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Dr. Veena Srinivasan on the Water Crisis in Bengaluru and Chennai

This blog series will share interviews conducted with speakers for the international conference “Towards a Sustainable Water Future” held in Bengaluru, India from September 24 to 27, 2019. The conference is organized by The Sustainable Water Future Programme (Water Future), a Global Research Project of Future Earth, in partnership with the Divecha Centre for Climate Change. It will address the current state of global water resource challenges, future pathways and scenarios, and different technological, and institutional solutions to accelerate the implementation of water-related Sustainable Development Goals and the 2030 Agenda. Here we talk to experts on the future of water.

Dr. Veena Srinivasan is a Senior Fellow at the Centre for Environment and Development and the Director of the Centre for Social and Environmental Innovation at the Ashoka Trust for Research in Ecology and the Environment (ATREE), Bengaluru. Her research interests include inter-sectoral water allocation, impacts of multiple stressors on water resources, ground and surface water linkages, and sustainable water management policy and practice. She has worked extensively on the water systems in and around Bengaluru and Chennai, which is what we talk to her about in this interview.

You have done a lot of work on water systems in and around Bangalore. Could you quickly elaborate on the issue of water scarcity in Bangalore and where you find the biggest problems are?

Veena Srinivasan: The issue of scarcity in Bangalore is that the city is growing faster than the infrastructure can keep pace with and so you have what might be called the two-city problem, where you have the city core which gets piped Cauvery [river water] supply and is quite water rich, actually. And it is water rich because it gets Cauvery supply so there is no groundwater dependence, but more importantly, Cauvery pipelines leak and recharge groundwater and a good 50 percent of the recharge comes from the leaking pipelines. So I wouldn’t say that Bangalore is water-scarce but the peri-urban areas which have not got piped water supply are water-scarce. Now the city as a whole does face constraints of water scarcity but I would say that the problem is not so much that we don’t have enough water, but that we are singularly unimaginative. They [Bangalore Water Supply and Sewerage Board] only want to get water from Sharavati, Netravati, or Hemavati [rivers]. The thing is that it’s really stupid to say we’ll get water from all these distant places when even the basic stuff which should be in place is not in place. Chennai, for all its water scarcity, still barely has any proper metering in place. And the biggest problem, I would say, is wastewater management. So right now, even though it’s called Bangalore Water Supply and Sewerage Board, they don’t have any incentive to extend towards any sewerage services because they get only water for the bill. They only get money from supplying water, they don’t get any money from sewerage, so even though they have a mandate to do it, not surprisingly, they drag their feet on it because there is no extra additional money, it’s a pure cost. Basically, we have a problem where you have run out of water sources, and sewerage is the obvious solution, but you haven’t figured out how to link them and you haven’t figured out the institutional mechanism that’s going to make that happen.

One of the projects that you have recently completed at ATREE is the 2035 Vision for Sustainable and Equitable Water and Wastewater Management in Bangalore. What would be some of the key findings or suggestions that were a result of this project and how do you think that the city is faring in terms of being able to achieve such a vision?

VS: The main thing with that project was that we attempted the quantification of all of the flows and stocks of water in Bangalore. So we tried to get information about where all the water is coming from, where does the rainfall end up, where does the wastewater end up, how much is treated, how much is untreated or how does it split across the three basins, and then we did some very simple scenarios of what happens when this changes and that changes. The long and short of it is that it reinforces what I said before, which is basically that you need to manage your wastewater sensibly and use lakes as a source for treated wastewater but also allow extraction. Right now what happens is that you can store water in lakes but you’re not allowed to take any out from them, which means that your lakes are basically full of either treated or untreated water and there is actually no space for the lake to hold any rainwater. This is a problem. A much more sensible thing way would be if you were able to conceive of the lakes as a part of an integrated urban water system in the city, then you can actively manage them.

You have also worked on Chennai’s water system. Were you surprised by how bad the water situation in the city has gotten this year or was it somewhat expected?

VS: No, no, it was somewhat expected. I will tell you one thing about Chennai. Chennai doesn’t have enough reservoir capacity so these kinds of crises are going to happen. If you look at the historical records, every ten years, very reliably a water crisis has happened. Sometimes it’s for a few months, sometimes it’s for a year, but it happens throughout the city system very regularly. So I would say that it’s not surprising. What is surprising is that when people speak about solutions to the crisis, the discourse is not very nuanced because a lot of people push for rainwater harvesting when rainwater harvesting is not going to put water in the reservoirs. Rainwater harvesting will help recharge the groundwater and individual households need not be as dependent on water supply so it will help people, but the city will still have a ‘zero day’, which means that there still will be no piped water in the city system, and that is something that people are not thinking about. It’s surprising to me that even after so much time, in my opinion, the diagnosis of the problem is very weak. Even with all the papers written, all the numbers and all the models that are out there, people haven’t learned to speak with precision on these problems.

A lot of the water issues in India come from some sort of mismanagement happening at various levels. Are there any immediate governance or institutional changes that you think should be put in place to make sure that water gets managed in a better way in our cities?

VS: I would say do the obvious stuff. The Singapore four tap model is quite reasonable. The first tap in this case would be to put in place plumbing standards and metering, fix your pipeline leaks, all of which is part of your piped supply. The second tap is groundwater, which is completely unregulated right now, and the one thing that we have not explored properly in India is how to use groundwater as a part of the piped water system. We have very little, what I would call, blended supply system, where the utility itself takes groundwater from different places. This concept of blending groundwater and supplying groundwater is not very prevalent in the city and I feel that should be part of it. And the truth is we don’t completely have a robust solution on how to manage it. There isn’t a good technical solution and we still need to do some innovation in that space, but I think there are ways to do it. The third tap is, of course, wastewater. Like I said, wastewater is a completely un-tapped thing, some of which goes to Bellandur [lake], catches fire, gets sent off to Kolar, and certainly a lot more can be done in resource recovery from wastewater. And the fourth tap is stormwater, which is the water in our lakes which, right now, we do not allow the use of. And as the amount of paved surface increases, there’s going to be more and more stormwater generated and the extent to which we can manage our lakes in order to make space for stormwater, harvest it and use it when you really need to augment city supply, the better we can do. So I think with all of those four taps, there exist solutions that can be pursued.

Right now there is a lot of speculation of Tier II and Tier III cities in India seeing much faster growth rates than have been in the past and there is a lot of scope for improved infrastructure there as well and a lot of planning is going into it. Would you suggest a system like the four-tap system to be implemented there also?

VS: Absolutely. In India, it is very clear that we don’t have enough water to have surface water supply for everyone and that’s a dangerous paradigm to go down. The alternative then is to have an integrated urban water management system. At least, the very first step is to plan. What we do in India is we say we bring water from Sharavati or Netravati, but where does BWSSB say what we are doing with all these other options? And the problem is most of our utilities are populated by engineers who have never been taught anything else. They’ve never been taught how to deal with complex institutions, how to deal with groundwater. The thing we know how to do is build treatment plants and pipelines and so that’s the only tool in our toolbox. If you want to solve the problem, yes, you need to put a plan and before that we need to change our engineering curriculum very drastically. Because you can learn all this from an online course but when we teach people how to think about water and wastewater planning for cities, that thinking is just completely missing.

How do you think that all of the studies and the science that we are finding out about water systems and management can break through to better-informed policies and practices in India?

VS: Firstly, we should not take the single thronged approach. We need to hit it at many levels at the same time. While communicating to policymakers is one thing and so is responding to policy windows, all of that is fine, what we have to handle is the education side also, because there is a serious lack of capacity there. There is both, lack of capacity and lack of imagination. So I’m talking about two solutions; one is to re-train people and reimagine engineering education in colleges itself and then for career engineers, once they have entered their jobs, they still need to be trained. The other thing that I think that we do a terribly in research is that we don’t pay attention to the political economy at all. And if you actually speak to the career engineers in these departments, they will tell you that 90 percent of decision-making is determined by political economy. We don’t train people to be able to factor that in, when they get pressure from politicians, there’s the contractor nexus, and the politicians are playing with vote bank politics and all of that. So we think that we look at things in a very cut-and-dry way, asking whether we should do this or we should do that, but actually we are missing the major piece of what drives decision making. What actually drives decision making are two things; one is the political economy side and the other is what is called the ‘economy is stupid’ side, which is that we don’t understand how demand and the economy influence water use. This is much more relevant for agriculture than for urban use. There’s no point in saying ‘regulate groundwater’ because the reason why we are not able to regulate groundwater or we give free electricity is the vote bank. Farmers don’t actually want to over-exploit groundwater because it’s their income at stake, but they do it because there’s no other way for them to earn a decent living. So unless those larger structural issues are also addressed and we push really big research money into looking at those structural issues in a very serious way, you’re not going to actually be able to solve the problem. I will do an entire talk on science communication [in the conference] so I don’t want to get into the whole thing just now, but I think that there are many different levels at which you need to address this.

Dr. Veena Srinivasan will be one of the speakers at the first plenary of the conference on “Advanced Water System Assessment to Address Water Security Challenges of the 21st Century” on Tuesday, September 24. She will also be a panelist at the special session on ‘Understanding Water Cycle Paradigms’ on the same day. She is looking forward to seeing other Indian scholars working in the water space at the conference, and hopes that there will be a sense of community between everyone who attends it.