In today’s Finshots, we explain the water crisis that has engulfed the Silicon Valley of India.

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The Story

“Keregalam Kattu, Marangalam Nedu”


It simply means “Build lakes, plant trees”. And legend has it that was the advice given to the founder of Bengaluru Kempegowda by his mother in the 1500s.

Now it wasn’t an idea she came up with out of the blue. You see, Bengaluru’s landscape had already been through a transition from the 6th century. Back then, it was dry, arid and filled with thorny trees. But rulers at the time decided they would change the terrain. Mould it from a semi-arid landscape to fertile land. They built tanks and streams to trap rainwater and help local communities thrive.

So by the time Kempegowda came to power and laid the foundation for what would become Bengaluru as we know it today, the landscape was already teeming with water bodies. His mother simply advised him to double down on his predecessors’ achievements. So he built at least 100 lakes.

And there was a simple reason to explain this obsession with lakes — Bengaluru did not have a perennial source of water. There wasn’t a river that flowed through the city. Not even the Kaveri which traversed the states of Karnataka and Tamil Nadu but avoided Bengaluru. So the city needed man-made lakes and tanks. And they were built in such a way that when one lake overflowed, it would feed into another lake. Many lakes were interconnected, and this ensured the constant availability of water too.

But that was all a long time ago. Today, Bengaluru’s waterbodies have all but disappeared in the city’s core area — from 1,452 in the 1800s to just 193 waterbodies today.

How did they all disappear, you ask?

Well, it all began with the British.

These colonial rulers set up their military base in the city in 1809. And soon realised that they loved the place. The weather was good, and they felt that it could be the capital of southern India. And when the British came in, they needed more water. The tanks that had been built weren’t enough anymore. And as the population grew, the British decided to set up piped networks to fetch water from places afar. Since water was abundant now, the man-made lakes began to give way to human settlements.

After independence, this apathy towards lakes continued because piped water from the Kaveri River was a given.

So real estate developers lapped them up to build housing and office spaces.

Want an example?

Well, if you’ve ever taken a bus into Bengaluru or away from it, there’s a high chance you boarded it at the Kempegowda Bus Terminus (or what was known as Majestic Bus Stand). It’s bang in the middle of the city. And guess what… till the 1950s, it was actually a big water tank or man-made lake called Dharmambudhi!

It’s crazy to think about it.

But therein lies the rub of today’s problem too.

For starters, some estimates say that Bengaluru needs over 2,600 million litres per day (MLD) of freshwater. And 50% of that comes from the Kaveri River. So when the region experiences a poor monsoon, as it did in 2023, the dams and reservoirs built along its tributaries fall short of their usual inflow. And that has a knock-on effect on Bengaluru.

The other part of the problem is groundwater exploitation.

We’re a trigger-happy nation when it comes to drilling borewells for water. You know, where we drill holes that are often over 1,000 feet into the surface of the earth. We extract water from these deep rock layers known as aquifers. And Bengaluru alone has nearly 14,000 borewells dotted across the city.

The reason for the proliferation of borewells is simple too — the city’s population growth. In the past decade, it’s estimated to have shot up from 10 million people to 16 million at least. And since the city needs water to meet the needs of the burgeoning population, everyone turns to borewells.

But remember that the aquifers deep in the earth have been formed over decades and centuries. And it can only be replenished when we allow water to seep through the soil. But if you look around Bengaluru, you’ll only see a concrete jungle. And nearly 90% of the city is paved surfaces. That means we have a jungle whose land cannot absorb the water anymore.

So even if Bengaluru has a year or two of bountiful rains, it doesn’t move the needle.

So is it really a surprise that 50% of the current borewells have dried up? There is no water left underground because we’re extracting the water faster than it can be replenished.

Anyway, there’s only one question that remains — how on earth can Bengaluru fix this problem?

Well, it's hard. But maybe we could start making a dent on this massive problem by looking at lakes!

See, Madhulika Choudhary, a ‘lake’ activist who revived the Neknampur lake in Hyderabad points out a problem in how Bengaluru attempts to revive lakes. As she told The Week,

“They [Bengaluru] follow a model in which they drain out the lake and then wait for it to get filled through surface run-offs. In my opinion that is not successful. In Hyderabad, we use a different model: we try and fill the lakes/ponds with water that is free of industrial pollution. The water, even domestic sewage, gets purified in the water bodies through processes like phytoremediation. What this does is that it recharges groundwater round the year and not just when the lake is filled through rain or surface run-offs, which no one can predict or be sure of.”

For instance, her NGO set up a ‘floating island’ in the lake in Hyderabad. Think of it as a plank topped off with soil and plants with thermocol and bottles at the base that enable flotation. These plants will help absorb the high nitrogen and phosphorous in the sewage water that’s directed into the lake. It works as a natural purifier. That’s phytoremediation.

And it looks like the folks in Bengaluru heard this too. The authorities have now decided to direct 1,300 MLD of treated water into the lakes. They’re hoping that this will replenish groundwater sources.

But of course, this won’t change the situation overnight. And with the monsoon still at least 100 days away, Bengaluru will have to keep its fingers crossed for an immediate solution.

Until then…

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