A perfect storm of factors has contributed to a crippling water crisis in India’s premier IT city — broadly speaking, a combination of Bengaluru’s geographical features, its rising population and the sheer lack of political will to pursue sensible long-term solutions.

The broad contours of the crisis are as follows. According to research by Bengaluru-based WELL Labs, the city consumes over 2,600 million litres per day, of which Cauvery water — pumped uphill over nearly 90 km — supplies 1,470 MLD. Of this, at least 25 per cent simply disappears from the system. The rest of the demand, which could be over 1,500 MLD, is supplied from groundwater sources, be it borewells under the Bangalore Water Supply and Sewerage Board (BWSSB) or private tankers — the latter supplying 650 MLD these days, according to Deputy Chief Minister DK Shivakumar. Rising private tanker costs may have brought down demand by a notch. Indeed, it is worth asking whether the city needs 200 litres per capita per day (LPCD), assuming a population of 13 million, which is above the international norm of 150 LPCD. Given the city’s geographical limitations – being situated at an altitude with no river nearby – it must manage consumption better and rejuvenate water sources within the city, rather than draw increasingly on the Cauvery, which is not just a costly, energy intensive proposition but also one that raises questions regarding diversion of fresh water from other regions, as well as uses. The river is under extreme ecological stress, anyway.

On the supply side, rainwater harvesting, and even more so, wastewater recycling must be ramped up. The city generates about 1900 MLD of wastewater per day, of which just about 1240 MLD is ‘treated’, according to official estimates. About a third of this treated water is sent to water-scarce Kolar and Chikkaballapur districts, while almost all the rest of it is pushed back into the city’s lakes, with an estimated 72 MLD being used for toilets, landscaping and industrial purposes. Yet, Bengaluru’s lakes are dying not just because of untreated sewage but also because of the poor quality of ‘treated’ water. If the BWSSB is to treat its wastewater more efficiently, it needs more finance and access to technologies. Singapore and Santiago use wastewater in a big way for drinking; surely Indian municipalities should build capacity to treat wastewater to a level at least fit for secondary uses. There is a case for raising tariffs for piped water by linking it to income levels, a proxy for which can be the electricity bill or the units consumed. The money being shelled out for tankers can be used to create crucial water infrastructure.

However, politicians are busy chasing self-serving solutions, such as the Mekedatu project, to access more Cauvery water. Worse, these schemes are packaged as issues of regional pride. Amidst such political cynicism everywhere, it is time for civil society to take the lead.