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.

 
 
 
 

A new wave of remote workers could bring lasting change to pricey rental markets

There’s a wide world of speculation about the long-lasting changes to real estate caused by the coronavirus. (Valery Hache/AFP via Getty Images)

When the coronavirus spread around the world this spring, government-issued stay-at-home orders essentially forced a global social experiment on remote work.

Perhaps not surprisingly, people who are able to work from home generally like doing so. A recent survey from iOmetrics and Global Workplace Analytics on the work-from-home experience found that 68% of the 2,865 responses said they were “very successful working from home”, 76% want to continue working from home at least one day a week, and 16% don’t want to return to the office at all.

It’s not just employees who’ve gained this appreciation for remote work – several companies are acknowledging benefits from it as well. On 11 June, the workplace chat company Slack joined the growing number of companies that will allow employees to work from home even after the pandemic. “Most employees will have the option to work remotely on a permanent basis if they choose,” Slack said in a public statement, “and we will begin to increasingly hire employees who are permanently remote.”

This type of declaration has been echoing through workspaces since Twitter made its announcement on 12 May, particularly in the tech sector. Since then, companies including Coinbase, Square, Shopify, and Upwork have taken the same steps.


Remote work is much more accessible to white and higher-wage workers in tech, finance, and business services sectors, according to the Economic Policy Institute, and the concentration of these jobs in some major cities has contributed to ballooning housing costs in those markets. Much of the workforce that can work remotely is also more able to afford moving than those on lower incomes working in the hospitality or retail sectors. If they choose not to report back to HQ in San Francisco or New York City, for example, that could potentially have an effect on the white-hot rental and real estate markets in those and other cities.

Data from Zumper, an online apartment rental platform, suggests that some of the priciest rental markets in the US have already started to soften. In June, rent prices for San Francisco’s one- and two-bedroom apartments dropped more than 9% compared to one year before, according to the company’s monthly rent report. The figures were similar in nearby Silicon Valley hotspots of San Jose, Mountain View, Palo Alto.

Six of the 10 highest-rent cities in the US posted year-over-year declines, including New York City, Los Angeles, and Seattle. At the same time, rents increased in some cheaper cities that aren’t far from expensive ones: “In our top markets, while Boston and San Francisco rents were on the decline, Providence and Sacramento prices were both up around 5% last month,” Zumper reports.

In San Francisco, some property owners have begun offering a month or more of free rent to attract new tenants, KQED reports, and an April survey from the San Francisco Apartment Association showed 16% of rental housing providers had residents break a lease or unexpectedly give a 30-day notice to vacate.

It’s still too early to say how much of this movement can be attributed to remote work, layoffs or pay cuts, but some who see this time as an opportunity to move are taking it.

Jay Streets, who owns a two-unit house in San Francisco, says he recently had tenants give notice and move to Kentucky this spring.

“He worked for Google, she worked for another tech company,” Streets says. “When Covid happened, they were on vacation in Palm Springs and they didn’t come back.”

The couple kept the lease on their $4,500 two-bedroom apartment until Google announced its employees would be working from home for the rest of the year, at which point they officially moved out. “They couldn’t justify paying rent on an apartment they didn’t need,” Streets says.

When he re-listed the apartment in May for the same price, the requests poured in. “Overwhelmingly, everyone that came to look at it were all in the situation where they were now working from home,” he says. “They were all in one-bedrooms and they all wanted an extra bedroom because they were all working from home.”

In early June, Yessika Patapoff and her husband moved from San Francisco’s Lower Haight neighbourhood to Tiburon, a charming town north of the city. Patapoff is an attorney who’s been unemployed since before Covid-19 hit, and her husband is working from home. She says her husband’s employer has been flexible about working from home, but it is not currently a permanent situation. While they’re paying a similar price for housing, they now have more space, and no plans to move back.

“My husband and I were already growing tired of the city before Covid,” Patapoff says.

Similar stories emerged in the UK, where real estate markets almost completely stopped for 50 days during lockdown, causing a rush of demand when it reopened. “Enquiry activity has been extraordinary,” Damian Gray, head of Knight Frank’s Oxford office told World Property Journal. “I've never been contacted by so many people that want to live outside London."

Several estate agencies in London have reported a rush for properties since the market opened back up, particularly for more spacious properties with outdoor space. However, Mansion Global noted this is likely due to pent up demand from 50 days of almost complete real estate shutdown, so it’s hard to tell whether that trend will continue.

There’s a wide world of speculation about the long-lasting changes to real estate caused by the coronavirus, but many industry experts say there will indeed be change.

In May, The New York Times reported that three of New York City’s largest commercial tenants — Barclays, JP Morgan Chase and Morgan Stanley — have hinted that many of their employees likely won’t be returning to the office at the level they were pre-Covid.

Until workers are able to safely return to offices, it’s impossible to tell exactly how much office space will stay vacant post-pandemic. On one hand, businesses could require more space to account for physical distancing; on the other hand, they could embrace remote working permanently, or find some middle ground that brings fewer people into the office on a daily basis.

“It’s tough to say anything to the office market because most people are not back working in their office yet,” says Robert Knakal, chairman of JLL Capital Markets. “There will be changes in the office market and there will likely be changes in the residential market as well in terms of how buildings are maintained, constructed, [and] designed.”

Those who do return to the office may find a reversal of recent design trends that favoured open, airy layouts with desks clustered tightly together. “The space per employee likely to go up would counterbalance the folks who are no longer coming into the office,” Knakal says.

There has been some discussion of using newly vacant office space for residential needs, and while that’s appealing to housing advocates in cities that sorely need more housing, Bill Rudin, CEO of Rudin Management Company, recently told Spectrum News that the conversion process may be too difficult to be practical.

"I don’t know the amount of buildings out there that could be adapted," he said. "It’s very complicated and expensive.

While there’s been tumult in San Francisco’s rental scene, housing developers appear to still be moving forward with their plans, says Dan Sider, director of executive programs at the SF Planning Department.

“Despite the doom and gloom that we all read about daily, our office continues to see interest from the development community – particularly larger, more established developers – in both moving ahead with existing applications and in submitting new applications for large projects,” he says.

How demand for those projects might change and what it might do to improve affordable housing is still unknown, though “demand will recover,” Sider predicts.

Johanna Flashman is a freelance writer based in Oakland, California.