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Solving Bangalore's water woes

Rajiv Rao  |  Bangalore 

"The Karnataka government will have to evacuate half of Bangalore in the next 10 years, due to water scarcity, contamination of water and diseases," says Bangalore's latest prophet of doom, V Balasubramanian, the state government's former additional chief secretary and chairman, Centre for Policies and Practices.

Some think of Balasubramanian's pronouncements as over-the-top. Yet, recent lab results at the Public Health Institute, and the Department of Mines and Geology of the Karnataka government reveal that 52 per cent of the borewell water, and 59 per cent of the tap water in Bangalore is undrinkable and contains 8.4 per cent and 19 per cent E.coli bacteria respectively. "We have created this crisis," says Rohini Nilekani, founder of Arghyam, an NGO focused on sustainable water solutions.

How Bangalore handles its water problems has implications for all of India's cities that are either water-starved or are responsible for acute water mismanagement.

Pioneering legacy
Ironically, these woes are a far cry from a brilliant, pioneering and historical legacy in water. Water experts say the city was the first to launch a water scheme in 1894, where firewood-fuelled steam engines transported water to it. In 1904, Bangalore logged another first-it was the first Indian city to get electricity that was then used to pump water to it. In 1930, Bangalore was the first to meter water. Later, in 1964, it built the country's first water utility, Bangalore Water Supply and Sewerage Board (BWSSB).

What is surprising is that despite the invectives heaped upon BWSSB-many of them legitimate-water experts say the utility is actually the best in the country, and far ahead of its peers. The problem that confronts it is gargantuan and faced by no other Indian city and few global ones-requiring an engineering feat that involves pumping 1,500 million litres of water a day from the Cauvery river a 100 kilometres away, and up a gradient of 300 metres, to the city.

This has some dire implications for the city's finances. The cost of pumping this water is a staggering Rs 24 a kilolitre versus between Rs 2-5 a kilolitre in the rest of the country. "This costs the BWSSB 60 per cent of its revenues, or Rs 350 crore, versus just 10-15 per cent in other states," says S Vishwanath, secretary general of International Rainwater Catchment Systems Association (IRCSA), founder of Bangalore's rainwater club and the city's water guru. Factor in the 50 per cent leakages due to faulty pipes and theft and that cost mushrooms to Rs 48 a kilolitre. And how much do Bangalore residents pay? Rs 6. "The real problem is that the rich refuse to pay for water, but are the most vocal group," says Vishwanath. "We have to figure out how to pay this bill. If the taxpayer puts it, it will be a disaster," he adds.

A boring disaster
Residents in the city have also worked up a lather, sinking 400,000 borewells, only around half of which are registered, at enormous costs. A borewell of 600 feet costs Rs 2 lakh, while that of 1,000 feet-which is the average depth at which water is found in Bangalore these days-costs Rs 4 lakh. To stem this pillaging of groundwater, BWSSB finally passed an Act-the first of its kind in the country-that states that every borewell be registered by owners by March 31 this year.

To make waters worse, much of Bangalore's 800-odd lakes - once a vital force in preserving the city's water supply - have dried up, been encroached upon by the land mafia or are heavily clogged by garbage. Plus, waste-water - normally treated and pumped back into the system in most countries, and a massive source of a city's water supply - is simply left to drain away into lakes.

Despite these seemingly insurmountable obstacles, there have been efforts to launch landmark projects by the government in cities across the state, including Bangalore. Bangalore has made rainwater harvesting tanks mandatory for new buildings. The most impressive project is a pilot effort, in partnership with the World Bank, to supply water-starved areas like Belgaum, Hubli and Dharwad, which used to get water once in 15 days, with 24 x 7 supply. V Raju, the Economic Advisor to the chief minister says that for the last two years, the government has also worked at placing pipes in a grid-like pattern across 8,000 square kilometres in Bijapur, connecting its 400,000 residents with water for the first time in its history. Despite water scarcity in some regions, Karnataka is not confronted by a resource-led crisis, says Raju. "Instead, it is a management and distribution problem," he adds, and these efforts will mitigate it.

The chief culprit for Bangalore's water woes is its booming population growth, which at the current rate is expected to reach 10 million by 2016. Being able to manage the city's resources has become more urgent than ever, but "water has never been a part of development planning" says Ayan Biswas, advocacy manager at Arghyam.

The main problem: No one institution that can handle all of the city's water in a holistic manner. "Currently, the city's groundwater department comes under the Ministry of Mines and Geology," says Vishwanath.

Also, the BWSSB does not have a single hydrologist or a hydro-geologist, which is absurd for a body that needs someone who can understand the essential characteristics of the city, and state's, water resources and the qualitative and quantitative stresses placed on them. "We're still looking for engineering feats, like in the past, to fix current problems. What we need is a vision," says Vishwanath.

The sooner Bangalore gets one, the faster it can ameliorate its persistent problems and offer a model for the rest of India to follow, like it did in the past.

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First Published: Mon, April 29 2013. 00:31 IST