The Supreme Court on Friday delivered a long-awaited verdict on the sharing of Cauvery river water between the southern states of Karnataka and Tamil Nadu. It was pronounced on appeals of the states against the final allocation of Cauvery water by the Cauvery River Water Tribunal in 2007.

The court reduced the amount of water Karnataka was required to release for Tamil Nadu by 14.75 thousand million cubic feet – from 192 thousand million cubic feet to 177.5 thousand million cubic feet – citing that the tribunal had not taken into account the groundwater availability in Tamil Nadu while determining the final allocation.

The court increased Karnataka’s allocation from 270 thousand million cubic feet of water to 284.75 thousand million cubic feet of water per year, a decision that has been greeted favourably by the state’s leaders and farmers associations. Around 4.5 thousand million cubic feet of water has been allotted specifically for Karnataka’s capital Bengaluru. The court said that this was made keeping in mind the “global status of the city” and the demands of its burgeoning population.

While the additional allocation might bring some relief to the water-stressed parts of Bengaluru, some researchers say that the city has a long way to go in managing and distributing its water supply. They say that Bengaluru needs to manage its water more efficiently or its water problems could get more widespread notwithstanding the increased allocation.

“To some extent, it is a relief for the government of Karnataka as far as drinking water is concerned for Bangalore city,” said Krishna Raj, professor at the Institute for Social and Economic Change, Bengaluru. “But there is certainly a mismanagement of water. Around 50% of Bengaluru’s daily water supply is wasted or unmetered. Whatever additional water we get here should be efficiently managed and supplied to residents so that there will not be much more demand in the future. Otherwise, it will aggravate the problems of interstate water disputes.”

More water for Bengaluru

In 2007, the Cauvery River Water Tribunal had accounted for only one-third of Bengaluru’s needs, since only around 30% of the city lay in the hydrological boundaries of the Cauvery basin. This calculation was made on the basis of Bengaluru’s population in 1991. But in its judgement on Friday, the Supreme Court decided that the whole of Bengaluru should be considered, not just the component within the Cauvery basin.

Taking note of the city’s growth into a commercial and industrial hub, particularly in the field of Information Technology, the judgement said:

“It has transformed into a nerve centre of contemporaneous significance and its population is daily on the rise, thus, registering an ever enhancing demand for all civic amenities...The requirements of its dependent population as a whole for drinking and other domestic purposes, therefore, cannot justifiably, in the prevailing circumstances, be truncated to their prejudice only for consideration of its physical location in the context of the river basin.”

Urbanist Ravichander said that the additional allocation must not make Bengaluru complacent. “We must continue to focus on groundwater recharge, recycling of water, reducing unaccounted for water, addressing planning and integrated watershed management,” he said.

Bengaluru's suburbs receive water supply from private tankers. (Photo credit: Vinita Govindarajan).

Poor management of water?

Over the years, Bengaluru has become increasingly dependent on the Cauvery river for drinking water, said Krishna Raj. The Arkavathi, a tributary of the Cauvery, was earlier one of its crucial water sources. But the river now runs dry. “More than 95% of the water is coming from Cauvery river [now],” he said.

While the Bangalore Water Supply and Sewerage Board is focused on laying more water pipelines in the city, it is not managing the demand for water efficiently, he said. Of the 1,400 million litres a day of water the city now recieves, around 50% goes waste or unmetered, he said.

Unaccounted for Water, or UFW, is calculated on the basis of two kinds of losses. The first is water that is not billed, like the water supplied to public taps or that goes to unauthorised connections. The second is due to leaks in corroded pipelines. This wasted or unmetered water is more than sufficient to cover the current shortage of water, said Raj.

Population explosion

However, water activist Srinkantaiah Vishwanath was of the opinion that Bengaluru’s water supply board was one of the most efficient in India, and it was the city’s booming population that had led to the shortage of water.

Vishwanath said that Bengaluru was the only city in India that was able to come up with an actual figure of unaccounted for water, thanks to the efficiency of the water supply board. “Almost all the connections in Bangalore are metered; close to 9 lakh connections,” he said. “The other cities don’t even have a meter, all have guesses. Bangalore, unfortunately because of its efficiency, can say that 50% of its water is non-revenue water.”

Vishwanath said that in the past 100 years, Bengaluru’s lakes were never a major source of drinking water as the city first depended on the Arkavathi for water, and now on the Cauvery.

The Bangalore Water Supply and Sewerage Board was the first utility to use electricity to pump water to the city, and the first to charge industries higher rates so that the domestic water supply could be subsidised. “It has a pro-poor policy,” said Vishwanath. “It has done some remarkable things. But it has been overwhelmed by the rapid population growth in the past few decades.”