Bengaluru, the capital city of Karnataka, is one of the fastest growing metropolitan cities in the world, with a current population of around 10 million that is projected to double by 2031. This rapid urbanization has put enormous pressure on the city and region’s resource and environment, not the least of which is the demand for water and the magnitude of water pollution. Currently, it is estimated that more than half of Bengaluru’s population does not even get the official norm of 135 litres per capita per day with its potability standards are hardly met. The water prices paid across vary widely depending upon sources, almost half of the water consumption is from (unsustainably extracted) groundwater, and almost half the generated wastewater is released untreated into lakes and rivers. Images of lakes catching fire and frothing over have become globally recognized symbols of Bengaluru’s water mis-management. Ensuring adequate, safe, and affordable for all its current and future citizens, economic activities and ecosystems and doing so in a manner that is ecologically and economically sustainable, climate resilient, and minimises its impacts on the hinterland in terms of water imports and wastewater exports is thus the central challenge of the 21st century Bengaluru.
Many factors have contributed to creating this challenge. High leakages, destruction of local water bodies, non-regulation of groundwater pumping, an inadequate and malfunctioning wastewater treatment network, and poorly designed pricing are each responsible. At a deeper level, however, the problem is rooted in multiple disconnects: mismatched goals, fragmented thinking, lack of participatory governance, and poor science-policy linkages.
Consequently, actions are carried out in silos without holistically understanding interactions and tradeoffs with other systems. For instance, diverting sewage so that it does not enter a lake only passes the sewage on to the next lake. Rooftop rainwater harvesting may increase groundwater recharge, but if the water supply agency does not draw upon groundwater, then it has no incentive to enforce the rainwater harvesting rule. Individual lake rejuvenation plans focus on diverting sewage and desilting to increase storage capacities for stormwater, without factoring in the downstream consequences of both actions. The municipality focuses on clearing stormwater drains of encroachments, but does not prevent release of sewage into these drains. Apartments are forced to pay highest water tariffs and also treat their own wastewater, whereas more affluent bungalow owners face low tariffs and sanitary connection costs. The absence of consistent, complete and reliable datasets on water service (abstraction, deliveries, access, disposal, quality, and treatment), on the resource (imports, runoff, infiltration, evapotranspiration, groundwater recharge, lake storage and outflows) and on costs (capital, O&M, public vs private) is simply symptomatic of these disconnects.
The Bengaluru Water Solutions Lab will help overcome these barriers and establish a framework to facilitate the process of innovation in water-related issues by strongly connecting decision-makers and implementers with knowledge providers and stakeholders. In this approach, integrated problem and solution assessment embedded in a system of co-production of knowledge involving scientists and all stakeholders can help in developing a ‘knowledge-to-concrete action’ and identify viable solutions.