Lessons from Bengaluru’s water crisis

Balancing development ambitions with changing climate key

Once upon a time, Bengaluru was called the city of lakes. Today rampant urbanisation has decimated the lakes and the city is staring at an alarming water management crisis. Bengaluru, historically reliant on its lakes and reservoirs due to its challenging geography and scarce rainfall, is now grappling with its worst drought in 40 years. The city’s rapid expansion has ironically led to the destruction of the very water bodies that fuelled its growth, with the number of lakes plummeting from 1,000 to under 100. This crisis, affecting 7,000 villages, 1,100 wards and 220 talukas, is a stark reminder of the consequences of unplanned urbanisation. The combination of dwindling green spaces, vanishing water bodies, and a falling groundwater table paints a grim picture as the city braces for an even hotter summer.

Today, Bengaluru’s lakes are facing two significant challenges: direct encroachment and diminishing interconnections. This trend has not only increased the city’s susceptibility to drought but has also heightened the risk of flooding, exemplified by the events of 2023. Consequently, Bengaluru now requires Rs2,800 crore to repair a drainage network damaged by uncontrolled urbanisation-induced flooding, highlighting the level of financial damage such crises entail. Furthermore, lakes and stormwater drains have transformed into repositories for sewage discharged from nearby buildings and catchment areas. This has exacerbated their inability to effectively capture rainwater or stormwater, thereby compounding both the ongoing drought crisis and the flooding incident of 2023.

What Bengaluru is currently experiencing is a result of extreme mismanagement of water resources, because of reducing green spaces and a rapidly expanding concrete jungle. The city has seen a 1,055 per cent increase in the built-up areas in the past few decades, shrinking the water surface significantly. The water spread has fallen by a sharp 70 per cent in the last 50 years. Of the few remaining water bodies, a staggering 98 per cent has fallen victim to encroachment, with 90 per cent of them contaminated by untreated sewage or industrial effluents. This has had adverse effects on groundwater recharge rates, exacerbated by the substantial reduction in water coverage. These factors lie at the heart of the current crisis confronting the city.

The exodus of tech professionals from Bengaluru to their hometowns is on the rise as the water crisis in India’s tech hub reaches critical levels, making life in the city unsustainable for many. This massive infrastructural defect, where access to water is limited, can further significantly affect the investments Bengaluru attracts in the future. This can also damage Bengaluru’s reputation as a tech-driven economy, with the potential to affect the real estate market. With more than 50 per cent of borewells now dried up alongside plunging groundwater levels, real estate developers are facing a dilemma, whereby uncertainty surrounding water availability is hampering investor confidence, impacting project timelines and profitability, especially with restricted construction permits.

The city needs to redesign and reinstate water recycling and rainwater harvesting mechanisms. At present, only one-third of the city’s wastewater is repurposed externally, replenishing groundwater and surface water reservoirs. The rest flows into lakes or downstream rivers, representing a vast, unused water resource. This wastewater, if rightly utilised, could substantially reduce freshwater consumption and enhance the city’s water resilience if properly treated.

In the next five to six decades, we will see millions relocating to cities as a consequence of urbanisation. Effective water management should sit at the heart of sustainable urbanisation. Bengaluru’s water crisis is an alarm bell highlighting the vital role of efficient water management in sustainable urbanisation and should be taken as a lesson by other cities. Mindless urban development made Bengaluru steer towards options that weren’t as valuable in the long term while allowing more sustainable, already existing options to wither away. Thus, balancing our development ambitions with the changing climate around us will be key in the years to come as India urbanises.

Author is G20 Sherpa. He is ex-CEO, NITI Aayog.