Interview: IISc projects that connect Bengaluru’s water problems to solutions

“The Water Solutions Lab focuses on both design and policy. Technology has to be coupled with correct policy making to properly utilise the technology."

Bengaluru has had to cope with water scarcity for a few years now. While many outer areas and slums are not getting enough water, local water resources like lakes remain poorly managed. The Water Solutions Lab, which is part of the Divecha Centre for Climate Change at IISc (Indian Institute of Science), is presently working on projects to improve water governance in Bengaluru and is studying the possibility of using local water sources.

In this interview with Citizen Matters, Dr Chandan Banerjee, hydrologist and Associate Director at the Lab, explains the current projects and their possibilities. “The core idea behind the Water Solutions Lab is to connect water problems to suitable solutions and to create a framework that water managers can use when adopting and implementing solutions,” says Dr Banerjee.

Excerpts from the interview:

Can you talk about current projects at the Water Solutions Lab?

In one of our current projects (which is nearing completion), we have compared Bengaluru and Singapore to identify the key challenges in the adoption and implementation of digital technology for urban water governance. We have compared three digital technologies – SCADA (Supervisory Control and Data Acquisition), Smart Water Metering and Flood Alert System – in these cities. The study will help policy makers and water managers understand the best ways to adopt and implement technology to reap maximum benefits.

We have also started work on the Bengaluru Water Security Index project, for which we are developing a Relative Water Availability Indicator. The indicator will consider all the water sources available in the city and the various water demands to be met. The idea will be implemented in a small area in south Bengaluru for demonstration. We hope the results will motivate water managers to explore other local sources of water besides groundwater.

Why select Singapore to compare Bengaluru with?

Singapore was specifically chosen because they are quite well known for their water resources management and they have done very well in recent years. Second, it is a city comparable to Bengaluru in many terms – population, area, etc. Also, the type of management [of water resources] is similar as well – in Bengaluru it is government-owned and government-managed; in Singapore, it is [managed by] a government agency called Public Utility Board.

Do the three technologies currently exist in Bengaluru?

Yes. For example, SCADA is used to some extent in Bengaluru in water supply as well as for wastewater treatment. The KSNDMC (Karnataka State Natural Disaster Monitoring Centre) has a Flood Alert System; and now there is also an app called Meghasandesha partly managed by IISc, with KSNDMC as the nodal agency.

In the case of Smart Water Metering, we have focused only on implementation of this system by the government. We did not deal with installations by private parties in apartment complexes because we are focusing on government-owned and government-regulated interventions.

How can the findings of this study be potentially used?

What we have looked at is adoption and implementation. Say, if Smart Water Metering has to be adopted, I need to know what is the problem this technology is going to solve, and what support system is already available (in terms of infrastructure, human resource capability within the organisation to install or manage the technology or managing the data that will be produced, etc). And, what are the pre-existing conditions that need to be enhanced so as to bring in this technology. This is the adoption phase.

And then comes the implementation phase – where is the funding coming from, how are you taking people on board, how are you communicating, is the project happening in the PPP mode or is the govt completely funding it, etc.

For example, your mobile phone has many features – like using GPS, giving calls and video calls, etc. But what often happens is, if you are not aware of all the features available with the technology, or if the objectives are quite narrow, then some potential of that technology is not harnessed. So we are trying to see how the adoption and implementation can be improved so that more problems can be solved and the benefits maximised. (Findings of this study will be released in 1-2 months.)

Read more: Why apartments in outer Bengaluru hesitate to apply for Cauvery water connection

Any reason for not focussing on the technology aspect?

Yes. We are not comparing the technology as such. So we are not comparing what is the meter installed in Bengaluru versus what’s installed in Singapore. We are looking at the adoption and implementation process in the two cities – that’s the governance part.

We feel that the challenges are more in the governance aspect. Technology development is a separate vertical, it’s happening independently. And in today’s world, it’s not difficult to get technology from abroad. Even in India there’s a lot of technology available, including home-grown technologies, that are cost-effective and economic. But that was not our focus.

Is there a particular reason for the focus on governance?

The Water Solutions Lab focuses on both design and policy aspects. Divecha Centre itself has quite a big mandate to look at science as well as policy. And we have strong expertise that looks at policy, so there are a lot of people who publish or work on the policy aspect (climate change, climate policy, etc). IISc also hosts the Centre for Policy Research one of the few such centers in India under the Department of Science and Technology (DST).

Obviously, the expertise required is from the social sciences, but it is still science. We are quite committed to this aspect because development of technology or science alone does not help. It has to be coupled with correct policy making so that we can properly utilise the science and technology.

Regarding the other project, on water security and creating a Relative Water Availability Indicator – how would it work?

There are many indexes. For example, Niti Ayog has developed a comprehensive water index for the whole of India, which estimates the water index for every state, I think. But making such estimates for urban settings is still not very common in India. There are many challenges to this as there are so many complexities that exist within urban areas. But such an indicator is very useful because it is kind of a barometer which tells you what the situation in a city is, in terms of water challenges.

For example, it may look like there is a huge amount of water scarcity [in a city], but if your demand is not high or if demand doesn’t grow a lot in future, then you will do fairly well even in future with a little bit of intervention or progress. So it is kind of an assessment tool.

People queuing up at a water ATM
People queuing up in front of a water ATM to fetch drinking water. IISc’s water security project will assess if local water sources can be used, to avoid scarcity. Pic: Sharathkumar Nair

Does the project look at using local sources like lakes? What could be the other potential water sources?

Yes. I’m not saying that once the study is done, from next day lake water would be used. What we are attempting is to make an assessment of whether it is a viable option.

Our external source is Cauvery – 60-80% of water demand is met by it. And the rest is [met by] groundwater, which is a local source very widely used in Bengaluru. Then there are lakes, there is rainwater, and another big potential source is wastewater. I think more than 75% of wastewater is treated in Bengaluru, that’s a fairly good amount for an Indian city. Wastewater is a perennial source for us; rain comes only 7-8 months a year. So we are looking at whether [recycled] wastewater can be used, but not for drinking purposes.

Read more: 12 years after Bengaluru’s water board made RWH a rule, how are we doing in harvesting rainwater?

That’ s why we are also looking at the demand. What are the various demands – Cauvery water is primarily used for drinking/domestic purposes. But water is being used for irrigational purposes in parks, so possibly, recycled water rather than groundwater could be used for irrigation. So it’s a match-the-following kind of a thing – which source matches to which demand.

Also, various demands like irrigation are almost unaccounted for currently. The focus is usually on domestic water demand only. There is no estimate which tells us that there are so many parks in Bengaluru and this is the annual water requirement in these parks. So we will look at whether we can do some estimates [of the different types of demand].

At what stage is this study now?

We are done with the conceptual stage. Now we are starting the implementation phase. We have started by looking at the potential of storm water, and will progress slowly to the other water sources.

Is there any conversation with the government on how the study findings could be taken forward?

We have an MoU with BWSSB (Bangalore Water Supply and Sewerage Board), where we have a few deliverables to produce to them. All this work is towards that direction. As and when we come up with some findings, we will communicate it to the authorities, and possibly work with them to see if these can be used. The MoU is not specific to the current projects; it’s a general MoU that we will cooperate, coordinate and co-develop solutions that will be useful for BWSSB.

Currently we are focusing on creating one indicator – the Relative Water Availability Index. Our bigger goal is to create a suite of indicators.

We will demonstrate the current project in a very small area within the city and test whether it is working on the ground. If the findings are interesting for BWSSB, we will take their help and possibly we’ll expect some funding from them to scale it up to the whole city.

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