Bangalore is India’s Silicon Valley. It’s also running out of water

The manmade Hesaraghatta Lake, outside Bangalore. Image: Nikkul/Wikimedia Commons.

On hot summer days in Bangalore, India, it is common to see public water taps on roadsides hissing and spurting as water struggles to come out. People crowd around the tap with pots of brightly coloured plastic, burnished brass or steel, waiting for their turn. Many of these people have come from homes without such luxuries as indoor plumbing and will return carrying enough water to last several days. More privileged citizens have water piped to their houses in larger quantities – and more frequently. But even for them, interrupted water supply and rationing have always been a fact of daily life.

Bangalore is perhaps one of India’s most globally visible cities, owing to its reputation as India’s Silicon Valley. Corporate buildings and malls with shimmering glass facades vie for space with residential high rises and villas, bolstering the city’s popular image as a vibrant and booming metropolis with an entrepreneurial young population. But informal settlements and slums coexist alongside this image of prosperity, and residents – poor and affluent alike – face the trials of living in a city starved of water: a legacy of colonial policies that relied on vast technological solutions to solve local problems.

Bangalore is not alone in its water woes – cities across the globe struggle to meet water requirements every day. Although Cape Town’s water crisis has eased, residents are still limited to using 50 litres of water each, per day. Other settlements are also affected. In Mexico City, water supply is frequently interrupted while, in Brazil, São Paulo’s main water reserves were below 15 per cent as of 2017. Indonesia’s capital Jakarta, meanwhile, is facing severe groundwater depletion. Droughts are shaped by each city’s development over time – and these recent shortages have shown just how shaky the infrastructure which supplies their water has become.

A history of water

Bangalore tends to be naturally arid, because of its location in the rain shadow of the Western Ghats hill range. Records from the 6th century onwards show that successive rulers of the city invested in creating an interconnected, community-managed system of tanks and open wells. The shallow aquifers of the wells were recharged by the tanks, across an elevation gradient that harvested rainwater.

Since around 1799, different authorities took control of the tanks – first the colonial state, and later on the independent Indian government. These tanks were the main water supply infrastructure for almost a century, though they faltered during periods of drought and famine. To meet the rising demand, the municipal and public works departments considered deepening reservoirs or building new ones. By 1885, the city’s water supply was running low, and the colonial government responded by setting up piped infrastructure, bringing water from sources 30km away including the Hesarghatta and then the TG Halli reservoirs. But none of these fixes could meet demand for very long.

Meanwhile, given the new dependency on piped water infrastructure, the old tanks and wells became disused, polluted or built over. After India gained independence in 1947, the Bangalore Water Supply & Sewerage Board (BWSSB) was established. In response to the city’s water supply issues, the board floated the idea of pumping in water from the river Cauvery – more than 100km upstream from Bangalore. The project started in 1974 and continues to this day, reaching its fifth stage in 2018.


With the threat that water would run out still looming large, authorities have since explored other possibilities. In 2016, the state government proposed to divert water from the Yettinahole river, 300kms from Bangalore. Scientists also explored the feasibility of constructing a reservoir under the Arabian Sea, to impound that water for supply. The central government of India went a step further and considered transferring surplus water from the north flowing river Godavari into the southern Cauvery.

The estimated costs of these large-scale proposals were massivebillions of dollars could be spent without delivering guaranteed water security. Instead, the authorities seek to reallocate limited supplies of water – though even that is done unfairly and unevenly.

Piped water supply systems cater only to central Bangalore, while the outskirts rely on alternatives including domestic bore wells or private water tankers, tapping into and depleting deep groundwater aquifers. These services are typically used by the urban poor, but operated on a for-profit basis, which means they actually come at higher costs than the heavily subsidised centralised water supply system.

An alternative approach

While governments have floundered, Bangalore has seen a resurgence of citizen-led collectives working to protect and rejuvenate the old tanks and open wells – and open them up to poor and disadvantaged citizens. These collectives have also innovated, exploring how treated sewage can contribute to the supply. In Jakkur Lake, for instance, treated sewage is filtered through a human-made wetland and into the lake itself, fostering a healthy ecosystem as well as helping to recharge groundwater.

Initiatives have blossomed online, too: the Facebook page Open wells of India and the world is a place where members can upload photographs of any open wells they encounter, along with their location. By documenting many little known open wells which survive across the city and beyond, it provides a fascinating glimpse into the potential such options hold for harnessing and storing rain water. One particularly poignant image was shared by local man Vishwanath Srikantaiah: a massive open well, recharged by the Jakkur lake.

An open well near Jakkur lake, replenished. Image: S. Vishwanath/Facebook/author provided.

The efforts of Biome, India Cares Foundation and Friends of Lakes – combined with the local expertise of traditional well diggers – have restored seven public wells within the city’s well-known Cubbon Park. Thanks to an approach that combines local knowledge and innovative problem solving, the wells now produce about 65,000 litres of water per day and help to meet the water demands of the park.

The ConversationGrand technological visions have proved incapable of meeting Bangalore’s needs since colonial times. But local, community-led measures to manage and replenish water have a good chance of creating a water-secure, resilient city: an object lesson for those planning cities for the future.

Hita Unnikrishnan, Newton International Fellow, University of Sheffield; Harini Nagendra, Professor of Sustainability, Azim Premji University, and Vanesa Castán Broto, Professorial Fellow, University of Sheffield.

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

 
 
 
 

What’s behind the rise of the ornamental restaurant toilet?

Toilets at Sketch restaurant, London. Image: Nik Stanbridge/Flickr.

A few weeks ago, I found myself in the toilets of a zeitgeisty new Italian restaurant in east London called Gloria. As with so many contemporary restaurant toilets, those in question were an aesthetic extension of the establishment’s soul. The inventive menu was matched by two-way mirrored toilet doors.

The setup was this: cubicle occupants could see out while the unisex crowd milling around the taps could check their outfits on the exterior mirrors. All fun and games, I thought. But then I found myself mid toilet with a guy peering into my door to change his contact lens. Either he had spectacularly bad manners or he was unaware of the two-way door thing. (Let’s hope it’s the latter.)

Gloria’s toilets aren’t unique in their attempt to be distinctive. The loos at nearby Mr Fogg’s Maritime Club & Distillery are adorned with specimen boards of dead spiders. Meanwhile, Edinburgh’s The Sun Inn invites patrons to pee in buckets, and trumpets double as urinals in The Bell Inn in East Sussex. Men can wee into the vista if they’re dining in the Shard. And Sketch’s ovum shaped loos are the stuff of urban legend.

Further afield, transparent doors become frosted only after they’re locked at Brussels’ Belga Queen. In Otto’s Bierhalle in Toronto, diners can press a button to activate their own private rave. And the toilets in Robot Restaurant in Tokyo have gold-plated interiors and dancing robots.

What’s behind this trend? Are quirky toilets just a bit of fun – or an unnecessary complication to the simple act of going for a wee and checking you don’t have tomato sauce on your chin?

Yotam Ottolenghi’s London flagship restaurant Nopi crops up often in conversations about restaurant bathrooms. A hall of mirrors glitters enticingly ahead of loo-bound diners. “The bathroom needs to be the nicest part [of] the whole place because that’s where you’re on your own,” says Alex Meitlis, the designer behind the space.

But no one is truly alone in 2019. If surveys are to be believed, nearly 65 per cent of millennials take their phone to the bathroom with them. Mike Gibson, who edits the London food and drink magazine Foodism agrees that the bathroom selfie – searches for which, incidentally, yield over 1.5m results on Instagram – is part of the reason that contemporary lavatory design is so attention seeking.


“Any new venue that's opening will be super aware that there's probably not an inch of their restaurant that won't be photographed or filmed at some point”, he says. But bathrooms like Nopi’s predate this trend. Indeed, Meitlis believes he has created a haven from the smartphone obsession; Nopi’s mirrors are angled in such a way that means you have to seek out your reflection. “You can choose whether to look for yourself in the mirror or not.”

Another driving force is the increasingly competitive restaurant landscape. “It’s almost like there’s some sort of ever-escalating competition going on amongst new openings, which makes every visit a faintly terrifying experience”, says food writer and New Statesman contributor Felicity Cloake. Gibson agrees. “Restaurants want an edge wherever possible, and design definitely comes into that.”

So novelty bathrooms get you noticed, promote social media engagement and entertain diners who are momentarily without the distraction of company. (Although, it must be said, quirky bathrooms tend to make the loo trip a more sociable experience; a Gloria spokesperson described the restaurant’s toilets as somewhere you can “have a good laugh and meet people along the way.”)

Nevertheless, I’m not the only one who finds bathroom surprises disconcerting.  One TripAdvisor user thought the Belga Queen loos were “scary”. And a friend reports that her wonderment at the Nopi bathroom was laced with mirror maze induced nausea – and mild panic when she realised she didn’t know the way out. Should restaurants save the thrills for the food?

“I think it's important not to be too snarky about these things – restaurants are meant to playful,” says Gibson. Cloake agrees that novelty is fine, but adds: “my favourite are places like Zelman Meats in Soho that have somewhere in the dining room where you can easily wash your hands before sitting down and tucking in.”

So perhaps we should leave toilets unadorned and instead ramp up the ornamentation elsewhere. Until then, I’ll be erecting a makeshift curtain in all mirrored toilets I encounter in future. An extreme reaction, you might say. But, as I wish I could have told the rogue contact lens inserter, it’s not nice to pry into someone else’s business.