Seven years ago, when Sridhar Rao bought an apartment at New Bank Colony, Konanakunte in Bengaluru, it was the culmination of a nearly decade old dream. The software professional and his homemaker wife felt vindicated in their decision when a mall and a metro station came up within a two-km radius over the next few years, pushing real estate prices even further up.

However, since mid-February they are regretting their decision. The borewell at their small apartment complex has dried up for the first time. Water tankers, which used to be the lifeline in previous years, cost three times of what it used. An 8,000-litre tank of water earlier used to cost ₹400 during ‘off-season’ now costs ₹1,200. Demand is so high that even after paying that, there are significant delays in supply of water through such tankers.

Residents of Bharathi Nagar stage a protest over water crisis in the city, in Bengaluru

Residents of Bharathi Nagar stage a protest over water crisis in the city, in Bengaluru

The only ‘solace’ that the Rao couple console themselves with is that just a kilometer and half where the tony Prestige Falcon City is located is in even worse condition. Apartments here cost anywhere between ₹1.5 crore and ₹3.5 crore. Stories of residents unable to even get water for toilets, to bathe and being encouraged to use disposable cutlery makes them feel that their situation is ‘better.’

Surging population

Bengaluru’s water woes aren’t new. For nearly a decade now, every summer it is haunted by scarcity of the precious commodity. The reasons are well known. Population has more than doubled in the last two decades while supply hasn’t kept pace.

Shortfall was being met mainly from tapping groundwater. However, over the years as the city has grown, natural landscapes that absorbed rainwater have been concretised. As a result, there is less water percolation due to increased surface runoff and less groundwater recharge. In tandem, the borewells used by residents are also running dry as groundwater levels are rapidly declining.

Then there is the curious case of ‘disappearing lakes.’ The city for centuries depended on lakes built by far sighted rulers. However, the current leader of opposition in Assembly R Ashoka, who was the revenue minister in the previous government, said in 2022 on the floor of the Assembly that more than 40 lakes had ‘disappeared’ after being encroached and converted into layouts. Even the remaining ones like Bellandur, Ulsoor and Varthur lakes feature more in the news for the toxic wastes that are dumped into them than for any other reason.

The State at large has been seeing insufficient rainfall over the last two monsoons. From October to December, Karnataka experienced a 38 per cent decrease in north-east Monsoon rainfall, and from June to September, the State experienced a 25 per cent shortfall in southwest monsoon precipitation. As a result of this, 223 of the 236 talukas have been declared as drought-hit.

Primary water sources

The two primary water sources for Bengaluru are the Cauvery, which provides 1,450 million litres per day (MLD) of surface water, and borewells managed by Bruhat Bengaluru Mahanagara Palike(BBMP), which provide 700 MLD. Per reports, towards the end of last month, the water levels in reservoirs in the Cauvery Basin, such as Harangi, Hemavathi, KRS, and Kabini, were just 39 per cent of their full capacity.

Further, according to information shared by the State government, 6,997 of the 16,791 borewells in the city are now dry. As bad news mounts, the water input to Bengaluru has fallen by 50 per cent, according to Bangalore Water Supply and Sewerage Board (BWSSB).

Vishwanath Srikantaiah, Water Activist and Educator, explains that the issue isn’t solely a shortage of pipe water, but rather a depletion of groundwater resources. Those connected to the Cauvery lines won’t face immediate shortages as reservoirs can supply water until June. However, those reliant on groundwater, particularly in the city’s outskirts, are experiencing a crisis due to depleted aquifers caused by draining lakes for desilting. Refilling lakes with treated wastewater can sustain both the lakes and aquifers, alleviating some groundwater stress.

Similarly, Madhuri Subbarao, Co-Founder, Friends of Lakes (FOL), notes that even as the city of Bengaluru does not have any perennial source of water, the population numbers are shooting up every year, thus causing a water crisis. In a situation like this, conservation of water is of utmost importance. “With groundwater being a major source of water, efforts have to be made towards recharging the groundwater. One way of doing this is pumping treated sewage water to lakes, to make sure they don’t go dry. Additionally, the lake beds have to be cleaned too,” she said.

Experts note that the city lacks an Integrated Urban Water Management Institution to oversee all water sources including rainwater, surface water, groundwater, pipe water, and treated wastewater.

Theoretically, Cauvery provides 1,450 million litres per day (MLD), the upcoming Cauvery 5th stage would provide 770 MLD, rainwater provides 500 MLD, ground water provides 600 MLD, and treated water provides 2,280 MLD. In total, 5,600 MLD is available, which means 135 litres per capita per person is available for a population of 41 million, which is fairly good availability. Hence, in the long term, the situation is more so about the investment and management scarcity, than resource scarcity. If adequate planning is made for all forms of water, the water crisis can be averted easily, Srikantaiah says.

“Once Cauvery fifth phase gets implemented, we should focus on bringing treated waste water to Bengaluru, as a large portion of it is currently going to Kolar, Chikkaballapura, and surrounding districts. We should also create a ground water cell in BWSSB to develop groundwater management plans. In the long term, it will be beneficial for the city, if all bodies, BWSSB, BBMP, KSPCB, and KTCDA sit together and purposefully solve this problem,” suggests Srikantaiah.

The Karnataka government has implemented some measures so far. It has set up a control room at its head office to address water supply challenges, along with appointing nodal officers. It has cracked down on unregistered water tankers and instructed the utilization of unused milk tankers for water supply. Financially, ₹ 556 crore has been allocated, with each MLA receiving ₹10 crore for water scarcity in their constituencies. Furthermore, the BBMP and BWSSB have allocated ₹148 crore and ₹128 crore, respectively, to tackle the issue.

‘Failure of govts’

Mohandas Pai, Ex-Infosys exec and a prominent voice in Bengaluru, said, “The government has a knee jerk reaction to solve an immediate problem. It needs to urgently assess water needs for each ward until June and identify existing water sources. They should expedite the completion of the Cauvery 5th phase to be operational by April instead of May to avoid crisis by June.”

He further notes that this a failure of successive governments as no long-term investments over the past decade have been made. This highlights the need for prioritising essential infrastructure like power, water, transportation, and cleanliness for building the “Brand Bengaluru.”

Criticising the present Congress government, BJP spokesperson Prakash said, “They were caught off guard when the crisis emerged, leading to panic and a lack of preparedness. There’s still no concrete plan in place to address the situation. The government’s failure to anticipate the water shortage has led to a lapse in governance. Citizens are concerned about the lack of basic necessities and safety, especially after the Rameshwaram Cafe incident. These issues are likely to become focal points in the upcoming elections.”