Drying borewells and soaring costs: Bengaluru’s looming water crisis

The inequality in water availability particularly impacts the less privileged, given that the Cauvery water network doesn't reach them and they lack the ever increasing money to pay for water tankers.
Water stored in small buckets.
Water stored in small buckets.
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On the outskirts of Bengaluru, Ramagondanahalli, an urban village, is struggling to access clean water. It was one of the 110 villages swallowed by Bruhat Bengaluru Mahanagara Palike (BBMP) in its steamrolling expansion of 2007. Unlike prominent areas such as Indiranagar and Koramangala, this village lacks access to Cauvery water connections, leaving its residents solely reliant on borewells or tanker water. Residents of the village alleged that even this reliance has become difficult as the relentless extraction of water by tanker vendors has left them in a lurch.

While Varthur Lake, one of the city's largest, lies within the village's boundaries, residents rely on increasingly expensive tanker water or erratic supplies from the Bangalore Water Supply and Sewerage Board (BWSSB). Residents accuse tanker water vendors of digging borewells and pumping water round-the-clock for the water scarcity. 

Murali, a businessman, told TNM, “Around 4-5 years ago, we could find water at a depth of 400 ft, but now, even after digging 1300 ft, there's no water in the borewells.” The residents had protested against the borewells multiple times, to no avail. The Karnataka Lokayukta registered a suo motu case on June 3, 2023, in connection to problems faced by residents of Ramagondanahalli near Whitefield, where many people had to shell out Rs 10,000 per month for water. 

Approximately 25 borewells are being used to fill 200 tankers of water daily by both BWSSB and private water vendors. “It started three or four years ago. Since then, they continuously pump water from these borewells and supply water to corporates at a hefty price,” said Murali. 

With the demand for tanker water going up, the cost of water from a 12,000-litre tanker has surged from around Rs 1,200 just a month ago to a minimum of Rs 1,800 presently with certain areas experiencing prices soaring as high as Rs 2,000.

Borewell drilling in Ramagondanahalli
Borewell drilling in Ramagondanahalli

While apartment complexes in the city can purchase water at inflated rates, the inequality in water availability particularly impacts the less privileged, given that the Cauvery water network doesn't reach them and they lack money to pay vendors. They have to rely on water provided by BWSSB. 

No water in borewell
No water in borewell

Ellamma, a domestic worker, shared her struggles with the erratic BWSSB water supply, often clashing with her work schedule. She said, "The BWSSB water supply has been inconsistent for weeks. When they do supply water, I'm often at work. Now, I have to choose between earning a living and collecting water for my family." Ellamma also pointed out the practical challenges for residents in smaller houses, where limited storage space makes bulk water purchases unfeasible. "How can we buy water in bulk when there’s no space to store it?” she said. 

Muniraju, a driver, expressed frustration over the lack of water from BWSSB for 20 consecutive days, attributing it to repair work halting the supply. Forced to purchase water from kiosks at Rs 5 per 20 litre can, he said that it barely meets the needs of his family of three for a single day. When TNM visited the water kiosk in the village, the residents said it was closed due to a ‘power outage’. 

“Bathing once a week is also a privilege now,” Muniraju said, adding that residents like him face challenges as tankers prioritise supplying neighbouring high-rise buildings. “The water drawn from borewells in our areas isn’t even supplied to us. Despite agreeing to their demands, the vendors don’t supply water to us,” he said.

BWSSB water kiosk
BWSSB water kiosk

Demand and supply

The situation in Ramagondanahalli reflects Bengaluru's larger water management issues. In a city with an unreliable water supply, residents across various socioeconomic backgrounds rely on an informal water industry to meet their needs. With a population exceeding one crore and boasting some of the world's largest IT parks, Bengaluru's water demand far exceeds its current supply. Despite drawing significant quantities of water from the Cauvery River and groundwater sources, the city still faces a shortfall of 1,680 million litres of water per day, according to BWSSB. The agency has also pinpointed 257 areas at risk of water scarcity, showing the urgent need for more water sources and better infrastructure.

The situation has become dire, with residents of one apartment complex requiring at least five to six tanker deliveries per day to meet their water needs, putting a significant strain on their finances. Tanker water suppliers prioritise higher-paying customers, often diverting deliveries away from those who have placed orders, exacerbating the scarcity. "The tanker water suppliers seem to be playing favourites, prioritising those who pay more, leaving us high and dry even after placing orders," said a resident of an apartment complex in Pattandur Agrahara. 

In response to the worsening situation, upscale residential societies like Brigade Omega in Whitefield have been compelled to issue notices to residents, announcing water supply interruptions due to shortages from tanker vendors, Cauvery water, and borewells. This scarcity isn't confined to Whitefield alone; other areas like Bommanahalli and parts of Mahadevapura and Bengaluru south are also witnessing shortages, driving up the price of water significantly. 

Tanker suppliers attribute the rising costs to longer distances and spending more on fuel. “We're travelling almost 40 kms just to fill our tankers because most of the borewells in the city have run dry. It's not just the extra distance but the soaring fuel costs too. Prices have shot up dramatically as a result," said a tanker vendor based out of Whitefield. 

Collecting wastewater is the challenge

According to urban planner Vishwanath S, the disparity in water access disproportionately affects the poor as the Cauvery network fails to reach them. “The city's water issues could be resolved once Cauvery phase 5 becomes operational.” This project aims to provide drinking water to 110 villages on the city outskirts under BBMP. 

Vishwanath said that the BWSSB lacks sufficient funds to invest, relying on external sources such as the Japan International Cooperation Agency (JICA). He questioned this dependency on external funding, attributing it to the fact that "we don’t pay the true cost of water." He said, “We keep complaining that lakes are frothing and full of sewage, but we are not ready to pay the true cost of collection of sewage and treatment so that the problem is resolved.”

He also said that Bengaluru currently boasts 38 Sewage Treatment Plants (STPs), capable of treating 1,440 mld (million litres per day), with plans to construct an additional 17, bringing the total to 55, the most any city needs. The city also has nearly 3,600 decentralised wastewater treatment plants in residential complexes and 21 STPs built by BBMP. However, Vishwanath said that the challenge lies in effectively collecting wastewater.

A WELL Labs' report, ‘How water flows through Bengaluru: Urban water balance’, addresses the city's dual water challenges: the depletion of borewells and lakes, compounded by the reliance on water tankers during summer, and the issue of severe flooding in certain areas during the monsoon. Notably, the report reveals Bengaluru's substantial water consumption, including 1,372 mld of groundwater alongside 1,460 mld of Cauvery water. However, it raises concerns about the significantly lower groundwater recharge rates compared to extraction rates, with only 148 mld recharged naturally through green spaces and water bodies. “This is worrying because groundwater recharge rates remain significantly lower than extraction rates. Rapid urbanisation is eroding what’s left of the city’s green spaces and lakes; it is critical to maintain them to recharge shallow aquifers with rainwater during the wet season,” read the report. 

“If buildings in Bengaluru set up rainwater harvesting systems, recycled wastewater, and restored lakes to recharge the water table, the city would have enough water to meet its needs,” Vishwanath said. 

Vishwanath advocated the maintenance and continuous replenishment of tanks and lakes with treated wastewater throughout the year. He suggested that this strategy would facilitate groundwater recharge and prevent borewells from running dry. “Ultimately, collaborative efforts between the state and citizens are crucial to effectively address the water crisis,” he said. 

Meanwhile, Deputy Chief Minister DK Shivakumar, who is also in charge of Bengaluru city development, on February 20 said that the 110 villages on the outskirts of Bengaluru will get drinking water from Cauvery in May. He was responding to questions in the Legislative Assembly. He also said that the government had provided Rs 10 crore aid to MLAs in Bengaluru, which could be utilised to solve drinking water woes. 

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