Water is quickly running out in Bengaluru, India, and a long, scorching summer still looms

By | March 17, 2024

BENGALURU, India (AP) — Bhavani Mani Muthuvel and her family of nine have about five 20-liter (5-gallon) buckets of water this week for cooking, cleaning and household chores.

“From showering to using toilets and washing clothes, we take turns doing everything,” she said. It’s the only water they can afford.

Muthuvel, a resident of Ambedkar Nagar, a low-income settlement in the shadow of the opulent headquarters of several global software companies in Bengaluru’s Whitefield area, normally depends on piped water, sourced from groundwater. But it dries up. She said it is the worst water crisis she has seen in the 40 years she has lived in the area.

Bengaluru in southern India is witnessing an unusually warm February and March, with little rainfall in recent years, partly due to human-induced climate change. Water levels are desperately low, especially in poorer areas, resulting in skyrocketing water costs and rapidly dwindling supply.

City and state governments are trying to get the situation under control with emergency measures such as nationalizing water tankers and capping water costs. But water experts and many residents fear the worst is yet to come in April and May, when the summer sun is at its strongest.

The crisis was a long time coming, says Shashank Palur, a Bengaluru-based hydrologist at the think tank Water, Environment, Land and Livelihood Labs.

“Bengaluru is one of the fastest growing cities in the world and its freshwater supply infrastructure cannot keep up with the growing population,” he said.

Groundwater, on which more than a third of the city’s 13 million residents depend, is rapidly running out. The city government says 6,900 of the 13,900 borewells drilled in the city have gone dry, despite some being drilled to a depth of 450 meters. Those dependent on groundwater, like Muthuvel, are now dependent on water tankers pumping from nearby villages.

Palur said El Nino, a natural phenomenon that affects weather patterns worldwide, and the city has received less rainfall in recent years, means the “recharging of groundwater levels did not happen as expected.” A new piped water supply from the Cauvery River, about 100 kilometers (60 miles) from the city, has also not been completed, adding to the crisis, he said.

Another concern is that paved surfaces cover almost 90% of the city, preventing rainwater from seeping down and being stored in the ground, says TV Ramachandra, research scientist at the Center for Ecological Sciences at the Bengaluru-based Indian Institute of Science . The city has lost almost 70% of its green cover in the past fifty years, he says.

Ramachandra compared the city’s water shortage to the 2018 ‘day zero’ water crisis in Cape Town, South Africa, when that city came dangerously close to turning off most taps due to drought.

The Indian government estimated in 2018 that by the end of the decade, more than 40% of Bengaluru’s residents will not have access to drinking water. Only those who receive piped water from rivers outside Bengaluru continue to get a regular supply.

“Right now everyone is drilling wells in buffer zones of lakes. That is not the solution,” Ramachandra said.

He said the city should instead focus on recharging the more than 200 lakes across the city, stop new lake construction, encourage rainwater harvesting and increase green cover in the city.

“Only if we do this can we solve the city’s water problem,” he said.

Palur added that identifying other sources and using them smartly, for example by reusing treated wastewater in the city “so that demand for fresh water decreases,” could also help.

Until then, some residents are taking serious measures. S. Prasad, who lives with his wife and two children in a 230-apartment housing society, said they have started water rationing.

“Since last week, we have closed the water supply to homes for eight hours every day, starting at 10am. Residents should store water in containers or do whatever they need within the allotted time. We also plan to install water meters soon,” he said.

Prasad said their housing society, like many others in Bengaluru, is willing to pay high charges for water, but even then it is difficult to find suppliers.

“This water shortage not only affects our work but also our daily lives,” Prasad said. “If things become more dire, we will have no option but to temporarily leave Bengaluru.”

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Sibi Arasu on X: @sibi123

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