Every year around June-July, one billion Indians wait expectantly for an end to a (usually) long and hot summer. The monsoons bring succour to a country which serve to quench the thirst of the people. More often than not, Varuna misses some part of the country and for three years in a row, Karnataka seems to be that forgotten land. With regularity, there are cries for relief and solutions, and the seeding of clouds. But drowned out in this cacophony is the prayer of the Water Board engineer hoping for 'the rain to play truant in order for people to recognise the importance of water management'. Is there a way to manage this scarce resource water better? Importantly, can we implement solutions without breaking the bank?

To get to Bangalore, water is piped over 100km pumped over a height of 500m. For all this transportation, 40% is wasted and regarded as 'unaccounted for' by the BWSSB.
To get to Bangalore, water is piped over 100km pumped over a height of 500m. For all this transportation, 40% is wasted and regarded as 'unaccounted for' by the Bangalore Water Supply and Sewerage Board (BWSSB). Let’s look at the cost to the average tax payer from this waste. If this 'unaccounted for' water is actually sold to the consumer (half to domestic consumers and the other half to industrial ones), revenues of around Rs.285 crores would accrue to the board, every year. What’s more, this is almost half the size of the BWSSB budget of about Rs.600 crores. Plugging this single leak could provide upto 86 additional litres per day to every Bangalorean within the municipal limits, by 2001 estimates..

However, the board till recently has been quite ineffective in plugging this gaping hole. True, there is a move now to replace aging pipes within the city. However, the 'technical loss' due to the old infrastructure is a smaller part of the story. This is borne out the by the fact that a fairly large level of sewerage is generated in the city, indicating the levels of water actually consumed, as opposed to engineering problems. The bigger issue of plugging leaks (theft) is a political one, since it involves charging people who are currently siphoning off large amounts of water through illegal water connections!

From a pure planning perspective, plugging leaks, recycling of water and rainwater harvesting seem like a panacea to water starved cities like Bangalore. Some options are already being explored today. The BWSSB is undertaking a small pilot project to plug leaks within a few wards in Bangalore. This is first stage of an estimated Rs.400 crore project to reduce unaccounted water to 'single digit' figures. The consumer however still is not sure if this reduction in leaks will improve the quality of service and lower tariffs.

Recycling is usually a cheaper source of non-potable water. It is also an ecologically friendly solution. By reducing pollution, we can have cleaner lakes and groundwater. But planning is necessary for use of such treated water. Firstly, a dual piping infrastructure is critical for ensure consumers have a supply of both potable and non-potable water with a clear price advantage for using non-potable water. There are challenges, though. Single line piping itself remains incomplete in around 20 wards in BMP (Bangalore Mahanagara Palike) limits. There is no comprehensive plan for treatment and dual piping. Legislation will be needed requiring all new houses (above a certain size) in the metropolitan area to have a system of dual piping. If these steps were taken, at Rs.6 per 1000 litres of non-potable water, the BWSSB’s revenue could increase by Rs.162 crore per annum.

Bangalore’s rainwater club has done considerable work in capacity building for rainwater harvesting. The Raj Bhavan’s harvesting facilities have almost completely eliminated dependence on the BWSSB. As per the estimate by Mr.Vishwanath of the Club, the city of Bangalore can meet almost a third of its water needs through the harvesting of rainwater. If done on the scale of an entire city, that means an extra water source of almost 300 MLD within the city of Bangalore. While rapid deployment of rainwater harvesting measures is a tall expectation, doable steps exist. Ensuring that rainwater is harvested in new buildings and on older buildings with a large roof areas is a good first step. Eventually, making it compulsory for all buildings in a phased manner across Bangalore is necessary like what is being undertaken in Chennai and Tamilnadu.

So there is a foreseeable path of progress in any of these areas – plugging theft, piping changes for recycled water, and harvesting. Despite this, only anecdotal success has been seen in any of the spheres. Moving forward needs more than good administrators willing to bring in systemic changes. Take theft. The BWSSB as an organization is unlikely to have success to reduce theft especially with widespread support for this practice allegedly from its own engineers, politicians and the general public. Reducing theft requires us to revisit the entire structure of financial arrangements by which water is paid for and supplied at every interconnection point.

A well interconnected structure of the stakeholders to financially manage the flow of water in return for revenues is needed.
Taking water supply out of the hands of the municipality (ironically, citizens commonly refer to city water as ‘corporation water’) into a specialist water supply and sanitation board was an well-intentioned move in the sense that a professionalized dedicated body was asked manage this resource. However, this has brought about a disconnect between the Board, the local government, and the citizens. The Board blames the politicians for encouraging the loss of water. Equally noticed is the blame showered on the Board by the politicians, for the former’s failures in not being able to provide water to everyone. Caught in the cross fire are the citizens. Some are unwilling to interact with either the Board or the politicians, while others would prefer to get themselves another one of those 'illegal connections'.

On the other hand, a well interconnected structure of the stakeholders to financially manage the flow of water in return for revenues is needed. This offers the best chance to both increase the financial viability of the Water Board but also ensure a well managed water supply to Bangalore.

Firstly, graded tariff reduction programmes could for example be offered by the board as a political SOP for co-operation to reduce the problem of illegal connections. Incentives and investment for dual piping systems and rain water harvesting can be phased in over a five year period. Concessions should clearly be based on the performance of the local body. Similarly, citizens and even employees of the BWSSB could be given cash incentives to be whistle blowers reporting cases of water wastage or illegal water use.

A structural change in the financial arena may allow citizens to hold their municipalities accountable for water distribution itself. The water supply board could be the provider of wholesale water, to the municipality. The municipality retails the water. The water board then holds a very powerful switch; it can turn off the tap if its dues are not cleared. This provides a great incentive for the BMP or for that matter any local body to ensure its revenue collections are on the ball, which means leaks will have to be plugged eventually. A system of incentives and penalties must be in place for each stake-holder (not just the citizens who they default on payments) to ensure the balance of responsibilities. This will also ensure stakeholder involvement. Furthermore, mandated, regular and systematic interactions between the BWSSB, the BMP and the citizens of Bangalore will help.

The point is that a well designed financial structure offers the opportunity that everyone has an incentive to make and keep their promises. To some extent this is independent of which specific approaches to water management and conservation are actually taken. If we can incorporate a financial balance to the management of water, we will set ourselves up for a win-win for citizens, water supply agencies, and local governments alike. Instituting these changes will require support from all stake holders including citizens and the BMP.