of their full capacity, which is at least ten percentage points lower than what is expected at this time of the year. 

In his conversation with The Indian Express, Professor Mishra also flagged long-term structural issues, such as unregulated construction, systematic destruction of lakes, climate change and others, as factors behind the lack of water security in Bengaluru.

Paved surfaces cover nearly 90% of the city, preventing rainwater from seeping down and being stored in the ground, said T V Ramachandra, research scientist at the Centre for Ecological Sciences at Bengaluru-based Indian Institute of Science. The city has lost nearly 70 of its green cover in the last 50 years, he added.

People around a water tanker
Residents face severe water crisis with groundwater depletion and borewell drying. Pic: Manoej Paateel shutterstock.com

The Indian government estimated in 2018 that more than 40% of Bengaluru’s residents will not have access to drinking water by the end of the decade. Drilling borewells is not the solution to this crisis, rather the government should focus on replenishing the more than 200 lakes in the city, encourage rainwater harvesting and increase the green cover of the city. 

Water crisis: A major political issue this elections 

Environmental topics rarely play a central role in Indian elections. As India experiences more negative effects of climate change, issues that affect voters directly, like water shortages, are set to be weaponised politically.

The BJP has criticised the incumbent Congress for allegedly mismanaging the water shortages in Bengaluru. Malavika Avinash, BJP spokesperson in Karnataka, told DW that the water crisis will swing votes away from Congress. She called the water situation “a making of the Siddaramaiah government,” adding that the government was “completely ill-prepared to handle the [lack] of rains this summer.” BJP MP Tejasvi Surya has warned of protests in front of Vidhana Soudha if the Congress government in Karnataka fails to solve the drinking water crisis in Bengaluru.

While on the other hand, Karnataka Deputy Chief Minister DK Shivakumar, of the Congress party, has placed blame with the central BJP government led by PM Modi. Shivakumar alleged that the Modi government had a hand in exacerbating the crisis by stalling the Mahadayi and Mekedatu projects, which are planned river diversion and water sharing schemes that are meant to provide more water to Karnataka. “There is no such scarcity of water in Bengaluru, it is the BJP that has created the scarcity,” Shivakumar told the media in March.

Only talks, and no action 

Residents of Gaya, Bihar, are tired of the claims of a speedy resolution, made in the past and the present election, by candidates contesting for the Gaya Lok Sabha seat.

Environmental crusader Sonam Wangchuk has been demanding constitutional safeguards to protect the fragile environment of Ladakh, having strongly opposed mining leases being given to a few favoured corporate houses as this would jeopardise the water resources for the whole of North India. But his protests and demands have been pushed to the edge by the Central government, which prompted him to go on a fast and yet hasn’t heard from the government. 

The government would provide clean drinking water to every household of the country by 2024, Union Jal Shakti Minister Gajendra Shekhawat had promised in 2019 in Rajya Sabha.

Water rationing to keep the boat sailing 

Mangaluru, a coastal city announced water rationing from May 5, 2024, following declining water levels in the reservoir built across the Nethravati river at Thumbe. Following in the same footsteps, Udupi has also announced water rationing, until the water in the reservoir reaches comfortable levels. The dam built across the Swarna river at a place called Baje, which is the only source of water for Udupi city, recorded 3.25 meters of water as against the top level of 6.30 meters. The decision of water rationing will be reviewed periodically until the reservoir regains its fullest levels; Commissioner of the Udupi City Municipal Corporation Rayappa told PTI. 

Resident welfare associations (RWAs) across Bengaluru have implemented strict measures to conserve water. Facing unprecedented scarcity, these RWAs have initiated water rationing and imposed bans on non-essential water usage activities, such as vehicle washing and swimming pool maintenance.

Social media videos depict residents struggling to access water for basic needs. Water rationing, housing society advisories to conserve water, and individuals foregoing work to queue for essential water highlight the dire circumstances in this bustling tech hub.

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