Climate of change: Pumping up efforts to avert water shortage in India

With India largely dependent on tempestuous monsoons to meet its water needs, a prolonged drought caused by climate change has always been a clear and present danger. With a government think-tank warning that major Indian cities are in danger of running out of water by 2020, The Sunday Times looks at the various ways the residents of Bengaluru and the authorities are working to ensure the city's water security.

The spectre of a prolonged dry spell caused by climate change hangs ominously over India, a country that has seen droughts kill millions of people.

India depends almost entirely on the vagaries of rainfall to provide water to its citizens. That's why although this year's south-west monsoon kicked off with a bang - causing massive flooding and deaths in the southern states like Kerala - there is serious cause for concern about water scarcity after it ended with a whimper. What's more, 12 of the country's 36 meteorological sub-divisions experienced "deficient" rainfall.

Given that 600 million people in India already face high to extreme water stress, the worst may be yet to come: a government think-tank warns that demand could be double the amount supplied by 2030.

The country's burgeoning cities are likely to see their taps go dry even faster; the Niti Aayog think-tank indicates that cities could see a "day zero" of no supply by 2020.

Making the problem worse, nearly 70 per cent of water in India is contaminated, with the country placed 120th out of 122 countries in a water quality index.

The IT hub of Bengaluru - with an estimated population of 11 million people - is seen by some as being vulnerable to severe water shortages as it is situated nearly 100km from the nearest river. Moreover, its own water bodies have become contaminated.

Even though the city gets 900mm of rainfall every year, most of this is not harnessed and just flows into gutters unchecked.

  • WATER WOES

  • 600m

    Number of people in India who face high to extreme water stress.

    70%

    Proportion of water in India that is contaminated.

"With Bengaluru, very specifically and also because we successfully destroyed all local water sources, making us dependent on distant sources of water, climate change can very readily impact the rains that fall on Bengaluru, which has a direct bearing on groundwater," Dr Kshitij Urs, the executive director of Greenpeace India, told The Sunday Times.

"Climate change can also move the rains away from the catchment area of the rivers that feed Bengaluru," he added. "So my projection is, after just two years of continuous drought, Bengaluru would be doomed."

Dr Sharachchandra Lele, a distinguished fellow at the Ashoka Trust for Research in Ecology and the Environment (Atree) in Bengaluru, cited a number of studies to assert that "climate change may aggravate what is an existing problem".

 
 
 

"But it is not the sole driver of what we face in Bengaluru or other urban cities in India because we already have a rising population, we have depleting groundwater resources because of unregulated exploitation, (and) we've got massive maldistribution problems in the way water is distributed," said Dr Lele, 56. He felt, however, that the Niti Aayog report was alarmist.

His colleague, Atree fellow Shrinivas Badiger, 48, drew a parallel with the decline of the Indus Valley civilisations of Mohenjo Daro and Harappa, when climate change led to desertification of their cities millennia ago.

"An alarmist tone in the narrative is not completely true. But it's not impossible that we might dig ourselves into a really bad, big hole," he told The Sunday Times.

 
A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Sunday Times on October 28, 2018, with the headline 'Pumping up efforts to avert water shortage'. Print Edition | Subscribe