Analysis: Water Scarcity In Bengaluru Is A Wakeup Call For All

Analysis: Water Scarcity In Bengaluru Is A Wakeup Call For All

The creaking infrastructure of cities gets exposed as they become even more vulnerable. Water scarcity is one of the several problems that emerge

Madan SabnavisUpdated: Friday, March 29, 2024, 08:03 PM IST
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Water Scarcity | Representative Image

The water problem in Bengaluru is another wake up call to remind one of the bane of unplanned urbanisation. In fact, it brings to the forefront the trade-off between growth and sustainability. The west was able to grow faster than the east starting from the industrial revolution and by the time climate change has been recognised as a threat, the east faces such trade-offs. In a way when the west pontificates on the issue, it sounds unfair as these countries damaged the ecosystem over time but went ahead of the others. And now the issue is global where all nations have to cut back for the global good which can mean major compromises for the emerging nations.

Cities are known to be overcrowded as this is where opportunities reside. This has led to a big boost to the housing sector which includes also the proliferation of slums when people do not have the money to own a home. The social issues are known and open to discussion. But the creaking infrastructure of cities gets exposed as they become even more vulnerable. Water scarcity is one of the several problems that emerge.

The reservoir levels are down today to an average of about 38% of full capacity (45% last year) and with an early onset of summer, the threat of evaporation is there. This will be affecting not just the farmers but also cattle and households where water becomes scarce until the arrival of the monsoon. It has also been observed that the monsoons tend to arrive later than the scheduled time and while June 1st is officially the date, it is normally towards the end of the month and that too on the coast of Kerala.

Let us look at the issues involved. First the government has focused a lot on roads which is the pet project of all layers of the system. This has meant more concretisation of roads. The negative effect of such concretisation is that rainwater does not seep into the ground and improve the water table levels. This has affected water levels of bore wells which have run dry in Bengaluru. This problem will occur in other cities too.

Second, the thrust given to housing of all types has meant more construction of homes without any attention paid to infrastructure. This has challenged access to civic amenities like lighting, water, road connectivity and so on. But clearly the demand for water has increased. At the same time the government has provided incentives to people in the lower income groups to buy homes through the affordable housing schemes. This has led to greater demand for homes which typically are of smaller size but involve construction of a larger number of flats which houses a larger number of inhabitants. The water issue has not been considered.

Third, the concept of redevelopment in a city like Mumbai needs a deeper look. It has become a big business for housing societies to go in for redevelopment with several interested parties like the owners, developers or the builder’s lobby and politicians. Typically, a building redevelopment scheme involves the existing owners getting larger living accommodation relative to their current space depending on the bargaining power. The municipal authority grants permission for societies which are over a certain threshold number of years, which can typically be 30, to go in for such schemes. The logic is that after 30 years the building becomes weak and hence becomes viable for the scheme. Rarely is a scientific check made.

The builder gains in terms of selling a larger number of homes at commercial rates while the owners get larger accommodation free of cost with add-ons like cash compensation and advance rent for the period of construction. The municipal authority gets compensation as the land is given either outright or on long lease to the developer. Those in power, who are typically politicians, have their say by being offered some of these homes besides the ubiquitous kickbacks.

While the rationale of the scheme can be discussed, the issue which is germane here is the availability of water. In areas where several plots go for redevelopment, the challenge is how to make available water supply to everyone. A building with say 28 apartments can be scaled up to say 140. The pressure on water supply will remain given the changing pattern of weather and the access to water.

The changing pattern of weather has been witnessed across the world. USA is now under threat of forest fires in several regions while cyclones have become an annual affair. The polar ice caps are melting which can lead to flooding in adjoining countries. Europe has reported exceptional heat for which they are not really prepared. India has seen literally the crumbling of the Himalayas even as the local governments continue with the thrust on building roads up the hills for various reasons. Chennai has the paradox of water scarcity while being located along the sea coast with annual floods during the north-east monsoon. Mumbai remains on edge until the monsoon arrives as the entire water supply for the year is contingent on the lakes overflowing in October. But of late it happens in September followed by the “October heat” which causes rapid evaporation.

What are the solutions? There is evidently need to address this issue or else there will be a problem of catastrophic nature in our cities. First, there has to be control on migration and the only way to do so is to limit the amount of economic activity. Second, new cities need to be developed and the suburbs of existing cities need to be stretched with new municipal limits. The expansion of Mumbai to Navi Mumbai is a case of success in this direction. This is the concept of frontier cities really, where the relatively less developed towns can be brought to the level of metropolitan centres. It also helps in bringing about equitable distribution of growth. Third, strict monitoring of growth of slums is called for to ensure that such residual habitations do not develop. Fourth, the construction of new buildings has to be limited both in terms of new as well as redevelopment because they pressurise the municipal capabilities. Clearly we have to accept the trade-offs.

The author is Chief Economist, Bank of Baroda and author of ‘Corporate Quirks: The Darker Side of the Sun’. Views are personal

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