A satellite view of Bengaluru city. Image: Google Earth
Pity the water that stays and rises on the streets,
pity the water that floods into houses,
so dark and filthy and heavy with rats
and dead leaves and plastic.
How ashamed water is to be what you have made it.
What have you done to its beauty,
its graceful body in pictures of oceans,
its clear face in a glass?”
— Conchitina Cruz, Dark Hours
These lines from the poem by Conchitina Cruz reflects what we have done to water, the life sustaining force of our world. As glaciers melt more rapidly, instances of our metropolises flooding more every year are becoming common. It’s not hard to imagine water, once so sacred and pure, is getting scarce everywhere.
This is true for ‘Namma Bengaluru’. Over the last few decades of Bengaluru’s intensive growth, the water bodies within this ‘city of lakes’ have shrunk beyond imagination. Construction of mammoth apartment complexes and tech parks have transformed the open spaces into a concrete jungle, hindering natural processes of water cycle. An insatiable appetite for land has sadly transformed many lakes into bus stands, stadiums, residential layouts and other forms of infrastructure, making the city ever more water hungry.
Numerous studies reveal Bengaluru is heading towards a catastrophic ‘day zero‘, as half the residents of this metropolis of 1.2 crore are pushed to rely on private supplies of water, which in turn is based on largely illegal and unsustainable groundwater extraction. For the rest of the population who get piped water supply, it is no better. Over 1,000 mld1 of water is pumped every day from the river Cauvery which is located almost 100 km away from the city.
As the city is located at a high altitude, this water is then lifted up making the process steeply energy extractive. All this, while the river that originates in Bengaluru, the Vrishabhavathi, has been successfully turned into a sewage canal, and river Arkavathi that originates to the north of the metropolis has been driven dry due to extensive sand mining and encroachment.
Access to water as an indicator of quality of life reveals Bangalore ranks amongst the lowest in cities of the Global South. Actual availability of water to the poor areas of the city is limited by infrastructure, and utter lack of attention, and so for these neighbourhoods, the per capita supply is shockingly low. The lack of a political will to ensure equitable distribution of water reaffirms pre-existing water inequalities, which in turn are further intensified by climate change.
The water distress in the city can also be understood from the fact that Bengaluru was placed at 200th rank out of 255 water-stressed districts across the country in the Union government’s Jal Shakti Abhiyaan. Such ranking has left many confused and surprised given the fact that experts assert that the city is on a progression towards installation of rainwater harvesting structures since the Bangalore Water Supply and Sewerage (Rainwater Harvesting) Regulations came into effect.
Additionally, in 2020, Bengaluru recorded an actual rainfall of 1121 mm as against its normal value of 986 mm. Then, one must ask, why is the metropolis haunted by doomsday predictions of running out of water? And what the Bruhat Bengaluru Mahanagara Palike’s commitment to the Paris Climate Agreement means for water security and urban water governance?
The historic network of tanks that this city once took pride upon is now reduced to a handful. Existing lakes should be brought under the jurisdiction of the Ward Committee. The ward must view the lakes with a livelihood approach. The lake serves the fishing community, the lake’s grass is used to make certain kinds of baskets as well as to feed the cattle. In the summer months, when the lake water recedes, the area can be used for cultivation.
Thus, accounting for such lake dependent activities becomes easier when they are managed locally. However, the current strategies of lake rejuvenation detach these lakes from livelihoods while only catering to the aesthetics by fencing, concretising and converting the lake into a soup bowl devoid of a natural interface with the water birds. Fencing these once prized commons make these spaces disproportionately inaccessible and go against the very ethos of the word ‘commons’.
The Ward Committees should be equipped to undertake water analysis and make decisions with regards to all aspects of management of water bodies. A ward level water accountability has to be developed, by mapping the amount of water available (both surface and groundwater), amount of recycling done, installation of rainwater harvesting structures etc. with that of the number of residential homes, institutions etc. in the ward.
Every ward should develop their own water plans and propose assistance to the higher machinery accordingly. The ward must ensure that every household, apartment complex, institution strictly follows the existing provision of rainwater harvesting and practices recycling of water to the best of their capacity. If each of these can take care of its own water needs and ensure water security at its own level, then there is some hope for the city. Such ward level governance in terms of water resource management must be imagined to convert water-stressed Bengaluru into a water-surplus city.
The future of water security in Bengaluru definitely needs careful systematic planning. How the city can become not just carbon neutral but ‘water neutral’ to fulfil the ambitious targets of the Paris Agreement requires a dialogue between the political machinery of the city and the residents. All people of the ward should be involved in formulating a long-term sustainable plan for advocating a water secure future. Urban planners and decision makers must prioritise community knowledge, practices and experiences at the forefront to tackle climate change and make cities climate friendly.
Decentralisation in governance and management of water resources in the city might hold some hope to avert the consequences of climate crisis and water distress that looms large upon the metropolis. The principles of decentralisation laid down by Elinor Ostrom might be the best way forward to ensure water security for the city. Her work exhibits that although the process of forming collaborations takes time, yet it is possible to manage resources sustainably.
A decentralised system of protection of lakes, water harvesting, grey water recycling can definitely reduce Bengaluru’s unsustainable reliance on faraway rivers. Community involvement and effort can revive and rehabilitate the historic network of lakes, canal systems and fight the current extractive nature of water distribution. With a decentralised approach Bengaluru can move towards water security practises that are equitable, ecological and socially just.
Shrestha Chowdhury completed her master’s degree in Developmental Studies from Christ University, Bengaluru.
million litres a day↩