Solving Bengaluru’s lake, water issues: Citizens’ role bigger than you’d think

Bengaluru represents the future of many urban challenges and opportunities. The city is experiencing rapid economic growth, great inequality between rich and poor, and a limited capacity to secure an ecological support for the resource needs of the growing population. With these challenges in mind, I have focused my doctoral research on the question: What is the role of the residents in such a city?

A well-known and defining challenge for Bangalore concerns water, both in terms of a drinkable supply and in safely disposing of the sewage produced. In a recent scientific paper published in Sustainability Science, “Against the current: rewiring rigidity trap dynamics in urban water governance through civic engagement”, Maria Tengö, Wijnand Boonstra and I have studied how this has developed historically to become a difficult problem.

Three events in the 1960s are key: First, the control over tanks and lakes in the city was removed from local communities. This meant that the water bodies were no longer managed as an integrated network for rainwater harvesting, and the people living near enough to notice threats had no power to prevent them from happening.

Second, work began to open the first connection to Cauvery River, drawing water from further away than any other source the city relied on. Since Cauvery had water year-round, it would seem as a more reliable solution than the seasonally fluctuating water in Bangalore’s lakes and nearby streams.

Third, the Bangalore Water Supply and Sewerage Board (BWSSB) was founded to administer all of the city’s water woes. During the coming decades, BWSSB developed a great capacity in delivering Cauvery water – but as illustrated in the brochure to celebrate its fiftieth anniversary, BWSSB has also come to treat Cauvery as “the only source of this city’s drinking water” (p. 12).

These events set in motion processes that created a “social–ecological trap” – a situation where nature and society made a small problem grow larger, and increasingly difficult to solve.

As the city grew, the authorities were unable to prevent the degradation of water bodies and waterways after local communities had lost the right to look after them. Many lakes were converted to other land uses and as groundwater levels plummeted, people started shifting from wells to borewells or water from BWSSB. Naturally, this increased the dependence on Cauvery supply. With increasing demand, the city allocated more resources for BWSSB to increase its capacity. In other words, more effort was invested in the existing approach rather than exploring options.

Remaining lakes are often managed in isolation instead of as part of a network where water can flow between them. This is partly a result of each one being under the custodianship of one of several different public and private actors, but also due to the development pressure that leads to encroachments on the connections between lakes. These are key reasons why restoring a locally based water supply system seems so difficult, even as Bangalore is reaching the limits of how much water it can draw from Cauvery.

However, our research also finds that the spread of citizen-based lake groups in Bangalore may be crucial for unlocking this trap, even if citizens cannot save lakes on their own (nor should they be expected to). Looking at over thirty different lakes, we find that greater involvement of local residents in management helps secure the long-term health of the lake after it as has been restored.

With local residents as eyes and ears on the ground that can monitor and report if problems emerge, authorities can more effectively prevent the regression of a lake into a degraded state. Further, involving lake groups also draws attention to the fact that lakes matter for local water supply and can help question the view that Cauvery is the city’s only source. Most groups we studied motivate their lake concern at least partly the worry for losing water in their borewells, which is understandable since few Bangaloreans get a reliable supply of Cauvery water throughout the year.

Involving lake groups is also important because it introduces a new type of actor to water governance, one with partly different interests and different perspectives than city authorities. Research has shown that this is crucial for finding new pathways forward, especially in trap situations where “more of the same” solutions are no longer a viable option.

Meeting with all these lake groups, it also became clear to me how important the power of the example is. Success stories is a key driver for basically all groups I have talked to. The downside of this is that it is easy to lose motivation when so many people in the city do not take the time to care, or only voice their concerns online. Often, people seem to get the impression that they are alone with just a few friends, fighting an endless struggle. To this I would like to say two things:

First, research shows that without new actors that challenge status quo, old ones may not be able to find a solution to social–ecological problems. In other words, the lake groups serve a double purpose – not only do they improve things directly for specific lakes, they also show to the city that a new way of thinking about urban water bodies and water supply in Bangalore is possible. And after fifty years of looking for solutions outside of the city, this might be just the change of perspective that is needed.

My second note is more personal. Meeting these groups has been truly inspiring for me, especially since there are people from so many walks of life care about these issues – something that I am not even sure that all groups themselves are aware of! I have met school children, college students, young professionals, parents, people at the height of their careers, and retired senior citizens. I have talked to people whose families have lived in Bangalore for generations, and newcomers who moved to the city less than a year ago – all involved in groups and initiatives to save a lake.

One of the greatest potentials I could see was in finding ways to bridge between these different groups. Those who had the time and energy to go out and do physical labour, those who have the experience and political contacts that often comes with seniority, those who through their profession have access to innovative ideas or corporate resources. People supporting this cause can be found in the most unexpected places, and importantly, they will be able to contribute in many different ways. This is exactly what is needed for escaping traps and find a sustainable pathway for Bangalore’s future development.