The City’s Resource Woes

Bangalore is in serious trouble. An article in The Hindu today declared that this is one of the city’s driest Octobers in years.

“Over the past two weeks, temperatures have hovered at around 31 degree Celsius, which is three degrees above normal for this time of the month, says the Indian Meteorological Department (IMD).

The mercury is also just shy of the all-time October record of 32.4 degree Celsius recorded in 2002.”

The article also mentions how this is culminating into a water crisis,

“A cloudless fortnight has also seen the city plunging deeper into the water crisis. The city has seen just 41mm of rainfall since October 1.”

Strictly speaking, this shouldn’t actually result in a water crisis because Bangalore’s water supply isn’t derived from the city itself. Most of it is pumped from reservoirs on the Kaveri river, almost a hundred kilometres away. People in the city should logically worry more about the weather in Mysore. However, the rains this year haven’t been good to the rest of the state either. It’s been an extremely dry monsoon with reservoirs seeing shortages in September.

But then again, a good one-third of the city isn’t connected to the water supply network at all. Prominent areas like Sarjapur Road or Hebbal don’t even have connections to the Water Supply Board’s pipelines. Instead, they’re more or less dependent on borewells and thriving private companies, popularly known as the ‘tanker mafia’. The latter get their water from various sources, including their own borewells, or land near lakes (where the water table is high). All in all, given that many of these private water sources are located within the Bangalore urban and rural districts, a lack of rain in the city may be worrying after all.

Unfortunately, this is only the latest in a growing series of unfortunate events that have hit the city’s resource systems recently. Part of the problem is that Bangalore is highly dependent on a good monsoon in many ways. Apart from water supply, much of the state’s energy is generated by hydro-electricity and therefore, a failed monsoon can mean shortages in power as well. This year, the energy shortage in Bangalore has been bad enough to warrant power cuts as long as three or four hours long every day.

Still, water and power are issues that are recognised in public discussions. Another concerning problem is barely being recognised and that is of food security. Bangalore is a large market for food produced in the state (and the country) but there have been serious problems with food production in Karnataka. 2015 has been a year of unseasonal rains, unusual heat, and  a large amount of agricultural distress culminating in a wave of farmer suicides.

Even more worrying, there are indications that agriculture is no longer being considered a viable occupation in parts of the state. People are moving out of cultivation, not because bumper harvests are allowing labour to be freed up (as the popular Lewis Theory of Development predicted) but because a combination of  poor financial systems and erratic rains have rendered agriculture too unpredictable for income security. This may not affect Bangalore immediately but towns and cities in Karnataka may face two important challenges in coming years – how to deal with an unpredictable food supply, and how to create enough jobs to absorb incoming labour.

The good news is that some of these issues have basic solutions. Energy problems can be addressed by increasing the diversity of the energy mix and reducing the excessive dependence on a single source. Building new power-generation plants or expanding the capacity of existing ones should help. Solar power is a good long-term solution to consider but given the current costs of installing solar capacity, there may ought to be some short-term focus on coal or gas-fired plants (with a clear strategy to move to cleaner sources in the near future). Wind power, already installed in parts of Karnataka, can be increased as well, after accounting for costs.

Water supply problems are much trickier. There is a limit on how much can be withdrawn from the Kaveri for Bangalore and the Water Supply Board doesn’t seem financially capable of funding a major expansion of the city network. However, the Kaveri water supply can be augmented by locally sourced water. This however, will involve a significant and substantial rejuvenation of local water sources including lakes, tanks, natural canals, and the underground water table – not an easy task given the myriad complications surrounding this issue (more on that in another post). Another necessary step is the treating and recycling of the city’s sewage water, to be fed back into the city’s system. This will go a long way in addressing water woes.

Food security will be the toughest to deal with, partly because it’s not yet recognised as an ‘urban’ problem. However, the links between urban and rural are quite strong, and a rural crisis usually reverberates through cities. Not that recognition addresses core problems. For example, even if an irregular monsoon is addressed by expanding irrigation, how does one deal with the consequent stress on water use? Can shortages be addressed by imports in lean years, especially when other states (and countries) are suffering from similar problems in production? Can financial systems be made robust enough to help farmers during distress? What will it take? More research is needed here.

The city’s administrators are noticing some of these problems. The BWSSB Chairman recently said they were looking into supplying recycled water for the city. There are talks of establishing a gas-fired power-plant for Bangalore, as well as a solar plant in Tumkur. Agricultural distress, has taken centre-stage in the state legislature though I suspect long-term concerns are not yet recognised. However, these are still early days and a huge amount of work remains to be done. Without a large amount of investment, innovation, and hard work, much of this will go awry. Neither Bangalore nor Karnataka can afford to slip up right now.

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