Every drop matters: Bengaluru’s image takes a hit; water crisis leaves India’s Silicon Valley thirsty

Grappling with its worst-ever water crisis, ‘India’s Silicon Valley ‘has received less than normal rainfall due to climate crisis

By Ashraf Engineer  Published on  20 March 2024 4:30 AM GMT
Every drop matters: Bengaluru’s image takes a hit; water crisis leaves India’s Silicon Valley thirsty

It will be a long, hot summer for Bengaluru. It is grappling with its worst-ever water crisis, with taps running dry across the city. Over the past few years, ‘India’s Silicon Valley ‘has received less than normal rainfall – at least in part due to climate change. As a result, water tankers are in huge demand and suppliers are making a killing.

The state government and civic bodies are struggling to bridge the gap through emergency measures like nationalizing water tankers and capping water costs. However, experts are nearly unanimous that the worst is yet to come. Don’t forget, Bengaluru is one of the fastest growing cities in the world, and – as it is across the country – infrastructure has failed to keep pace with the growing population.

Bengaluru needs 2 billion liters of water every day for its 14 million residents. Supply, it is estimated, is now at about 50% of that requirement. More than 70% of the city’s supply comes from the Cauvery River, a major waterway, but the city has expanded too fast for authorities to build a supply network in the new real estate hot spots. So, these neighborhoods are relying on groundwater extracted by borewells. Last year’s weak monsoon, however, depleted groundwater levels.

Groundwater is now relied on by over a third of the city’s residents and authorities say 6,900 of the 13,900 bore wells have run dry despite some reaching down to 1,500 feet.

Urbanization is at the core of the problem. Other than the problems created by mushrooming constructions, paved surfaces cover nearly 90% of Bengaluru, preventing rainwater from seeping into the ground. Alongside, it is estimated that the city has lost 70% of its green cover over the past 50 years.

This crisis should not come as a surprise. Back in 2018, the Union Government had warned that more than 40% of Bengaluru’s residents would cease to have access to drinking water by the end of the decade. That warning is coming true. So, desperate residents are drilling bore wells in even the buffer zones of lakes.

Experts have suggested that Bengaluru focus on replenishing its over 200 lakes, cease construction on lake areas, encourage rainwater harvesting, and increase green cover.

The Bengaluru water crisis is reminiscent of the one faced by Chennai in 2019. Tamil Nadu’s capital receives 1,400 mm of rainfall a year but has to truck in 10 million liters of water a day to meet the demand of its 11 million residents. That crisis too was blamed on rapid urbanization and indiscriminate use of water resources.

Over the past couple of months, a water crisis has loomed over Hyderabad too. Reservoirs were running low and emergency steps were imposed to raise supply. The Telangana High Court got into the act, warning that Hyderabad risked going the Bengaluru way unless the government got serious about conservation.

More to come

Bengaluru, Hyderabad, and Chennai are precursors of what we can expect in urban India over the next few years. A 2019 NITI Aayog report said that India is suffering from its worst-ever water crisis and the World Bank’s Water Resources Group predicted that, if we continue to consume water at the current rate, then by 2030 the country would be left with only half the quantity it would need to survive. There is much at stake: GDP growth, livelihoods, health and conservation.

If you’re living in an urban area, you must be used to seeing long queues of people waiting to fill water from tankers. This was bound to happen – India is home to 17% of the global population but only 4% of the world’s freshwater. This gap has been managed poorly.

So, India depends on groundwater. The Green Revolution was fuelled in large part by it.

It is estimated that India has more than 2 crore wells, many operating on subsidized power that suck out groundwater – most of it used for agriculture.

Indian agriculture, unfortunately, has not yet taken to sustainable planting patterns in a big way. Water-guzzling crops like sugarcane and rice are common in states like Maharashtra and Uttar Pradesh. In Punjab, groundwater accounts for 80% of the need for paddy cultivation.

Government research bodies, using crop simulation models based on the projected climates of 2050 and 2080, estimate that with current farm practices and existing planting material, rain-fed rice yields could be reduced by 20%by 2050 and 47%by 2080. Irrigated rice yields could decline by 3.5% in 2050 and 5% by 2080. Other crops will see a similar downward trend, thus impacting food security and prices.

The approach to this crisis so far has focused on increasing supply but it’s equally critical to manage demand.

Incidentally, China seems to be facing a similar situation. According to the Lowy Institute, a think tank, 80% to 90% of China’s groundwater is now unfit for consumption. Half of its aquifers are too polluted for use, 50% of its river water is unfit for drinking and much of it is unsafe for agriculture too.

What to do now

Coming back to India, where do we go from here?

Agriculture must be the starting point because it accounts for the bulk of water consumption in the country. The water census, which recorded every water body, small irrigation project, and aquifer, was a good start. But what’s critically needed is bipartisan political backing for regulation of groundwater extraction. This includes politically tough decisions like withdrawing free power for irrigation pumps.

There must be a rethink on cropping patterns. A boost could come in the form of incentivizing crops that are less water-intensive in areas that have a deficiency.

Small irrigation schemes are vital but there is a last-mile problem they are grappling with. Farmer Producer Organisations can be roped in and micro-irrigation management can be passed on to them. This would mean that the end users would be responsible for water levels and use, thus ensuring pragmatic consumption rather than indiscriminate.

There are various other steps needed, including using indigenous seeds that are more resilient to climate change and an institutional framework for the management of water bodies.

Needless to say, all of this needs mobilization on a war footing and high involvement of all stakeholders. Naturally, the above suggestions do not make for a holistic solution; there are many other steps needed and they span everything, from raising the green cover to sustainable living and sensible urban building norms. The solution, however, depends on political will, the urgency demonstrated by authorities, and the commitment of end users.

Ashraf Engineer has been a journalist for almost three decades, leading newsrooms and initiatives across print, digital, and audio. He is the founder of the All Indians Matter platform, a home for conversations with and about India on issues that matter, and the host of the podcast by the same name.

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