Earlier this month, on the day that Bengaluru was adjudged the most liveable city in India—up from the 58th position in 2018—a fire erupted at Bellandur Lake. When she heard the news, civil engineer Deepti Dhanapal, 39, ran to the balcony of her waterside highrise residence with a familiar dread. One of Bengaluru’s largest lakes, Bellandur is covered in layers of noxious, combustible liquids and gases—it is these that had burned for 30 hours straight in early 2019, spewing ash on the lower floors of the apartment buildings in the vicinity. Beamed live to the nation, this flaming, rotten hell was a far cry from the city of startup dreams that Bengaluru was supposed to be. “When the society’s RWA WhatsApp group raised an alarm, we thought it was another case of methane or floating debris catching fire,” Dhanapal says. It turned out to be garbage in the buffer zone that had been set afire—and it was put out before it got out of hand—but the incident reminded Bengaluru of its paradoxical status as a hospitable city that had failed to save its lakes even as it was running out of water. The fumes, flames and mountains of froth churned from industrial and domestic effluents draining into the Bellandur and Varthur lakes, spread over 1,200 acres at the southern end of the Koramangala-Challaghatta (KC) valley, no longer make headlines, but resident activists call attention to the extremely slow pace of the ongoing one-time rejuvenation project by the Bengaluru Development Authority (BDA), and the collective failure of the other government bodies tasked with cleaning up and protecting them. “The BDA has used the pandemic year to dredge up some sludge but has left it to rot without any plan for disposal—the proposal to transport it to a quarry 25 km away is ridiculous,” says Dhanapal. Locals continue to report cases of illicit discharge into the lake by the KC valley sewage treatment plant (STP). With the STP not functioning at capacity, they accuse the Bangalore Water Supply and Sewerage Board (BWSSB) of wilfully dumping raw waste into these last two lakes in the KC valley catchment. An estimated 40 per cent of the city’s sewage flows through the area before landing up in the Dakshina Pinakini river. “The Bruhat Bengaluru Mahanagara Palike (BBMP), too, has failed by not acting against encroachments or cleaning up solid waste,” Dhanapal says. Many apartment complexes have sworn off phosphate-laden household detergents and set up their own mini STPs, but citizen-driven efforts alone cannot rid the lakes of the heavy metals, enteric pathogens and antibiotic-resistant superbugs that have been detected in the water.
“Citizen movements based on academic reports on pollutants in lakes and wells in the city have added to the pressure on civic bodies to get their act together, but there is a long way to go,” says Professor TV Ramachandra, coordinator, Energy & Wetlands Group, Centre for Ecological Sciences, Indian Institute of Science, Bengaluru, and a member of the Justice Santosh Hegde-led National Green Tribunal committee to monitor Bellandur and Varthur lakes. Over the years, his research group has published several eye-opening studies on the quality of water in Bengaluru’s lakes, including one last year that found 24 restored water bodies including Herohalli, JP Park and Puttenahalli lakes to have ‘very poor water quality’ due to the continued inflow of sewage. “At Varthur, we have shown that plants grown using the silt as manure are free from heavy metals, and talked to farmers cultivating over 5,000 acres within a 25 km radius of Varthur about putting it to use on their lands. On all fronts, there is a push for better water and waste management, but a section of the bureaucracy and politicians, who receive kickbacks from pipeline laying and development works in catchment zones, is holding Bengaluru to ransom.”
While lakes are not a direct source of drinking water for Bengaluru, over 50 per cent of the city depends on groundwater
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In his Budget speech earlier this month, Karnataka Chief Minister BS Yediyurappa, who also holds the finance portfolio, announced an allocation of about Rs 130 crore towards rejuvenating 25 lakes in the city as part of his Bengaluru Mission 2022, the BBMP budget and other schemes. A Rs 169-crore Koramangala Valley Development Project, which includes the rejuvenation of a 28 km stormwater drain from Majestic to Bellandur lake, has also been announced. While lakes are not a direct source of drinking water for Bengaluru, over 50 per cent of the city depends on groundwater. A healthy lake catchment area is the best way to recharge the water table, says Ramachandra. “Around Sarakki lake, for instance, we observed a 120 ft increase in the groundwater table within a year of lake rejuvenation.” From a city of 1,800 lakes, Bengaluru is now home to just 193 lakes. “Still, pretty much every ward has a lake and if these are all rejuvenated, the 15 thousand million cubic (TMC) feet of rain we get every year could be better channelled to recharge groundwater,” says Ramachandra, who developed the rejuvenation model for Jakkur lake, which is sprawled over 160 acres in north Bengaluru today and maintained by Jalaposhana, a citizens’ collective. With a secondary STP and a constructed wetland integrated into the lake, the birds have returned and there is no trace of the nitrate reported from the wells around it in 2015.
A rapidly expanding city of 13.6 million spread over 800 km, Bengaluru also has the second largest number of rainwater harvesting structures installed in any Indian city. Yet, it is not these model successes alone that can secure Bengaluru’s water needs in the years to come. The city relies on the Cauvery, from which the BWSSB currently pumps 1,450 million litres per day (MLD) to the city. A Rs 5,500 crore Cauvery Water Supply Scheme Stage V project is underway to supply an additional 775 MLD to Greater Bengaluru by March 2023. Plans to redirect river water from other regions—Yettinahole and Sharavathi—at great cost, have created a sense of false security, says a senior BWSSB officer. “Three years after the BBC put Bengaluru on a list of 11 major cities likely to run out of drinking water, politicians have proved their mettle in perception management, but not water management. We have not plugged major pipeline leaks, which lead to 37 per cent of the water being wasted. We have not cracked down on the tens of thousands of illegal borewells in the city that supply tankers. And even when capacity expands, it is the core city areas that will get most of the river water even as piped water remains a pipe dream for those living a peri-urban existence,” he says. Bengaluru is one of 27 cities in Karnataka identified under the Atal Mission for Rejuvenation and Urban Transformation (AMRUT) which envisages, among other things, universal water supply through the Jal Jeevan Mission (Urban). The Union Budget for 2021-2022 has set aside Rs 2.8 lakh crore to implement the scheme in five years’ time, covering 2.4 crore tap connections across 4,378 urban local bodies. About 70 lakh people in Karnataka are set to benefit from the programme.
A committee headed by former BWSSB chairman BN Thyagaraj had, in 2014, suggested that 30 TMC feet of water could be drawn between 2021 and 2051 from the Sharavathi for Bengaluru’s water needs. The proposal to bring water from the Linganamakki reservoir on the Sharavathi, about 400 km from Bengaluru, via the Yagachi Reservoir in Hassan or the Vani Vilasa Sagara in Chitradurga, is said to be close to Yediyurappa’s heart. Riparian communities whose livelihoods are connected to the river and ecologists, including the team at IISc, have decried the move that is expected to wreak havoc on the fragile and diverse ecosystems of the Western Ghats. There is a sense among bureaucrats, however, that a similar script to the one surrounding the proposed Yettinahole project on the Netravati, to bring 24.01 TMC feet of water to 68.35 lakh people in Bengaluru Rural and surrounding districts, is playing out. “Our researchers have reported that a frog species from the Western Ghats that no longer had access to water throughout the year has evolved to bypass the tadpole stage,” says Ramachandra. “Can urban citizens learn to survive in a city without enough water?”
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