Cape Town's water crisis and lessons for Bengaluru: Resource management is the answer

While Cape Town has reduced its demand for water, the solutions for Bengaluru's problem lie in using alternative techniques, such as sewage treatment | #FirstCulture

Mridula Ramesh February 26, 2018 12:41:35 IST
Cape Town's water crisis and lessons for Bengaluru: Resource management is the answer

Editor's note: From May 2017, Firstpost is featuring a fortnightly column by Mridula Ramesh, titled 'Climate Conversations'. In this column, we take a look at pressing issues pertaining to climate change — in an accessible way.

The truth that we are moving to a world where cities run out of water is finally sinking in. “End of the century” seems so far away, while “this July” is palpably close.

Currently, "Day Zero" for Cape Town stands on 9 July, 2018 – the day when most taps in the city will stop running. "Day Zero" has been pushed back thrice – when first announced, it fell in April, and was later pushed back to May, then to June and now to July – primarily because agricultural use has declined, and urban residents have reduced their water use.

For some of the world, the English-speaking, wealthier world, this is big news: “Wow! A metro running out of water because of prolonged drought – climate change is well and truly here!”

But try telling this story – to scrounge and scrape and plan one’s life around collecting and using water – to the poorest in Indian cities, they will simply shrug their shoulders – this is life. Nothing new. Indeed, many of India’s citizens have been living in "Day Zero" for years.

What is the real story in Cape Town?

Cape Town has done many things right, fantastically right, and they are still looking at "Day Zero" in the face. It has long known that it did not have enough water to meet its future needs. In 2007, the city government instituted the hugely successful Water Conservation and Demand Management Strategy and Programme, which brought down water demand drastically. For their efforts, Cape Town has been widely and justly lauded for its achievements, winning the C40 Cities Award for Adaptation Implementation in 2015. I have profiled their work in my forthcoming book in a chapter of how cities can adapt to a world with less water. Simply put, the town ensured usage was metered (thus paid for and wasteful use reduced) and leaks were arrested. The result? Non-Revenue Water (NRW, or water that was not paid for – either lost to leaks, stolen or not billed) reduced from over 30 percent in 2007 to 20.2 percent in 2012.

Cape Towns water crisis and lessons for Bengaluru Resource management is the answer

Theewaterskloof dam, which supplies most of Cape Town's potable water, is currently dangerously low as the city faces "Day Zero". Image from Reuters

This is a very big deal. The world average for NRW is over 35 percent, and Cape Town’s demand management has allowed it to stave off "Day Zero” for so many years.

Cape Town is also bringing about a meaningful regulation in ground water. Groundwater was made a national asset in 1998, and recently, citizens were required to install a meter, monitor and reduce their use and share the results with the water department. There has been pushback, but the current crisis makes it likely that some form of regulation comes into play. Besides, Cape Town is not dependent on groundwater for its needs – they are merely looking ahead.

But, Cape Town suffered for their success. By managing their demand so well, supply side measures have taken a backseat.

This is where politics comes in: Cape Town has been governed by the Democratic Alliance (DA), which is the official opposition to South Africa’s central government, the African National Congress (ANC).

Cape Towns water crisis and lessons for Bengaluru Resource management is the answer

Rainwater flows down off Cape Town's iconic Table Mountain. The city is facing a once-in-a-300-years kind of drought. Image from Reuters

Increasing water supply – building desalination plants, wastewater treatment plants or tapping underground aquifers – needs the central government to agree to invest. Naturally, opposition politics laced with racial undertones in a country harbouring deep racial wounds makes securing the centre’s agreement challenging. Especially when the DA is perceived to be a white, upper class party. In this context, good demand management has simply made the agreement seem less urgent. “Why should we add, when you are not running out?” is the gist of the Centre’s reply.

Except, now Cape Town appears to be finally running out of water after an unusually long drought – some scientists are calling it a once-in-a-300-years kind of drought. The city is dependent on several local reservoirs – notably Theewaterskloof Dam and the Berg river dam. A warming climate bites in two ways – one, the rainfall will significantly decline, making droughts like the current one more likely and, two, the higher temperatures means a greater fraction of the water in the reservoirs will be lost to evaporation. Cape Town cannot meet its water demand, let alone share with agriculture, without tapping into other sources. Delayed investment has caused Day Zero to come before the other sources can be developed.

But eventually other sources will be developed, and Cape Town, given its strong water governance can, and probably will, cope.

Bengaluru’s story

Bengaluru’s story – despite the recent headlines – is different.

The BBC ran a slightly-sensational-while-being-light-on-the-facts story saying Bengaluru is number two on the list of 11 cities likely to run out of water. Naturally, this claim was rebutted in short order – the city depends on the Cauvery river and groundwater for its water, not the lakes.

Supply is not the problem. Management is.

Bengaluru’s lakes are a visible reminder of poor management – hard to ignore when one keeps catching fire. The flames come from the overgrown water hyacinth and the untreated sewage entering the lakes. When you have rich organic matter (sewage) kept in anoxic (or air-free conditions), you get a flammable gas — methane. That’s easy tinder to feed a flame and is what’s happening in Bellandur Lake.

Cape Towns water crisis and lessons for Bengaluru Resource management is the answer

Firefighters at work at the Bellandur Lake, which has caught fire multiple times in the recent past. Image from PTI

While Cape Town is tightening up on ground water use, closer to home, there is no communal ownership of groundwater in India, and precious few levers to press to ensure sustainable use. About 40 percent of Bengaluru depends on groundwater to meet some part of their water needs. Farmers and city dwellers use the groundwater underneath their land with impunity, until well after well runs out.

But, as always, the seeds for the solution lie in the seams of the problem. In this case, it begins with this principle: “One does not manage what one does not pay for.”

Case in point: The percentage of Non-Revenue Water (NRW) in a city. Contrast Bengaluru’s NRW at about 49 percent with Cape Town’s NRW of 20 percent. Leaks, non-metred usage, theft and “free” water all lead to a demand that is far higher than it needs to be, and too little money to manage the infrastructure that needs to supply the water. In part, that is why many parts of Bengaluru, especially in the outskirts, do not have access to municipal water and depend entirely on tanker supply and groundwater.

With groundwater running out, this problem is developing into a solution: developing other sources has become economically interesting.

The circular economy in water

Rainwater harvesting is one option that has widely gained currency as a decentralised source of water. But this time, I want to focus on another.

The parts of Bengaluru that are living in Day Zero are discovering for themselves what a wonderful resource sewage can be. Tankers are expensive and often unreliable – both in quality and availability. Sewage is reassuring present always, and if the treatment machinery is well and adequately designed and maintained, quality is seldom an issue. Costs are also favourable: Shubha Ramachandran, Lead, Water Projects of Biome says water from tankers can touch up to Rs 100 per kilolitre, or 10 paise per litre; sewage treatment costs run far lower, between Rs 20-50 per kilolitre, or 2-5 paise per litre.

This raises a puzzling question: given BBMP’s higher water (and sanitation) tariff for non-domestic consumers, why are not more offices, even in the city centre, jumping at treating (and using) their sewage?

The answer I got from Ramachandran was intriguing: If they were connected to the sewage network, making a change required extra work. Lack of awareness, a certain “yuck” factor, lack of a good product for smaller offices, lack of space and perhaps not being metered were all potential reasons.

After all, for smaller commercial establishments, why pay for something which is free – if you are not metered or the meter is not working?

There is another unpleasant outcome to this dysfunctional metering: plugging leaks is one of the most cost-effective ways to increase supply. Bengaluru loses about 25 percent of its water to leaks.

But how will we know where the leaks are, if there are no meters or if the meters are not working?

Hariprasad Hegde, SVP and Global Head of Operations at Wipro and Member, CII National Water Council, echoed the sentiment, saying given the dynamic, treating water works well in a “distributed, decentralised model”.

This explains why many newer apartments, offices and communities have readily taken to sewage treatment. They have designed their plumbing in such a way that the treated water goes into the garden and to flush their toilets. Many older apartments are hesitating to make the shift, despite there being a regulation mandating any bulk customers to go for zero liquid discharge. One problem is that there is a problem of plenty(!) – even after using treated water for flushing and gardening, there is a lot left over. One option is to feed it to a nearby lake: The best known is the Jakkur lake, which gives hope to jaded urban water management. Sewage from Yelahanka in Bengaluru flows into a sewage treatment plant, and after treatment into constructed, integrated wetlands that purify water and finally into the Jakkur Lake. The lake is clear and supports fish.

Another example is the Puttenahalli lake, in JP Nagar in Bengaluru, which is the first lake to be managed by a citizens group, the Puttenahalli Neighbourhood Lake Improvement Trust (PNLIT). They’ve gone one step further and built artificial floating islands – essentially artificial reed beds with plants that that help clear pollutants in the lake. Moreover, the contract for fishing in the lake means the contractor acts as a early warning system if the water quality deteriorates and the catch begins to suffer.

Other early adopters of the circular economy taking root in Bengaluru water include the Rainbow Drive, that combines smart water pricing (in a way that price drives behaviour), metering, forbidding private borewells and adopting rainwater harvesting and sewage treatment to manage their water supply. Their journey too started because they began to run out of water and found the only way to cope was to wholeheartedly enter the circular water economy. So successful have they been, that they are actually selling 25,000 litres of water to a nearby farmer!

Yet another community, TZED in Bengaluru has gone farther than anyone else possibly in the world in closing the loop in water. They put their sewage through multiple levels of treatment including nanofiltration, ozonisation and reverse osmosis. Then they use it for everything – drinking, cooking and living. Even Israel, the poster-child of waste water use, uses “fresh” water for domestic purposes. The residents of TZED, have really crossed the first and last mile – the psychological barrier in our minds.

Scaling up

But with all this, the circular economy in Bengaluru’s water is tiny. No numbers for the size is available – not a good sign. But if they look over their shoulder, the circular economy in Bengaluru’s waste is thriving. Bengaluru manages 40 percent of its waste. What led to that scale?

The High Court ruling was a key element, the entrepreneurial ecosystem and the NGO were also important. But the existence of an institution, the Solid Waste Management Round Table, in my mind, is key. This organization has brought together all stakeholders – citizens, the government, the academia, the NGOs, the corporates, the vendors, the startups – to meet regularly and set the agenda for action.

Hegde says “Water has always been an issue of management.’ Management, as opposed to exploitation, requires institutional support – and importantly, an institution that reflects all interests and has a process to move agenda and action forward. In this context, an institution such as the Karnataka State Water Network, which Hegde set up and which brings together different stakeholders in what he terms a “a hugely fragmented industry” to share learnings and actions, could bring about the management that Bengaluru’s water so desperately needs.

The real story

We, as a nation, are still focussing on dividing a shrinking pie, as the recent ruling on sharing the Cauvery water exemplifies. In some sense, the ruling muddies the water. Because, the conventional “sources” of water are not as “permanent” as we thought they were. Cape Town’s water sources are being hit hard by climate change. Closer to home, the monsoons that feed the rivers will become far more temperamental in a warmer climate. The Cauvery originates in the forests of Kodagu in the Western Ghats. Those forests are under attack now. “They will never disappear” – that maybe the line running through many people’s minds. But “never” is not a good word to use in warming planet. Besides, rivers have disappeared before. – look at the Arvari river in Rajasthan – it was lost when the Johad was abandoned and the forests were cut.

We are so caught up in dividing the eggs that the goose is laying, while not feeding the goose itself or creating new gooses. We have been exploiting and dividing our water. We need to start managing our water.

That’s the story.

The writer is the founder of the Sundaram Climate Institute, cleantech angel investor, teacher and author of a forthcoming book on Climate Change and India. Follow her work on her website; on Twitter; or write to her at

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