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Leon Kaye headshot

In India, Bangalore’s Water Crisis is an Omen for the Rest of the World

By Leon Kaye

Bangalore (officially called Bangaluru) has become the enduring symbol of the economic transformation that makes India the envy of much of the developing and developed worlds. Its population and economy accelerated as just about every global information technology has set up operations in this city of 8.4 million people.

But the influx of people and investment came with a price: an uncertain water supply. Perched on a plateau 3,000 feet above sea level, the city has a complicated system of storage lakes and infrastructure necessary to haul water from a river located over 50 miles away. But those systems have not been able to keep pace with Bangalore’s dizzying growth.

“Neglect, not surprisingly, gave rise to scarcity,” wrote Samanth Subramanian in his profile of the city’s water crisis on Wired.

The result is, at best, a Wild West of water delivery systems that are run by syndicates that adopt tactics typical of any big-city mafia, which Subramanian vividly described in his report. At worst, Bangalore’s failure to grasp the impact that overheated development would have on its water security forecasts a future that some say could become apocalyptic.

Bangalore once brimmed with hundreds of manmade lakes, many of them several centuries old, but the vast majority have been lost; the few dozen left are often strewn with sewage and, as portrayed in the Guardian earlier this year, some have even caught fire.

One local civil engineer, P.N. Ravindra, suggested that Bangalore could become uninhabitable by 2020. He later backed away from that conclusion, but other experts have made similar claims.

The stubborn truth is that the city’s attractiveness to future investors is largely in doubt as Bangalore’s leaders struggle to find new sources of water to keep its ultramodern office parks and shiny residential developments hydrated for the near term.

Meanwhile, the state of which Bangalore is the capital, Karnataka, is mired in a miserable drought -- exacerbating the region’s precarious water security. Businesses that rely on steady precipitation, such as local flower growers, have seen their revenues dry up as the state confronts its worst precipitation levels in over 40 years.

Local press accounts are brimming with reports of huge price increases for food, a trend that could lead to more social instability if Bangalore cannot get a handle on delivering a steady supply of water to homes and businesses.

If there is one silver lining in what has become a nightmare for Bangalore’s business leaders and politicians, residents are becoming more aware of their fundamental right to safe access to water.

National and local laws across India often require certain establishments such as restaurants and bus stations to provide free and clean drinking water to patrons. But one patron at a local KFC alleged last year that the restaurant refused to provide drinking water, even though she purchased a meal. She sued KFC for 1 rupee (16 cents), stating that the company had denied her a fundamental right mandated by Indian law. KFC claimed that it freely provided water to the customer, but could not verify that fact with any evidence, including video feed. The company said the citizen was only litigating to cover the cost of her meal, but the court noted she only sued for that one single rupee. And last month, she won her court case.

In the meantime, stories like this highlight the struggles many of Bangalore’s citizens now face due to water shortages and increased fees for a most vital resource.

Image credit: Eirik Refsdal/Flickr

Leon Kaye headshot

Leon Kaye has written for 3p since 2010 and become executive editor in 2018. His previous work includes writing for the Guardian as well as other online and print publications. In addition, he's worked in sales executive roles within technology and financial research companies, as well as for a public relations firm, for which he consulted with one of the globe’s leading sustainability initiatives. Currently living in Central California, he’s traveled to 70-plus countries and has lived and worked in South Korea, the United Arab Emirates and Uruguay.

Leon’s an alum of Fresno State, the University of Maryland, Baltimore County and the University of Southern California's Marshall Business School. He enjoys traveling abroad as well as exploring California’s Central Coast and the Sierra Nevadas.

Read more stories by Leon Kaye