In India’s major cities, this summer will yet again highlight the crisis precipitated by chronic water shortage, ad hoc policies and dangerously depleting groundwater levels
With its sprawling corporate campuses punctuated by rows of exotically-named apartment complexes (where the employees live) and pubs, malls and multiplexes (where they unwind), Bellandur in south-east Bengaluru showcases what the infotech revolution has brought to the city. When it comes to water supply, however, the area more closely resembles Wild West than Silicon Valley, the US tech hub the city is most often compared with. While Silicon Valley residents take high-pressure potable water for granted when they open their taps, the Bellandur experience is, let’s say, somewhat different.
“We are being held to ransom,” says one resident, a senior executive at one of the IT majors, while talking about the area’s water crisis. “Last week, we were out on the road, begging every tanker for water,” says another, the president of her apartment complex. They insist on anonymity for themselves and their apartments. It’s an intriguing request for a story on water supply. But they explain why: the last time some of the residents spoke to a reporter, the water tanker owners appeared before them brandishing copies of the paper, accusing them of defaming the water suppliers and, finally, leveraging the incident to jack up prices of each tanker by a further ₹100.
Bellandur is one of 110 “villages” on the periphery of Bengaluru recently added to the city’s corporation limits which does not yet receive piped water. This is despite it being the highest tax-paying ward in the city, residents point out. With borewells sunk as deep as 800 feet running dry, people here depend on 6,000-litre private tankers for regular water supply. This year, the shortage has struck early, with private tankers claiming a dip in supply to raise the price of water, from ₹700 to ₹1,200 and upwards per load — since the business is unregulated and each supplier has their own fiefdom, customers have little option but to comply. For a 300-unit apartment, the water bill in January alone was ₹4.5 lakh.
Staring at a Shortage
With its lack of piped water and rapidly depleting groundwater levels, Bellandur might be an extreme version of the urban dystopia that summer heralds in many parts of India.
But with demand peaking in our bursting-at-the-seams metropolises in the next couple of months, a below normal monsoon, few genuine attempts at conservation and a general apathy towards reducing demand unless one is forced to, our cities look set to contend with a severe water crisis this year, too.
The national capital, for instance, will likely see a shortfall of about 300 million gallons a day (1,100 million litres) in the next two months, according to Delhi Jal Board vice-chairman Dinesh Mohaniya. Last summer, fracas over water led to the death of three people in New Delhi. In Mumbai, civic authorities have reduced daily water supply by 10% from November due to the paucity in rainfall while in Chennai, the supply is nearly 300 million litres a day less than what it should be, according to Chennai Metro Water joint director R Neelankandan. “We expect to continue supplying this quantity till the next monsoon,” he says, hopeful that the crisis will be better than the previous summer, since the year was not as dry.
But Umananda Mukherjee, a resident of Velachery in Chennai staying in a compound with four houses, is already feeling the pinch. The executive depends on tanker water from Chennai Metro Water which he books via phone and is usually delivered in 2 to 3 days of booking. “Last time, the gap stretched to 7-8 days. It was that bad,” he says. He ended up having to buy water from a private supplier, paying ₹1,500 for 1,200 litres to his compound—exorbitant, compared with the ₹700 he pays for 9,000 litres from Chennai Metro Water.
When it comes to water supply in urban areas in India, there is no dearth of alarming statistics. Last year, government think-tank Niti Aayog, in its report, issued the dire warning that 21 cities including Delhi, Bengaluru and Chennai will run out of groundwater by 2020, which would affect about 100 million people. A few months before that, Centre for Science and Environment published a report predicting that 10 cities around the world, including Bengaluru, were likely to face Day Zero when taps there would run dry, like the situation Cape Town in South Africa got very close to.
Dipping groundwater levels across the country have been a cause for concern over the years, as extraction of the resource largely continues unchecked to meet the demands of a growing population. The bulk of this is used in farming. National Geophysical Research Institute director Virendra Tiwari, who has been studying dwindling groundwater resources for years, says areas in and around Delhi have been losing 30 to 32 cubic kilometres of groundwater every year. “This is the largest rate of groundwater loss in any similar region on Earth,” he says, echoing what he had written in a 2009 paper. The extraction across northern India has been exceeding the replenishable groundwater, lowering the water table. A 2019 report by Water Aid points out that groundwater depletion across India increased by nearly a quarter between 2000 and 2010. The water available per person annually in India has also come down by a steep 70% between 1951 and 2011.
Municipal governments have been focusing primarily on supply side management to the total neglect of demand side measures such as metered water supply, says Tushaar Shah, senior fellow at the International Water Management Institute. He attributes India’s urban water supply crisis partly to this. “Our water supply infrastructure has also failed to keep pace with growth of the urban centres, with water conveyance losses exceedingly high. And the inadequacy of public systems to meet demand has given rise to a massive informal water economy that is hard to regulate and control,” says Shah. The monopoly of private water tankers in Bellandur is one instance of this.
“In the last two decades, all the major urban centres in India have become dark zones, where extraction of water exceeds the natural recharging capacity,” says Suresh Rohilla, senior director at the New Delhi-based think tank Centre for Science and Environment. The total quantum of water coming in to our cities is not increasing considerably because our rivers don’t have water, he says. “For instance, my house in Delhi used to get 10-12 hours of water supply during my childhood. Now, it is just half an hour each in the morning and evening. That means I have to invest more in pumps, in electricity and storage mechanisms,” he adds. The key is to manage our water distribution better, rather than look at new projects that will bring water to our cities from locations farther and farther away, says Rohilla.
Avoiding ‘Day Zero’
There are also region-specific factors choking water supply. Delhi, for instance, is locked in a court battle with neighbouring Haryana over the supply of water. There are two cases being heard, one in the Supreme Court and the other in the Delhi High Court, over the sharing of river water and the use of a lined canal. “A favourable verdict would fix our quota of water from the river Yamuna, which is Delhi’s main source of water,” says Delhi Jal Board’s Mohaniya.
Then there is the all-important monsoons. An officer in the Brihanmumbai Municipal Corporation, who requested not to be named as the electoral code of conduct is in force, says the civic body had to reduce water supply as rainfall had been less than in the previous year. Non-revenue water, or water which is lost due to leaks and theft and therefore does not earn any revenue and pollution of water bodies also contributes to reducing supply.
Even when civic agencies supply water, the distribution is usually inequitable, say researchers. In a study undertaken in Bengaluru by Ashoka Trust for Research in Ecology and Environment (ATREE), it was found that while half the domestic consumers in the city were using less than 90 litres (per person per day), 10% of domestic consumers were using over 342 litres per capita per day. “There is inequitable distribution of water both region-wise, where the periphery is poorly served, and class-wise, where there’s a huge variation in the per capita consumption of water,” says Sharad Lele, a distinguished fellow at ATREE.
Lele feels one should not go to the extreme of saying Bengaluru is approaching Day Zero, when all taps will run dry, since the city will continue to receive 1,400 million litres a day of Cauvery water. What is more likely to happen is that the poor will suffer the most. “It will be Day Zero for them,” he says.
There are some efforts under way, both long-term and shortterm, to increase and improve water supply. In New Delhi, for instance, the AAP government is offering a 90% rebate on sewer charges for those reusing waste water within their premises, a concept called zero water liquid discharge. “The scheme is in its initial phases. Big institutes like schools and colleges are quite enthusiastic but small users are not very keen because they don’t have the infrastructure to reuse this water,” says Mohaniya. The AAP government has been planning to reuse treated effluents by releasing it into the Yamuna upstream, where it will mix with the river water, thereby increasing the water supply to the city. The Yamuna is Delhi’s main source of water.
In Mumbai, three dam projects, including the Gagai dam, which is expected to supply over 400 million litres of water a day when complete, are being planned.
Bengaluru is awaiting Stage V of the Cauvery water supply scheme to be complete, which will add another 700 million litres a day (MLD). The Bangalore Water Supply and Sewerage Board (BWSSB) plans to clamp down on buildings that are not implementing rainwater harvesting. In Chennai, the Metro Water authorities plan to tap agriculture wells in Thiruvallur, 48 km away, which they estimate will yield another 120 MLD. “Ideally, we should look at getting another 300-400 MLD from desalination plants. We also need to realise the importance of decentralising the water supply system, and conserving our local water bodies which can play a major role,” says J Saravanan, a hydrologist and consultant based in Chennai. Rainwater harvesting in buildings, mandated by previous governments, has certainly helped in water conservation, says Saravanan. In Bengaluru, BWSSB chairman Tushar Giri Nath says only half of the over 2 lakh structures supposed to have rainwater harvesting have implemented it.
Rather than wait for civic authorities to get their act together, citizens are also trying to do their bit. In Bellandur, residents are signing up for the “2500 challenge” with the aim of digging 2,500 recharge wells over the next three months to improve groundwater. City-based Biome Environmental Trust is spearheading a larger campaign to recharge Bengaluru’s wells called “A Million Recharge Wells” involving the local community of well-diggers, the Manuvaddars. “More than 50% of the city’s demand is met through groundwater. The question is how to replenish the water we are continuously taking out,” says Shubha Ramachandran, water team lead at Biome.
Along with efforts to augment supply, experts emphasise the importance of reducing demand. “In urban areas, water is so subsidised that nobody thinks of saving it. It might be costing the water supply board 10-20 times the amount you are paying,” says CSE’s Rohilla. “You treat an iPhone with care because you know the price.”
At the peak of the Cape Town crisis last year, domestic users were not allowed to use more than 50 litres of water a day. Starting to use water prudently and efficiently would go some way in helping Indian cities avoid a similar fate.
“India’s per capita water availability has been reducing drastically. There will certainly be a lot of civil unrest in the coming summer months”
senior director, Centre for Science & Environment
A borewell being dug in Horamavu, Bengaluru
“Investing in recycling wastewater at domestic and municipal levels is critical to reducing urban water vulnerability”
senior fellow, International Water Management Institute
“We are planning to reuse treated effluents and release it into rivers to augment capacity”
vice-chairman, Delhi Jal Board
“Only about 50% of the structures mandated to implement rainwater harvesting have done it so far”
Tushar Giri Nath, chairman, Bangalore Water Supply and Sewerage Board
Private tankers supply water to residents of Bellandur in Bengaluru
Summer is yet to start but parts of urban India are already grappling with a water shortage
Groundwater levels continue to dip but few attempts made to address the crisis from the demand side
Wastewater recycling and groundwater recharging will be crucial for water security