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 does the Greater Manchester Spatial Plan mean for the region’s housing supply and green belt?

Manchester. Image: Getty.

We’re not even halfway through January and we’ve already seen one of the biggest urban stories of the year – the release of Greater Manchester’s new spatial plan for the city-region. The Greater Manchester Spatial Framework (GMSF) sets an ambitious target to build more than 200,000 homes over the next 18 years.

Despite previous statements indicating greenbelt development was off the table, the plan allows for some moderate easing of greenbelt, combined with denser city centre development. This is sensible, pragmatic and to be welcomed but a question remains: will it be enough to keep Manchester affordable over the long-term?

First, some history on Manchester’s housing strategy: This is not the first iteration of the controversial GMSF. The first draft was released by Greater Manchester’s council leaders back in October 2016 (before Andy Burnham was in post), and aimed to build 227,000 houses by 2037. Originally, it proposed releasing 8.2 per cent of the green belt to provide land for housing. Many campaigners opposed this, and the newly elected mayor, Andy Burnham, sent the plan back to the drawing board in 2017.

The latest draft published this week contains two important changes. First, it releases slightly less greenbelt land than the original plan, 4.1 per cent of the total, but more than Andy Burnham previously indicated he would. Second, while the latest document is still ambitious, it plans for 26,000 fewer homes over the same period than the original.

To build up or to build out?

In many cities, the housing supply challenge is often painted as a battle-ground between building high-density homes in the city centre or encroaching on the green belt. Greater Manchester is fortunate in that it lacks the density of cities such as London – suggesting less of a confrontation between people who what to build up and people who want to build out.

Prioritising building on Greater Manchester’s plentiful high-density city centre brownfield land first is right and will further incentivise investment in public transport to reduce the dependence of the city on cars. It makes the goal in the mayor’s new transport plan of 50 per cent of all journeys in Greater Manchester be made on foot, bikes or public transport by 2040 easier to realise.

However, unlike Greater London’s greenbelt which surrounds the capital, Greater Manchester’s green belt extends deep into the city-region, making development on large amounts of land between already urbanised parts of the city-region more difficult. This limits the options to build more housing in parts of Greater Manchester close to the city centre and transport nodes. The worry is that without medium-term reform to the shape of Manchester’s green belt, it may tighten housing supply in Manchester even more than the green belt already does in places such as London and York. In the future, when looking to undertake moderate development on greenbelt land, the mayor should look to develop in these areas of ‘interior greenbelt’ first.

Greater Manchester’s Green Belt and Local Authority Boundaries, 2019.

Despite the scale of its ambition, the GMSF cannot avoid the sheer size of the green belt forever: it covers 47 per cent of the total metropolitan area). In all likelihood, plans to reduce the size of the green belt by 2 per cent will need to be looked at again once the existing supply of brownfield land runs low – particularly if housing demand over the next 18 years is higher than the GMSF expects, which should be the case if the city region’s economy continues to grow.

An example of a successful political collaboration

The GMSF was a politically pragmatic compromise achieved through the cooperation of the metropolitan councils and the mayoral authority to boost the supply of homes. It happened because Greater Manchester’s mayor has an elected mandate to implement and integrate the GMSF and the new transport plan.

Other cities and the government should learn from this. The other metro mayors currently lacking spatial planning powers, in Tees Valley and the West Midlands, should be gifted Greater Manchester-style planning powers by the government so they too can plan and deliver the housing and transport their city-regions need.

Long-term housing strategies that are both sustainable and achievable need to build both up and out. In the short-term Greater Manchester has achieved this, but in the future, if its economic success is maintained, it will need to be bolder on the green belt than the proposals in the current plan. By 2037 Manchester will not face a trade-off between high-density flats in the city centre or green belt reform – it will need to do both.  If the city region is to avoid the housing problems that bedevil London and other successful cities, policy makers need to be ready for this.

Anthony Breach is an economic analyst at the Centre for Cities, on whose blog this post first appeared.