Bengaluru: A woman in a crumpled red sari stood in the noonday sun outside a water kiosk in Bengaluru, one of the hundreds Bengaluru’s municipal corporation is planning to open in the coming months.

The initiative is an attempt to solve a perennial problem that many of the Indian cities are trying to address—to provide access to clean, cheap water with the technology know-how provided by Waterhealth, a US-based firm that works in the delivery of clean drinking water.

The initiative is in partnership with Jaldhaara Foundation, the implementing agency of this drive and Tata Trust, which is financing the first 15 centres in Bengaluru.

According to a report by international charity Water Aid, released on 22 March, India has the world’s highest number of people without access to clean water—imposing a major financial burden on people.

The report says 75.8 million Indians, or 5% of the country’s 1.25 billion population, are forced to either buy water at high rates or use supplies that are contaminated with sewage or chemicals.

In cities like Bengaluru, which the Census 2011 called the fastest growing urban area in the country, rapid urbanization coupled with rising pollution levels and shrinking resources have led to a situation where water has become more scarce as well as polluted, say urban experts.

For instance, the woman in the red sari says earlier she had to depend on piped water distribution networks, and the choice she had was either no water or polluted water.

Now this water kiosk will provide her with water just outside her home in a poor lower middle class neighbourhood near the city’s main bus stand, Majestic. WaterHealth is planning to build such kiosks in all of Bengaluru’s 198 wards, from the current and another 50 in the rest of Karnataka within the next 12 months.

These kiosks can supply as much as 14,000 litres of water a day, and can cater to a population of almost 10,000 to 30,000 people in a neighbourhood. The water is priced at 5 for 20 litres, says Vikas Shah, chief operation officer, WaterHealth India.

We have found high levels of contamination in the water in Bengaluru, said Shah. For example, the permissible levels of iron content is 1 ppm (parts per million), but in Bengaluru it ranges from 2-7 ppm, he said.

To be sure, the more immediate problem affecting Bengaluru is acute scarcity of water and its inequal distribution.

Bengaluru consumes 1,800 million litres (MLD) of water per day, according to the Karnataka government. The city gets water almost 24x7, and the supply is augmented by about 400,000 tubewells in the city. However, people in the hinterland aren’t as fortunate.

Farmers have been protesting for the past five months in the city’s northern suburbs like Kolar and Chikballapur. In the first week of March, 10,000-odd farmers from the area showed up on tractors in Bengaluru to protest against the extreme inequity in drinking water distribution.

In North Karnataka, the scarcity has increased due to poor rainfall last year, the worst in nearly half a century. The next monsoon is almost four months away and water crisis has peaked in many regions in the south Indian state that declared 28 of its 30 districts drought-hit last August.

Also, the kiosks will depend on borewells for its operation. Even as Waterhealth claims to discharge back much of this water back to nature after treatment, doubts remain about the efficacy of any solution that relies on groundwater in a city with nearly 400,000 tubewells, all of them unregulated.

As a result of high exploitation, the depth of fresh groundwater has increased from 33 ft in the 1990s to 132 ft in 2015, according to data from the Karnataka Urban Water Supply and Sewerage Board, which the government has admitted is a worrying phenomenon.

The 14,000 litres the kiosks can provide also depends on enough electricity supplied through the power utility. The initiative comes at a time when Bengaluru is facing a power crisis that results in long hours of power cuts.

Which is why the woman in the crumpled red sari had to go back with an empty pot, because by the time she got her chance at the water kiosk, the discharge had gone off as the power had gone in the area.

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