Lovely climate? Read this before you move to B'lore

Half the city is dependent on groundwater, but a large number of borewells have run dry.  (Tarun Kumar Sahu/Mint)
Half the city is dependent on groundwater, but a large number of borewells have run dry. (Tarun Kumar Sahu/Mint)


  • For young professionals in India, Bengaluru is the city of dreams. However, in the last few years, the city has faced a series of urban challenges. The latest is a severe water crisis. How did it get so bad?

Bengaluru: In mid-2023, Vikas and Shruti Jha decided to return to India, after living in Singapore for nearly 13 years. They were torn between Mumbai, Kolkata and Bengaluru as the city of choice. Though the couple, in their mid-40s, had their families in Mumbai and Kolkata, they eventually picked Bengaluru, sometimes called the ‘garden city’ because of how leafy the city is, or was.

Mumbai seemed too rushed in pace and involved long hours of commute. Kolkata was laid-back but with not many job opportunities. Bengaluru, Karnataka’s capital, sat in the middle. Over the last many decades, the city, once dotted with cottages and lakes, metamorphosed into India’s Silicon Valley, crowded with rows and rows of shiny corporate towers. A good work culture, cosmopolitan vibe, a buzzing pub and eating out scene, and pleasant weather makes it rather attractive. For the Jhas, Bengaluru was the city of dreams.

Vikas landed a job in a financial services firm in the city while Shruti, an interior designer, decided to freelance. They rented a two-bedroom apartment at Prestige Shantiniketan, a premium gated community in the city’s Whitefield neighbourhood. They moved in November.

Earlier this month, the couple got a wake-up call.

The Prestige Shantiniketan Apartment Owners Welfare Association informed residents of water shortage, due to which the swimming pool would be partly operational, and the sauna would shut down. Contracts with tanker operators that supply water were terminated due to poor quality. Without a direct and dedicated supply of Cauvery water—the Cauvery river is Bengaluru’s lifeline but many neighbourhoods don’t get supplies from the river yet—it shares water connection with the adjoining Prestige Shantiniketan office complex.

The association is now contemplating installing water metres for each apartment. If the situation worsens, water rationing may be done, with some towers witnessing outages for a few hours, it said.

D.K. Shivakumar, deputy chief minister of Karnataka.
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D.K. Shivakumar, deputy chief minister of Karnataka. (PTI)

“Honestly, we didn’t anticipate this situation at all. We had heard of the 2022 floods in the city, but we didn’t expect a water crisis," Shruti Jha said. “Our association is trying to get additional water supply. Not just us, most of the housing societies where our friends live are facing a similar shortage and are rationing water," she added.

Mint has reviewed the messages the association sent to residents. A committee member didn’t respond to a clarification this publication sought.

While the Jhas imagined Bengaluru as the city of dreams, the metropolis, with 13.5 million people, has faced a series of urban challenges of late. Some of the city’s lakes have foamed or have no water; there’s inadequate public transportation and endless traffic snarls in some corridors; unabated construction creates dirt and noise pollution; when it rains, the roads get waterlogged. The water shortage crisis is the latest but one that’s worrying citizens the most.

A chain of events led to this point. Bengaluru faced a sub-par monsoon in 2023 and received little rain since November. The water supply from the Cauvery river is simply not enough for the millions of households. Half the city is dependent on groundwater, but a large number of borewells have run dry. Deputy chief minister of Karnataka, D.K. Shivakumar, told reporters in Bengaluru recently that out of 13,900-odd borewells in Bengaluru, about 6,900 have become defunct. Water tankers draw water from the borewells but they can’t keep up with the high demand and have hiked rates.

Parched banks of Nallurahalli lake, located on the eastern edges of Bengaluru.
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Parched banks of Nallurahalli lake, located on the eastern edges of Bengaluru. (Reuters)

Karnataka, meanwhile, is facing a severe drought.

“In the last 30-40 years, we haven’t seen such drought. Though there was drought earlier, we had never declared such a large number of taluks as drought-affected," Shivakumar told scribes.

Karnataka has declared drought in 223 out of the state’s 240 taluks.

But not all of this is nature’s fury. Bengaluru’s civic infrastructure simply hasn’t kept pace with the constant stream of people migrating to live and work in the city. Their dream can turn into a nightmare, going ahead.

The deficit

Like we mentioned earlier, Bengaluru predominantly depends on water from the Cauvery river, pumped from 100km away. The river supplies 1,460 million litres per day (MLD), as per estimates by the Bengaluru Water Supply and Sewerage Board (BWSSB), the agency responsible for sewage disposal and water supply. BWSSB, today, supplies water to nearly one million households in the city. However, this is well short of the current demand—estimated at around 2,100 MLD.

This deficit is met by borewell connections and tankers supplying borewell water. But now, like Shivakumar says, even borewells have run out of water.

File photo of Cauvery basin.
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File photo of Cauvery basin. (HT)

A 2023 report by research organization WELL Labs titled ‘How water flows through Bengaluru: Urban water balance report’ stated that in addition to the 1,460 MLD, largely used for residential purposes, the city consumes an estimated 1,372 MLD of groundwater. This would include industrial, commercial and construction establishments. So, the deficit between demand and the supply of river water is even worse.

A new pipeline is in the works. “Once the Cauvery water supply stage V pipeline is operationalized by May, it will pump an additional 775 MLD to 110 villages in the suburbs," said a BWSSB official, who didn’t wish to be named.

But, May is still many weeks away.

What led to this?

The BBC, in 2018, carried a report listing 11 cities across the globe that were likely to run out of drinking water, including Cape Town and Beijing. Bengaluru was the only Indian city on the list. Not a single lake had suitable water for drinking, the report noted.

In fact, Indian experts have been warning of the coming water shortage for years.

In 2016, T.V. Ramachandra, a professor from the Centre for Ecological Sciences at the Indian Institute of Science, had cautioned that Bengaluru would be unlivable by 2020 due to rapid and senseless urbanization.

“Water shortage in the city has been building up. The current situation is a consequence of years of unplanned concretization, loss of green cover, encroachment of lakes along with climate change and droughts," Ramachandra told Mint.

People stand in a queue with water cans for  drinking water at subsidised rates amid the ongoing water crisis in Bengaluru.
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People stand in a queue with water cans for drinking water at subsidised rates amid the ongoing water crisis in Bengaluru. (AFP)

In the 1970s, Bengaluru had 68% green cover, and 8% of the surface was paved. Now, 86% of the surface is concretized and the green cover has shrunk to 3%, Ramachandra estimated.

“This pace of concretization has reduced porous surface area and restricted rainwater from entering the lower layers of the grounds, as a result of which the groundwater table cannot be recharged," he said.

Many people are often perplexed at the two extremes—at the height of summer, borewells and lakes dry up, and tankers supply water from afar. When it rains, large parts of the city face severe flooding. But these problems are interconnected, stated the WELL Labs report.

Bengaluru is located on a ridge, with a series of valleys acting as water conduits to rivers such as Cauvery. Lakes were built across these valleys and floodwater flowed through them. When the valleys were encroached upon, the flow of rainwater was impeded causing flooding and stagnation in these areas. Similarly, with a limited supply of fresh water piped from Cauvery, the city’s groundwater table has been over-exploited. Many of the lakes, which help in groundwater recharging, remain unusable.

The current situation is a consequence of years of unplanned concretization and encroachment of lakes. —T.V. Ramachandra

“Extraction, pumping and usage of water continued without any special protocol or judicious distribution. As a result, it reached a tipping point, when borewells ran out of water," Raj Bhagat Palanichamy, senior programme manager, GeoAnalytics, at WRI India, another research organisation, said.

“Water is there but is limited. This makes it costly. Desiltation process is on-going in many lakes, which means water couldn’t be stored," he added.

Desilting removes sediment from a water body to restore its natural capacity.

Less-than-average rainfall last year, and no rain in many months, exacerbated the water shortage with no replenishment of groundwater.

Fines and threats

After the public outcry, the state has stepped in. BWSSB, last week, introduced fines, beginning at 5,000, for non-essential use of potable water, including for gardening and car washing. It has also threatened legal action against those drilling unauthorized borewells within city limits.

In addition, the Karnataka government has capped water tanker prices based on distance travelled to avoid customers being overcharged. A 12,000 litre water tanker will cost 1,000 to travel a 5-km distance; if it has to travel between 5-10km, 1,200 can be charged. The state government has stated that many tanker companies were operating illegally and began charging as much as 5,000- 6,000 per tanker when the water shortage crisis erupted.

To curb such practices, the government has made it mandatory for the private water tankers in the city—there are over 3,500—to register with the civic body.

In the medium term, a private marketplace to buy and sell treated waste water may come up, Vikram Rai, president of Bangalore Apartments Federation (BAF), said. Around 1,300 housing associations, including 300,000 households, are registered with BAF.

New guidelines around this are expected from the government soon, Rai added. A housing society, with a sewage treatment plant (STP) that treats water, can sell excess water to external parties. Treated water can be sold to agencies like BWSSB, other housing societies without STPs, or the civic body. It can then be used to water parks, or even construction sites.

Home advisories

Housing societies, meanwhile, are shooting advisories to residents on how to save water.

On 6 March, residents at Purva Graces, a gated community in north Bengaluru’s Amruthahalli area, received a message that underlined the severity of the crisis. The vendor’s borewell supplying to the complex had gone dry. The complex receives Cauvery water only thrice a week. “The committee has decided to use rain water harvesting tanks to store water. We request all residents not to waste water," the message stated.

A ‘water conservation alert’ message by Prestige Wellington Park in Jalahalli, stated that BWSSB had abruptly reduced water pressure in its supply, impacting the quantity of water. The property manager will henceforth monitor use of water by residents, the notice further said.

Housing societies and businesses in Bengaluru have started monitoring their water usage now.
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Housing societies and businesses in Bengaluru have started monitoring their water usage now. (Mint)

Meanwhile, a number of gated communities have said no to Holi parties this year and urged residents to not play with water. “Adjustments have to be made. It’s not business as usual. But the government also has to do the needful," Vikram Rai of BAF said.

Bengaluru has been one of the biggest beneficiaries of India’s on-going residential real estate boom. Around 63,980 homes were sold in the city last year, 29% more than 2022. This year, Anarock Property Consultants expects roughly 51,680 units to be completed in Bengaluru. When people start living in these apartments, it would only add to the stress.

“Bengaluru has seen a massive growth in the number of houses. Yet, a lot needs to be done on the infrastructure front," said Saurabh Garg, founder and chief business officer at proptech company NoBroker. The company, through its society management app NoBrokerHood, is building content to convey good practices in water usage through push notifications to residents.

Restaurants mostly have borewells of their own, many of which have gone dry. —Chethan Hegde

It is collaborating with housing societies to install water sensors in overhead tanks or digital water metres to monitor consumption.

Businesses, meanwhile, are also stressing on water conservation. The Bengaluru chapter of the National Restaurants Association of India (NRAI), an industry body, is advising member restaurants to curb the usage of water in various ways. Dry mopping and drinking water served only on request are two of them.

“Restaurants mostly have borewells of their own, many of which have gone dry. Those that get Cauvery supply can’t reply on it entirely because it’s not uninterrupted," Chethan Hegde, the Bengaluru chapter head of the association, said.

Water literacy

The privileged don’t always understand that some resources are finite. They need to be mindful of how they use these resources, including water.

S. Vishwanath, advisor, Biome Environmental Trust, a non-profit, said that a key step is to create water literacy—people must know the source of water, where it goes after usage, how much we consume, the cost of production, and the price we pay.

Treatment of water, enforcing rainwater harvesting systems and installing sewage treatment plants would be critical, going forward.

“Treated water can be a good source for non-potable purposes. We are hopefully learning how important lakes are to both managing droughts and floods. Lake rejuvenation is critical, as is rainwater harvesting and we need to do a lot more," he said.

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