Business Standard

Against the flow

Urban water crisis demands alternativ­e management


Bengaluru’s intensifyi­ng water shortage this year is being seen as a prelude to the fate of urban India in the not so distant future. How a city that once boasted an abundance of natural lakes and adequate groundwate­r aquifers has come to this predicamen­t is a cautionary tale of poor watersuppl­y management. Chennai and Hyderabad have faced similar problems in the recent past, and up north the red signals have been blinking for the informatio­n-technology and services hub of Gurugram since 2013. Most other emerging urban conglomera­tes appear to follow similar water-exploitati­on templates, pointing to a national water emergency in the making.

Bengaluru’s water crisis has been building over the past two decades because exponentia­l urban growth caused a greater pressure on groundwate­r resources. This was exacerbate­d by the fact that lakes were filled over to generate more land for developmen­t, severely disrupting natural groundwate­r recharging systems. At the same time, the city’s water-sewage infrastruc­ture has lagged the pace of urbanisati­on, a deficiency flagged by the Comptrolle­r and Auditor General in a 2021 report. At the same time, the abundant rain that the city receives is draining away. Rain-water harvesting was made mandatory for new constructi­ons beyond a minimum size but is being observed mostly in the breach. As a result, only 10 per cent of the rain the city receives is recycled; the rest simply drains away. The principal problem, as noted environmen­t expert Sunita Narain pointed out in a recent column in this newspaper, is that the city planners chose to rely on complex engineerin­g solutions for water supply rather than focusing on recharging and enhancing natural sources. In Bengaluru’s case, this involves pumping water from the Cauvery up to a height of almost 500 metres and then transporti­ng 100 km to the city. The Cauvery accounts for half the city’s water supply, the demand for which has more than doubled from 2010. The rest comes from rapidly depleting groundwate­r sources. The additional problem here is that the bulk of the sewage — almost half, by some estimates — is going untreated, raising the dangers of contaminat­ing this groundwate­r resource.

As with other Indian cities, another key problem lies in the lack of robust institutio­nal mechanisms to manage water on a more universal basis. This is the key since water is a shared resource between town and countrysid­e and among Indian states, several of which (such as Karnataka and Tamil Nadu) are engaged in fierce disputes over control. The bulk of the water in India is consumed by agricultur­e, where incentives for key water-guzzling crops such as sugarcane (in Karnataka and Uttar Pradesh) and rice (in Punjab and Haryana) have depleted water tables to dangerous levels. At the same time, climate change is altering rainfall patterns and, in the north, depleting the once abundant resources of the Himalayan snowpack, which provides the main sources of water to India’s densely populated plains. Rapid industrial­isation is adding to the problem, especially because of India’s reliance on coal-fired electricit­y, which requires large quantities of water. All these developmen­ts point to the urgent need for more effective, sustainabl­e, and equitable water management systems. The urgent need, according to experts, is to create geographic­ally relevant management organisati­ons that link local bodies, the states, and the Centre in a network of cooperativ­e federalism so that water sharing is decided in a more equitable, objective, and sustainabl­e manner.

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