India’s tech capital looks underground for answers to its water shortage
BENGALURU, India — This city of 11 million, formerly known as Bangalore, is home to India’s software giants and its startups, as well as multinationals such as Samsung, Oracle and Amazon. com. The growing tech sector symbolizes urban India’s upward mobility and economic vigor.
But an existential threat hovers over all this new prosperity. Bengaluru is running out of water.
A drought that has dropped reservoirs to dangerous levels is only part of the problem. The situation is made worse by rampant and unregulated extraction of groundwater, which is depleting underground aquifers. Anyone who can afford to drill a borewell to tap groundwater has done it, particularly in the newer suburban areas where the tech companies are clustered and many of their employees live. Many of them are now growing concerned their taps will run dry. As Krishnaraj Rao, a young technology professional, puts it: “I fear the day when I will have soap all over my face and there is not a drop of water coming out of the tap.”
Rao is part of an innovative programme working to see that this doesn’t happen. It’s called the Participatory Aquifer Mapping project, and it has two goals. One is to involve citizens in sharing information about borewells in their communities so that water managers can learn what is happening underground and begin to plot a response. The other is to educate residents about the invisible resource that is groundwater, and get them engaged in strategies for using it more wisely.
The project kicked off formally in 2015 and is the first such exercise in urban India. The initiative has pulled in local businesses, residents, schools and slum communities, as well as service providers such as well diggers, water-quality testing labs and plumbers. The Google group Save Bangalore Lakes and Facebook group Bellandur Forum have become vital channels where locals discuss strategies for conserving water.
Rao says the process has made residents a lot more literate when it comes to understanding groundwater. “We started monitoring all water leakages and also tracking our daily consumption of water,” he says. “Through this new water management strategy, we hope to become much more self-sufficient in water. It is just that we lacked awareness earlier.”
Water in this city is an unreliable and fragmented service. Older parts of the city get water from a public utility, the Bangalore Water Supply and Sewerage Board, which pulls water from the River Kaveri (also known as Cauvery) and nearby reservoirs. Service does not run 24/7 — so customers with means supplement by buying water from tanker trucks or by drilling their own borewells. In the poorest slums, women and children stand in queues for the chance to fill containers at public taps.
The water board does not serve the peripheral areas that have become the economic heart of the city with the tech boom. In these neighbourhoods, nearly everyone depends on groundwater. The groundwater mapping project is based in the southeastern part of Bengaluru, where many technology enterprises are based and where much of the city’s cosmopolitan IT crowd lives.
Wipro’s Lingaraj Dinni says equity concerns motivated the tech company to fund the aquifer project. (Patralekha Chatterjee)
Financial support for the project comes from one of those companies, Wipro Technologies. The company took up the cause partially because its employees live in the area. But there is more to it, says Lingaraj Dinni, Wipro’s group manager for community and sustainability programmes.
“Equity issues are of prime concern,” Dinni says. “In 2013, one of our campuses in Chennai had to be shut down for two days because some of the communities outside said, ‘You are taking our water’. Tension rose. We realized that as far as water is concerned, if we don’t engage with all stakeholders, including communities outside like slums, schools, colleges, local communities, we are putting ourselves at risk. We wanted to do something which was a science-based project which also had a community component.”
The project brings together a number of organizations. One is Biome Environmental Trust, a local group that has been involved with promoting rainwater harvesting, sustainable water use and sanitation for years. Hydrogeologists from Pune are also involved, as well as Mapunity, a software team from Bengaluru that provides mapping services to government and civil-society organizations.
Engaging the public is essential to the project. Residents share whatever details they know about borewells in their area. The project team then maps out underground water layers and works with residents to brainstorm water-saving solutions. These exchanges help communities to understand their relationship with groundwater and tools they can use such as rainwater harvesting and recharge wells to manage it better.
“It is only when wells were mapped and people asked questions that they started thinking about the issue,” says Shubha Ramachandran, programme manager with Biome. “If people are part of putting that map together, it is more likely to drive a certain kind of behaviour.”
‘We woke up’
One community where the program is changing attitudes toward water is Adarsh Palm Retreat. It’s an upscale gated community of elegant apartments and villas sprawling across a lush landscape, typical of the communities that cater to Bengaluru’s IT workers.
Two years ago, a water solution presented itself here in the form of a nuisance. During the rainy season, homeowners found water pouring into their basements. The flooding turned out to be the result of a shallow aquifer that nobody knew about. Borewells had largely tapped the intermediate and deep aquifers, but this water source just below the surface was undiscovered.
Biome’s Shubha Ramachandran says involving citizens in the mapping project encourages them to save water. (Patralekha Chatterjee)
Biome, using the participatory methodology, studied the situation and began working with residents on a fix. Instead of continuing to draw water from the deep wells, residents will soon begin extracting water from the shallow aquifer through a newly dug system of “withdrawal wells”. To maintain balance in the shallow aquifer, rainwater will be harvested from the community’s boundaries and funneled underground through a new system of recharge wells. Residents will take water out of the ground but also put it back in. And they’ll no longer dig new borewells depleting the deeper groundwater sources.
“We woke up when some of us had our basements flooded,” says Rao, who lives in the community and serves as a member of its water management committee. “The good news is that we have discovered that this area is blessed with shallow aquifers that we can tap.”
Another nearby community called Rainbow Drive is taking a similar approach, one that actually started long before the participatory mapping programme started. K. P. Singh, a resident formerly employed with an Indian tech company, explains how the 20-year old middle-class community evolved from a water-stressed one to a water self-sufficient one.
“Rainbow Drive never got municipal water but we did not care,” Singh says. “Unmetered and free water was one of the sales pitches used by the builder to attract people to the area.” What none of the residents realized at the time was that “free water” meant deep borewells that would gradually deplete the deep aquifers.
“In 2002-2004, we started a residents’ welfare association,” Singh continues. “We had realized that this groundwater was a resource we were mining from below and it will eventually get scarce if we did not do anything else. That was the early awareness and education. We were in touch with Biome, which ran a rainwater club. Biome made us understand about the need to harvest rainfall, and about sustainability.”
That was just the start.
In 2007, the community welfare association decided to dig recharge wells. It cost each homeowner about 25,000 rupees, or about US$366 at today’s exchange rate. The welfare association also installed water meters in homes and set up a tiered pricing system that charges those who consume more a higher rate. “Earlier, many people kept taps running, washed cars frequently. Lots of wastage,” Singh says. “Today, we are the only colony in this area that does not have to worry about water.”
K. P. Singh stands near a recharge well that has helped solve his community’s water shortage. (Patralekha Chatterjee)
It was not easy to get people to change their ways. Initially, many residents of Rainbow Drive were reluctant to invest their own resources in building recharge wells. Singh smiles remembering the pitch that eventually persuaded residents to pay up.
“People understand the language of money,” Singh says. “I said, ‘If you want your property to have any value, you have to have your own water. Otherwise your property value can come to zero. Invest now in recharge wells and you don’t have to depend on water from private tankers. The value of property which is water self-sufficient is higher’.”
Viswanath Srikantaiah, director of Biome Solutions, says examples like these show that Bengaluru has the tools to solve its water problems. It starts with education. Once people understand how scarce groundwater actually is, and how dependent their lives are on it, they’re usually willing to help.
“We wanted to involve everyone in the conversations around groundwater use — well diggers, tanker operators, residents of rich gated communities, government schools,” Srikantaiah says. “We are not in the business of creating a plan or a map. We are in the business of triggering necessary conversations. We are nudgers. Communities do the work. We want people to say, ‘We did it ourselves’.”
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LEARNING FROM BENGALURU
- The Participatory Aquifer Mapping project involves citizens in sharing information about borewells in their communities so that water managers can form a picture of underground water resources.
- The participatory process educates residents about groundwater scarcity and engages them in finding water-saving solutions.
- Some communities have begun using recharge wells to replenish underground aquifers and ease the city’s water shortage.