by Manish Gautam*
“Will Bangalore have to be evacuated by 2023?” ~ Firstpost, April 2013
“The land of a thousand lakes, now a sewage pit” ~ Deccan Chronicle, September 2013
“The City of Thousand Lakes is now home to a concrete jungle” ~ Deccan Herald, December 2013
Bangalore or Bengaluru, fourth metropolitan area in India and one of the largest cities in the world, is known by many monikers since it came into existing. From pensioners’ paradise to becoming a cradle for Information Technology in India, the city has accommodated a large population, and a thriving economy. Bangalore enjoys a salubrious, pleasant weather round the year, the air is becoming toxic due to heavy pollution, and the number of hot days is increasing day by day as the result of lurking climate change. Despite all this, the city is on the verge of collapse, as Firstpost in a related news published in April 2013 alarmingly states, “the Government of Karnataka will have to evacuate half of Bangalore in the next ten years, due to water scarcity, contamination of water and diseases”.
Water is one of the most important elements of the nature for human survival. Water is also essential for sustaining a city, and it has been noted that many historical cities had been perished because of the scarcity of water or by other ecological damage, either natural or man-made. Bangalore has always been water-scarce, there flows no river within the city to provide enough water to its resident as compared to the big cities in the northern India, and perhaps this was the reason that the early planners has devised a scheme to harvest the rain in form of network of ponds, known as ‘tanks’, and linked together by channels. As the city grew spatially and a huge influx of people, in quest of better employment opportunity, came in, the increasing water demand compelled the city administration to come up with other engineering solutions.
Launching a water extraction scheme from Cauvery River, situated about 100 km. far from the city, in year 1964 Bangalore Water Supply and Sewerage Board (BWSSB), a body to provide and manage water in the city came into existence. Being the first such utility in the country, the board have had to ensure the access of water far and wide city’s perimeter. The extent of growth can be perceived from this that water extraction from Cauvery River, through Cauvery Water Supply Scheme (CWSS), increased from 135 Million Litres per Day in year 1975 to 500 Million Litres per Day presently. This, however, points out to a significant issue with the present water status. Even if the city is equipped with a supply infrastructure, few locations in the city often cries about lack of adequate water supply. This inequitable water access is often glaring and shows that most of the poor people who are unable to seek other sources and modes of water (such as bore well, or private water supply) are at a very vulnerable position, as documented by many researchers and civil society groups’ findings.
Due to the intermittent and inadequate, and sometimes no access to water supply from BWSSB, the residents are either digging bore wells or hiring private water tankers to meet their water requirements. The city is dotted with a huge numbers (around 4 lakhs) of bore wells especially in those areas, mostly around outer ring-road, where BWSSB supply infrastructure is minimal, and as a result the water levels are falling down rapidly. In a city, due to higher extent of impervious surfaces, the groundwater system is unable to recharge itself even though the Bangalore witnesses a high amount of rain. This increasing depth to water levels is inviting other environmental dangers such as ingress of polluted water from nearby water bodies or leaking sewerage systems, and other contaminants such as leakages from industries and petrol bunks, into the groundwater system. This makes groundwater highly undrinkable in some locations, as highlighted in a recent report by Department of Mines and Geology, Karnataka. In addition to this, the booming, unruly ‘water mafia’ is hampering the city’s economy and ecosystem.
The tank systems, basically rainwater harvesting systems, are prominently seen in various part of southern India, are one of the important links to the human-ecological system. The tank system in Bangalore dates back to pre-British era, when these water impounding structures were dug to store the rainwater. The undulating terrain caused water to store in tanks and lakes, and this water was utilized for drinking purposes and irrigational usages. These structures play an important part in the hydrological cycle of the city, storing and channelizing the excess water and thus stopping the occurrence of flooding in the city during the rain, and recharging the groundwater system. Urbanisation, however, gobbled up many of these water bodies, wetlands and channels to the encroachment. The result was that many low-lying parts of the city are started to flood. Centre for Science and Environment, a New Delhi based research and advocacy body, in their Excreta Matter report on Bangalore city presented a detailed report on the Bangalore’s water status. It has documented the testimonies of people and listed the struggle from civil society groups to save these water bodies.
The access to water is considered to be a fundamental right; the challenges ahead for the cities are quite enormous. One has to include the ecological aspects to deal with the water problem of the city and not just rely only on the infrastructural measures. The ‘garden city’, ‘land of thousand lakes’ has to revive its own environmental legacy for its survival and to maintain the status of the ‘silicon valley’ of the country, and it cannot be achieved without the participation of aware citizens and a strong determination of city administration.
*Manish Gautam is a researcher in Indian Institute for Human Settlements and is volunteering with Indian Youth Climate Network (IYCN) for Agents of Change Programme.