The impending water calamity of Bengaluru

The impending water calamity of Bengaluru

Come summer, there is popular anger against water woes of Bengaluru. In numerous seminars and symposia, pious resolutions are passed. But words do not produce water.

Consider these facts:

Currently, the population of the city under the BBMP limits is 11 million, excluding the urbanised areas of Devanahalli, Hosakote, Nelamangala, Bidadi, Doddaballapura. The population of the Bengaluru Metropolitan area already exceeds 13 million which requires drinking water. By 2031, Metropolitan Bengaluru’s population will be 20 million.

At even 100 litres per capita, the domestic demand will be 2,000 MLD (million litres per day) and with another 250 MLD for non-domestic use, the net demand will be 2,250 MLD. Even if leakage is reduced to 20% from its present 40%, the gross supply should be 2,800 MLD. With 29 tmc (thousand million cubic feet), or 2,260 MLD, which is the outer limit of Cauvery water available to the city (and legally half of Bengaluru is outside Cauvery basin), and with only 20% leakage, the water available will be just 1,800 MLD. With a realistic 30% leakage, the availability will be only 1,600 MLD and the shortage 660 MLD.

The estimated 4 lakh borewells of the city pump out 3.7 times water than the annual recharge of ground water from the 800 mm rainfall which will empty the groundwater in a decade, as can be seen from the increasing depth of the existing borewells.

The 937 tanks of the Bengaluru Urban district created since 1537 have mostly been destroyed since the 1960s and hardly 400 tanks remain albeit in their last dregs. The 850 km of Rajakaluves have been encroached and built upon preventing rain water from flowing to the lower level tanks, destroying the ‘Cascading System of Lakes’.

The ‘Land of a Thousand Lakes’ has become a Land of ‘Thousand Sewage Tanks’ in a ‘Development by Destruction’ mode. All these sewage lakes have nitrates, mercury, E coli, hard metal and dissolved solids beyond permissible limits, according to the Public Health Institute, Pollution Control Board, Lake Conservation and Development Authority and the Eureka Forbes Environment Institute. Some 30% of Cauvery tap water is not potable and 19% has E coli present due to overlapping sewage lines leaking into low-pressure pipelines. It is not realised that a city dies when its lakes die.

The existing Sewage Treatment Plants work, officially, at 70% capacity, but with contamination due to non-operation of generators by maintenance contractors during power cuts, the STPs make no difference.

These are basic problems with a fundamental disequilibrium. For survival, Bengaluru requires a comprehensive ‘Metro Water Project,’ covering all the above problems. A line estimate prepared by a reputed consultant for BBMP, BDA and BWSSB shows that about Rs 40,000 crore will be needed to implement such a Metro Water Project in 10 years.

It will cover leakage plugging, restoration of lakes and Rajakaluves, connecting all the 25 lakh metropolitan houses and apartments with water and drainage connections (compared with the present 11 lakh connections). Also included are recovering of 70% of wastewater with tertiary treatment, making it potable, rainwater harvesting in the geographical area and not just on the rooftops which is only about 60% of Bengaluru’s area, and supporting voluntary organisations to ensure the education and cooperation of the citizens.

Such investment in 10 years is indispensable, considering the city’s vital need. The BWSSB must immediately prepare a feasibility report for such a Metro Water Project and pose it for World Bank assistance or from the recently created New Development Bank and Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank, Beijing. The World Bank and other multilateral funding agencies give a loan up to 70% of the cost. Privatisation is no answer, since it is not successful in South American countries and in Metro Manila, except in the United Kingdom which has a strong independent regulator.

Instead, the BWSSB is fantasising half-baked Tenali Raman solutions (with due apologies to the Vikatakavi), such as dig more borewells, change the course of West-flowing rivers to East, use Sharavathi power reservoir, build canal from Almatti dam, store water in Yettinahole and pump it up through Western Ghat bio-diversity sphere etc. These kite-flyings are contractors’ dreams and environmentalists’ nightmare. They will not see the light of day.

Reluctant government
Despite innumerable meetings with the ministers for Bengaluru, chairman and officers of BWSSB and the chief secretary since 2011, the government is reluctant to prepare a comprehensive Metro Water Plan for two reasons. Firstly, the World Bank imposes a set of financial discipline namely, preparation of Detailed Project Report through an international competitive bid, pre-qualification of tenders and selection of contractors by a committee headed by the chief secretary the decisions of which are final and does not go to the cabinet.

Quality control of work by an independent agency, again, through ICB and the decisions at every stage is to be approved by the World Bank. So, the BWSSB or the government has no final say in giving contracts or approving contractors’ work, or in making payment. Deprived of the bread, butter and jam, it is anathema to the government. Secondly, the Finance Department appears to be coy saying the BWSSB has taken too many loans and should not take any more.

This is an anti-people policy and will destroy Bengaluru which has one-sixth of Karnataka’s population and 60% of the state’s revenue is generated here. Without water, the city will go and along with Bengaluru, will go the state’s economy itself.

Recently, citizens suffering from immobile traffic sat on the road in Whitefield Rising and the government listened. For a life and death matter like water, the citizens should do a “Bengaluru Blocking” which alone will wake up the government.

Otherwise, an unwilling BWSSB and unthinking government will lead to an unavoidable exodus from the capital in 10 years. As Nassim Nicholas Taleb shows in his seminal Black Swan, catastrophic events occur regularly and complacent people do not learn from history repeating itself.

(The writer is former Additional Chief Secretary, Government of Karnataka)

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