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.

 
 
 
 

Leeds is still haunted by its pledge to be the “Motorway City of the Seventies”

Oh, Leeds. Image: mtaylor848/Wikimedia Commons.

As the local tourist board will no doubt tell you, Leeds has much to be proud of: grandiose industrial architecture in the form of faux-Egyptian temples and Italian bell-towers; an enduring cultural legacy as the birthplace of Goth, and… motorways. But stand above the A58(M) – the first “urban motorway”  in the country – and you might struggle to pinpoint its tourist appeal.

Back in the 1970s, though, the city council was sufficiently gripped by the majesty of the motorways to make them a part of its branding. Letters sent from Leeds were stamped with a postmark proudly proclaiming the city's modernity: “Leeds, Motorway City of the Seventies”.

Image: public domain.

During the 1960s, post-war optimism and an appetite for grand civic projects saw the rapid construction of motorways across England. The construction of the M1 began in 1959; it reached Leeds, its final destination, in 1968. By the early 1970s the M62 was sweeping across Pennines, and the M621 loop was constructed to link it to Leeds city centre.

Not content with being the meeting point of two major motorways, Leeds was also the first UK city to construct a motorway through the city centre: the inner ring road, which incorporates the short motorway stretches of the A58(M) and the A64(M). As the council put it in 1971, “Leeds is surging forward into the Seventies”.

The driving force behind Leeds' love of motorways was a mix of civic pride and utopian city planning. Like many industrial cities in the North and Midlands, Leeds experienced a decline in traditional manufacturing during the 1960s. Its position at the centre of two major motorways seemed to offer a brighter future as a dynamic city open for trade, with the infrastructure to match. In response to the expansion of the roads, 1970s council planners also constructed an elevated pedestrian “skywalk” in an attempt to free up space for cars at ground level. Photos of Leeds from that time show a thin, white walkway running through blocky office buildings – perhaps not quite as extensive as the futuristic urban landscape originally envisaged by planners, but certainly a visual break with the past.

Fast forward to 2019 and Leeds’ efforts to become a “Motorway City” seems like a kitsch curiosity from a decade that was not always known for sustainable planning decisions. Leeds’s historic deference to the car has serious consequences in the present: in February 2019, Neville Street – a busy tunnel that cuts under Leeds station – was found to contain the highest levels of NO2 outside London.

City centre planners did at least have the foresight to sink stretches of the inner motorways below street level, leaving pedestrian routes largely undisturbed. Just outside the centre, though, the roads can be more disruptive. Sheepscar Interchange is a bewildering tangle of arterial roads, Armley Gyratory strikes fear into the hearts of learner drivers, and the M621 carves unsympathetically through inner-city areas of South Leeds with pedestrian access restricted to narrow bridges that heighten the sense of a fragmented landscape.

 

Leeds inner ring road in its cutting. Image: author provided.

 

The greatest problem for Yorkshire's “Motorway City” in 2019, however, is not the occasional intimidating junction, but the complete lack of an alternative to car travel. The dire state of public transport in Leeds has already been raised on these pages. In the early 20th century Leeds had one of the most extensive tram networks in the country. The last lines closed in 1959, the same year construction began on the A58m.


The short-sightedness of this decision was already recognised in the 1970s, as traffic began to build. Yet plans for a Leeds Supertram were rejected by successive Conservative and Labour governments unwilling to front the cost, even though smaller cities such as Newcastle and Sheffield were granted funding for light transport systems. Today, Leeds is the largest city in the EU without a mass transit system. As well as creating congestion, the lack of viable public transport options prevents connectivity: the city's bus network is reasonable, but weaker from East to West than North to South. As a non-driver, I've turned down jobs a short drive away that would be a logistical impossibility without a car.

Leeds' early enthusiasm for the motorway was perhaps premature, but there are things we can learn from the 1970s. Whatever else can be said about it, Leeds' city transport strategy was certainly bold – a quality in short supply today, after proposals for the supertram were watered down to a trolleybus system before being scrapped altogether in 2016. Leeds' rapid transformation in the 1960s and 70s, its grandiose visions of skywalks and dual carriageways, were driven by strong local political will. Today, the long-term transport strategy documents on Leeds City Council's website say more about HS2 than the need for a mass transit system within Leeds itself, and the council has been accused of giving up the fight for light rail and trams.

Whilst central government's refusal to grant funds is the greatest obstacle to Leeds' development, the local authority needs to be far more vocal in demanding the transport system the city deserves. Leeds' desire to be the Motorway City of the Seventies might look ludicrous today, but the political drive and utopian optimism that underpinned it does not.