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"How Can Bengaluru Address Drinking Water Scarcity for Sustainable Future?"

Updated: Apr 25




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Abstract


Bengaluru, the Silicon Valley of India is also called the city of lakes. Since no perennial rivers are flowing through the city, a vast network of infrastructure has been developed to store water and thereby, meet the needs of its citizens. This construction of water infrastructure dates back to 1537 AD when Kempe Gowda I initiated the construction of 3 lakes, viz Sampangi, Karanji, and Agrahara lakes.


This was a catchment-based hydrological regime that was further expanded during the British era of urban development. But, the city has now been facing acute water scarcity for many years.


Access to clean drinking water remains a pressing challenge in many cities across India, disproportionately affecting the health and well-being of millions of residents. In the context of Bangalore, clean drinking water scarcity has emerged as a critical challenge, particularly in its rapidly expanding urban areas. To put things into perspective, approximately 6,900 out of 13,900 borewells have run dry, despite some being drilled to depths of 1,500 feet. That is the extent of the water scarcity.  


This research paper examines the multifaceted dimensions of water scarcity in Bangalore. It delves into the intricate interplay of unsustainable water management, socioeconomic factors, policy inefficiencies, etc. that threatens the well-being of its residents. The paper proposes strategic recommendations to address these challenges, on various fronts viz Policy level, Community level, Technology level, and Financing front.

 



1.Introduction


Urbanization is the process wherein towns flourish and grow into cities. This brings economic growth and employment opportunities. This encourages people to migrate from the rural to the urban areas. The pattern of urbanization in India is the concentration of population and activities in large cities, triggered by urban pull and rural push. Bengaluru or Bangalore, known as the “Silicon Valley of India”, has seen rapid urbanization. This can be gauged from the city’s built-up area in 1973 was just 8% and stood at 93.3% in 2023. Unplanned urbanization at such a massive pace caused a direct ecological impact on green cover as well as water bodies. The direct impact of this is seen as a severe water crisis in Bengaluru every summer, which is in stark contrast to reports of floods during the monsoon season every few years. Though the issue has been lingering for a long time, it was first in 2017, when the government acknowledged the seriousness of the issue and started calling the issue a crisis.


As per the data by WELL Labs of supply vs demand, supply is 1460 Million Litres per day (MLD) from the Cauvery River vs demand of 2632 MLD. Of this, domestic demand alone is 1890 MLD which is more than the supply.


This figure shows the water distribution in Bengaluru. As seen here, half of the domestic demand is fulfilled by groundwater only. Let’s delve deeper into the core issues to understand the intricacies of challenges and thereby offer viable recommendations to tackle them.




2.Issues


2.1 Neglected and Depleting Lakes and Water Bodies


Since Bengaluru does not have perennial rivers flowing through it, the city primarily relied on man-made tanks and lakes till 1896. Bangalore Water Supply and Sewerage Board (BWSSB) then implemented the Cauvery Water Scheme in stages to draw more water to meet the needs. Bengaluru's lake network, overseen by the Bruhat Bengaluru Mahanagara Palike (BBMP), comprises 173 lakes spread across three valleys in cascading chains. This interconnected system plays a crucial role in urban flood management, designed to accommodate surpluses by facilitating the cascading flow of water from one lake to another.


Originally, these lakes filled during the monsoon season, serving as natural flood buffers during periods of heavy rainfall. However, rapid urbanization has altered the composition of inflows into these lakes. Urbanization brings about increased impervious surfaces such as roads, buildings, and pavements, which reduce the amount of rainwater that can percolate into the ground and replenish the lakes naturally. Additionally, urbanization often leads to the diversion of stormwater into drainage systems, which discharge into the lakes along with untreated or partially treated wastewater from urban areas.


This leads to water runoff from urban areas, altering their natural hydrological balance. Moreover, it has also severed the channels connecting these lakes. Hence, overflows don't flow to other lakes but rather cause flooding in the urban areas. This creates an imbalance.




This is the map of tanks and streams carefully built in the early 20th century based on the altitude for the water to flow from north to south across Bengaluru. Today, approximately 98% of these tanks and lakes are encroached on illegally where not just private but also government buildings and airports have been built.



2.2Groundwater Depletion


Bengaluru is situated on a fractured hard rock aquifer, which means that although the rock itself may be impermeable, it is intersected by fractures, joints, or faults that create pathways for groundwater flow. These fractures act as conduits, allowing water to percolate into the aquifer and travel through the subsurface. Hence, land cover and soil heavily determine the recharge rates. Groundwater levels in Bangalore are declining at an alarming rate, with some areas experiencing groundwater depletion of up to 3 meters per year (Groundwater Depletion in Bangalore: Causes and Consequences, 2018). There are 2 main reasons for groundwater depletion: Loss of catchment area and illegal borewells.


2.2.1Loss of catchment area


As seen in the figure below, the built-up area has increased from merely 8% in 1973 to 93.3% in 2023. Vegetation loss stands at 88%. Thus, groundwater replenishments are severely impacted. After research, it was found that natural recharge is only 183 MLD, the rest being runoff into stormwater drains which eventually goes into the lakes as untreated water instead of infiltrating into the ground recharging the aquifers.





2.2.2Illegal Borewells


BWSSB's public water supply is limited to central areas of Bengaluru, neglecting the rapidly growing outskirts areas that are now part of the city. Moreover, with the concentration of population increasing, the water supply where available is not adequate. BWSSB estimates that around 45% of the water supplied through the piped network is lost due to leaks and unauthorized connections. Moreover, the piped water network suffers from inadequate maintenance, leading to frequent breakdowns and disruptions in water supply. Hence, people have started digging bore wells for their water requirements.


The below figure shows how the extraction of groundwater is far exceeding the availability in both, rural and urban areas. The extraction is more on account of the deep borewells that are dug to extract as much water stored as possible.





2.3Lack of Sewage Treatments


The lack of adequate sewage treatment infrastructure in Bangalore significantly contributes to water pollution and scarcity issues. According to the Central Pollution Control Board (CPCB), only about 30% of the sewage generated in Bangalore is treated before being discharged into water bodies ("Central Pollution Control Board Report). Approximately 90% of the lakes are fed with untreated industrial contaminants. Approximately half of the water entering the lakes consists of treated and untreated wastewater, rendering the water unusable. These lakes have been used by public agencies and private agencies for the easy dumping of industrial hazardous waste, poultry waste, slaughter waste, hospital waste, household waste, building debris, and bio-medical waste.


A study conducted by the Bangalore Water Supply and Sewerage Board (BWSSB) found that approximately 20% of the city's population resides in unauthorized settlements, which often discharge untreated sewage directly into stormwater drains. This eventually flows into nearby tanks or lakes, further contaminating the water.

 

Many studies on the lake water quality have found high levels of phosphate, sulfate, lead, calcium, alkalies, copper, zinc, etc., which make the water very hard. The lead content in Bellandur Lake is 1,590 times more than the permissible limits, and the mercury levels are 200 times higher. Similarly, the nitrate level in the Varthur tank is 6 times more than the normal level.


Thus, these are the primary issues that have caused the water crisis in Bengaluru. Here are some recommendations to tackle the same.




3.Recommendations


As urbanization accelerates and water resources become scarcer, Bengaluru faces a critical juncture in its water management journey. After meticulously analyzing the challenges related to neglected lakes, groundwater depletion, and inadequate sewage treatment, this section presents a comprehensive set of recommendations that span policy, community engagement, technology, and financing. These strategies aim not only to mitigate the existing crisis but also to build a resilient and sustainable water ecosystem for the city. Let’s dive into the specifics.



3.1Policy Recommendations


3.1.1Comprehensive Urban Water Management Policy


Today, there is a need for further planning. BWSSB considers regulating the water supply from the Cauvery River as its primary objective. Hence, the entire planning of the government revolves around it ignoring the most crucial detail, that about 40% of the water needs of the city today are taken care of by groundwater. There is an urgent need to develop a comprehensive water management policy, that prioritizes the restoration, conservation, and sustainable management of lakes, groundwater, and sewage resources in Bangalore.


This policy needs to integrate all aspects of water use, conservation, and treatment. The government needs to set up a task force to understand the requirements at the ward level, and to gauge the water requirements. In fact, the Pune Municipal Corporation (PMC) went a step ahead and established Ward-level Water Management Committees to decentralize water management and enhance community participation in addressing local water issues. It then needs to integrate the data on water being sourced from the Cauvery River and the groundwater to effectively distribute the water across the city. Moreover, as seen in the below image, the water supply lines by BWSSB still do not cover the periphery and are not dense in central parts of Bengaluru. This network needs to be further expanded to keep illegal borewell usage in check.




3.1.2Sewage Treatment Policy


A comprehensive sewage treatment policy is an urgent need of the hour to address the lack of treatment infrastructure in Bangalore. This policy should prioritize the expansion and modernization of sewage treatment facilities, establish effluent discharge standards, and mandate compliance with pollution control regulations.


24% of the city's net wastewater remains untreated. 63% of treated wastewater is treated centrally, whereas 13% is treated at decentralized plants. However, only 30% of the city's total wastewater is utilized. There is a significant opportunity for expanding the treatment infrastructure. This could help with a variety of activities, including development, improving public areas, and reducing demand for freshwater resources.

The Tamil Nadu Urban Sanitation Support Programme (TNUSSP) serves as an exemplary model to illustrate the potential benefits of expanding wastewater treatment infrastructure in Bengaluru. It is a collaborative initiative between the Government of Tamil Nadu and the World Bank aimed at improving urban sanitation and wastewater management in select cities across Tamil Nadu, including Chennai. By expanding treatment infrastructure and enhancing the capacity to treat wastewater, TNUSSP seeks to address the issue of untreated wastewater, promote the reuse of treated wastewater, and improve overall urban sanitation.




The enormous amount of wastewater is an underutilized resource, capable of reducing freshwater use and improving water resilience during seasons of low rainfall. Sectors like watering the city’s green spaces, the construction industry, and aquifer recharge can substitute fresh water with treated wastewater.


3.1.3Groundwater Management Legislation


Groundwater management legislation needs to be enacted to promote sustainable groundwater management practices. This should include groundwater abstraction permits, recharge mandates, and aquifer protection zones to regulate groundwater extraction and prevent over-exploitation. The policy should also encourage the adoption of water-efficient technologies, and promote rainwater harvesting. As seen in the below picture, which shows variations in groundwater levels between 2022 and 2023, groundwater is currently being extracted at an unprecedented rate.




Although Rainwater Harvesting has been made mandatory in all the buildings by a recent BWSSB Amendment Bill in 2021 for all sites measuring 60 x 40ft and 30 x 40ft sites (new connections), it is either seeing poor enforcement on the ground as per data from BWSSB or the water collected is being stored privately for personal use, thereby having little to no effect on the water table. Thus, the rainwater harvested needs to be connected to all the tanks and lakes for their rejuvenation.


Moreover, the desilting process needs to be carried out for the majority of the lakes. As per the latest data, taking the example of Bellandur Lake, it had 25 lakh cubic meters of silt, out of which, though 12 lakh was taken out, only 2.2 lakh was transported. Rest remains at the site.




Apart from this, a new geological survey needs to be carried out to find the lost lakes and tanks and remove the partial encroachments wherever they exist. Moreover, water quality needs to be kept in check after the restoration of the lakes. An IISc research team monitored 40 restored lakes in Bengaluru. They found only 4 lakes having ‘good’ water quality, 15 lakes having ‘poor’ water quality, and the rest having ‘very poor’ quality. Moreover, the restored lakes continued to receive untreated sewage and industrial contaminants, defeating the purpose of restoration as the water became unusable.



3.2 Community Level


3.2.1Lake Conservation Initiatives


Historically, the majority of the tanks and lakes in Bengaluru have been maintained by the collaboration of the community as well as the government. Today, a high level of community engagement needs to be started to not just raise awareness about water conservation and lake protection, but also various community drives need to be taken up, involving local communities, NGOs, and citizen groups for lake restoration projects. Clean-up drives need to be organized to instill a sense of responsibility among the citizens.


Moreover, corporates can be urged to adopt the lakes in their vicinity. This will ensure the thorough monitoring and continuous maintenance of the lakes. For example, Infosys Foundation successfully redeveloped Hebbal Lake by spending Rs. 107 Crores and another tank by spending Rs. 9 Crores. Today, this lake and tank are fully brimming with clean potable water fit for consumption. This shows the success of just 1 firm, and if expanded, can result in a huge change in the landscape of the water bodies of Bengaluru.

 

3.2.2Groundwater Recharge and Community level Sewage Treatment


Community participation needs to be encouraged in groundwater recharge programs by promoting rainwater harvesting, decentralized recharge structures, and community-based watershed management initiatives. Local residents, NGOs, and government agencies can collaborate to identify suitable recharge sites, mobilize resources, and monitor project outcomes to ensure their effectiveness and sustainability. Even if 50% of the rain that Bengaluru receives annually is harvested, it will result in 1500 MLD, which is more than the supply of the Cauvery River of 1460 MLD.


Moreover, community-led sewage treatment solutions can be facilitated through decentralized treatment systems and community-based sanitation initiatives. Decentralized sewage treatment plants should be adopted in residential colonies, apartment complexes, and peri-urban areas for reusing wastewater, thereby conserving water as much as possible. This includes reusing water for toilet flushing, construction, floor washing, and cooling.


Today, many corporations in Bengaluru have installed private sewage treatment plants. For example, Infosys and Wipro reuse 100% of their wastewater. Walmart uses STP (Sewage Treatment Plant) for flushing toilets. Brookefield properties of Eco World and Eco Space tech parks currently house 60 corporate offices. These offices have STPs installed by default for toilet flushing, cooling towers, and landscaping. This can be expanded further to various housing societies and other tech parks for maximum impact.



3.3 Technology Level


3.3.1Advanced Sewage Treatment Solutions


As of the present, Bengaluru faces significant challenges in sewage treatment due to insufficient infrastructure and outdated facilities. The Bangalore Water Supply and Sewerage Board (BWSSB) oversees sewage treatment in the city, operating several sewage treatment plants (STPs) across different zones. However, the existing infrastructure is inadequate to meet the growing demands of the city's expanding population and urbanization.


The major STPs in Bengaluru include the ones at Vrishabhavathi Valley, Koramangala-Challaghatta Valley, and Hebbal Valley, among others. These plants utilize conventional treatment processes such as activated sludge, oxidation ponds, and tertiary treatment for effluent discharge. However, many of these plants are operating beyond their designed capacity, leading to inefficiencies, odor issues, and the discharge of partially treated effluent into water bodies.

 

There is a critical need to expand the capacity and upgrade the technology of existing sewage treatment plants to meet the growing demands of Bengaluru's population. This includes investing in advanced treatment processes such as membrane bioreactors, sequential batch reactors, and advanced oxidation systems to improve effluent quality and comply with regulatory standards. Additionally, retrofitting existing plants with odor control systems, sludge management facilities, and energy recovery units can enhance operational efficiency and environmental sustainability.


IoT (Internet of Things) sensors and predictive analytics platforms can be implemented to monitor key parameters such as flow rates, biochemical oxygen demand (BOD), and total suspended solids (TSS). Utilize data-driven insights to optimize plant operations, diagnose equipment failures, and optimize chemical dosing for enhanced treatment performance.


3.3.2Smart Water Management Systems


Bengaluru faces numerous challenges in managing its water resources effectively, necessitating the adoption of smart water management systems. Currently, the city's water management infrastructure is largely traditional and manual, relying on outdated systems for monitoring, distribution, and consumption tracking.


Smart metering systems can be implemented for real-time monitoring of water consumption at the household, commercial, and industrial levels. Advanced metering infrastructure (AMI) and Internet of Things (IoT) sensors need to be deployed to collect data on water usage patterns, detect leaks, and identify anomalies in consumption. Smart meters can be integrated with billing systems to enable accurate billing, water conservation incentives, and demand-side management programs


Moreover, GIS-based mapping tools, dashboards, and decision support systems should be developed to visualize water resources, identify vulnerable areas, and prioritize interventions. This will establish data platforms to centralize and analyze water-related data from various sources, including metering systems, weather stations, and groundwater monitoring networks. Predictive analytics and machine learning algorithms can be utilized to forecast water demand, optimize water allocation, and mitigate water-related risks.


For example, Infosys and Wipro have already deployed smart water meters to identify leakages in their water pipelines. Brookefield properties have installed aerators and low flow and sensor-based taps to reduce water wastage.


Smart irrigation systems should be adopted for efficient water use in landscaping, agriculture, and urban green spaces. Weather-based irrigation controllers, soil moisture sensors, and drip irrigation systems should be installed to optimize watering schedules, reduce water waste, and conserve groundwater resources.



3.4 Financing Recommendations


3.4.1Green Bonds and Impact Investments


Green bonds and impact investment present innovative financing mechanisms that can be leveraged to support sustainable water management initiatives in Bengaluru. These instruments offer opportunities to attract private capital, mobilize resources, and finance water-related projects that generate environmental and social benefits. Green bonds are financial instruments specifically earmarked to fund environmentally sustainable projects. Bengaluru Municipal Corporation can issue green bonds to raise capital for water infrastructure projects such as sewage treatment plants, decentralized wastewater treatment systems, and rainwater harvesting initiatives. These bonds would appeal to socially responsible investors seeking to support projects that address water scarcity, pollution, and climate change resilience.


Impact investment involves allocating capital to projects that generate positive social and environmental impacts alongside financial returns. Bengaluru can attract impact investors to finance water conservation initiatives, such as watershed restoration, afforestation, and wetland conservation projects. Impact investment funds, venture capital firms, and philanthropic organizations can provide patient capital and technical assistance to support community-led water stewardship efforts.


3.4.2Public-Private Partnerships (PPP)


Partnerships can be fostered between the municipal corporation, the private sector, and the impact investors to develop innovative water management solutions. Structuring public-private partnerships (PPPs) with impact investors can facilitate the design, financing, and implementation of water infrastructure projects with a focus on environmental sustainability and social inclusiveness. Impact investors can contribute expertise, capital, and governance structures to PPPs, enhancing their effectiveness and scalability.


For example, PPP models have been used for solid waste management projects in Bengaluru and Delhi, where private companies are engaged in waste collection, transportation, processing, and disposal. This has been largely a big success. Hence, such a model can be explored further for use by BWSSB for water conservation.


3.4.3User Fees and Tariffs


User fees and tariffs for water use provide a sustainable revenue stream for maintaining water infrastructure, promoting conservation, and ensuring equitable access to clean water. Here are some key avenues:


●       Metered Water Pricing: Implementing metered water pricing based on actual consumption is a common approach to ensure fairness and efficiency in water billing. Residential, commercial, and industrial water users are charged based on the volume of water consumed, as recorded by water meters installed at their premises. Metered water pricing encourages conservation by linking water use directly to costs and provides incentives for consumers to adopt water-saving measures.

 

●       Block Tariffs: Currently, block tariffs have been implemented for electricity in Bengaluru and a similar mechanism can be adopted for water usage. Utilize block tariff structures where the unit cost of water increases with higher levels of consumption. This progressive pricing approach incentivizes water conservation by charging higher rates for excessive usage while providing lifeline water quantities at lower rates for basic needs. Block tariffs can be tailored to different user categories (e.g., households, industries, commercial establishments) to reflect their varying water requirements and affordability.

 

●       Seasonal Pricing: Introduce seasonal pricing mechanisms to reflect fluctuations in water demand and availability throughout the year. Higher tariffs can be applied during peak demand periods, such as summer months when water usage typically increases due to irrigation, gardening, and recreational activities. Seasonal pricing encourages consumers to adjust their water use behavior in response to changing conditions and promotes efficient water management practices.




4.Conclusion


In conclusion, the examination of clean drinking water scarcity in Bengaluru has revealed a complex interplay of challenges stemming from rapid urbanization, inadequate infrastructure, and unsustainable water management practices. However, amidst these challenges lies an opportunity for proactive intervention and strategic planning. The recommendations outlined in this paper offer a roadmap for addressing the root causes of clean drinking water scarcity in Bengaluru. By prioritizing comprehensive lake management, groundwater replenishment measures, and sewage treatment infrastructure upgrades, the Bengaluru Municipal Corporation can lay the foundation for a more resilient and sustainable water future. Through concerted efforts across public, private, and civil society sectors, Bengaluru can overcome its water challenges and emerge as a model for effective urban water management.


In essence, while the path ahead may be challenging, it is not insurmountable. By embracing a holistic and inclusive approach to water management, Bengaluru can safeguard its precious water resources, enhance the quality of life for its residents, and build a resilient and sustainable city for generations to come.

 



Meet The Thought Leader



Laboni is a mentor at GGI and is currently working at The Bridgespan Group as a Senior Associate Consultant. She takes interest in socioeconomic development issues, public policy, and equity across different vectors of gender, caste, class, and ability, which in turn fuelled her transition from working at a global bank to the social sector. She is an Urban Fellow from the Indian Institute for Human Settlements, Bangalore and has a bachelor's degree in Economics from St. Stephen's College, University of Delhi.




Meet The Authors (GGI Fellows)



Abhishek Koranne is a dynamic professional at the forefront of digital transformation, currently leveraging his expertise as a Management Trainee at HSBC. With a Bachelor's degree in Computer Engineering complemented by an MBA in General Management from NMIMS Mumbai, Abhishek brings a potent blend of technical acumen and strategic vision to his role. Throughout his career, Abhishek has garnered invaluable experience across diverse industries, having previously held positions at Baker Hughes and TCS. He has led 10-15 member teams and enhanced operational efficiencies by 50%. In addition to his professional endeavours, Abhishek is deeply committed to nurturing talent and fostering entrepreneurship. He mentored 3 high school students and guided them to secure funding for their ventures. As an ambitious and results-driven professional, Abhishek aspires to ascend to decision-making positions within leading organizations, where he can effect positive change on a global scale.



If you are interested in applying to GGI's Impact Fellowship program, you can access our application link here.


 

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