Water Wars - The battle of the bottle

Bellandur, the Bangalore suburb where I live, does not have piped water supply. It is an ecosystem of swank software parks, malls and hypermarkets densely clustered with high-rise apartments milling around what were traditionally villages but now degraded partially to slums and shanties. There is a huge multilevel Maruti automotive service center here off the arterial Outer Ring Road that services about 50 cars a day (and nearly 80 on weekends). Other service stations flourish nearby -- there are enough vehicles to keep them going. Cars are washed continuously for about 6 hours a day under high pressure jets of water. 

About a kilometre behind my apartment stretches Bangalore's largest natural lake -- Bellandur Tank. All of 148 sq km, it is a sprawling water body completely sullied by untreated sewage. I would have described it as a "freshwater" lake but somehow, that doesn't ring true. Drains carrying untreated sewage and flotsam stream into Bellandur Lake from the farthest flung areas of the city. Each drain gathers industrial effluents, domestic wastewater and runoff from rain from all over the city. According to a study conducted by the Indian Institute of Science's Centre for Ecological Sciences (CES), over 400,000 litres of untreated wastewater are emptied into the lake every day. The study found that the total wastewater generation in the catchment area of the lake is over 2,60,000 cubic metres a day. The residential sector contributes 98 per cent of this waste.

The outlets of the lake, towards Yamalur on the edge of the HAL airport, are thick with effluent foam. Inorganic waste (including plastics and rubber) is often burned on the banks of the lake and carcasses of animals and abattoir waste dumped here. Eutrophication as a result of the copious inflow of wastewater has darkened the water to murky opacity. Few birds -- except hardy egrets, herons and purple swamphens -- frequent the lake. I'm not sure if there are fish in the lake anymore and, if there are any, if they can be eaten without serious risk to health. The waters of the lake exude a foul smell at all times, a smell that wafts up into our homes in the dry season or during a storm, when falling rain disturbs the murky surface.  

The burst of construction activity during the last eight years has led to a heavy strain on resources. Despite some scratchy and sporadic attempts at rainwater harvesting among some residential and commercial communities, groundwater levels have depleted significantly. Our own apartment complex, once serviced by three deep borewells, now purchases water at about Rs 1,500 for a tanker load. On certain days, when the demand for tanker water is higher, this rate shoots up. Adjoining areas on the Sarjapur main road have not had groundwater at all in over a decade, despite their proximity to marshy wetlands. They depend entirely on tankers.

The tanker lobby, therefore, is doing brisk business responding to the increasing demand while the supply lasts. Rumours are rife that tanker owners are stalling the plans of the Bangalore Water Supply and Sewerage Board to extend supply pipelines to the suburb. Tanker operators, whose supply originates primarily in a large number of borewells, contribute to lowering the water table with their constant drilling activities. A great amount of water is also wasted in transit, splashing out of poorly secured tankers. 

The greatest demand is for drinking water. The borewell water in this area has a high concentration of dissolved solids, which makes it hard and unsuitable for drinking or cooking. Subsequently, the demand for reverse osmosis (RO) water filters are high, and nearly every home (especially homes with kids) has installed a kit. These kits cost from Rs 10,000 to Rs 17,000 depending on brand and capacity. RO water filtering is a wasteful process, generating one litre of potable water for every three litres wasted. The waste water can be used to water plants (but how many apartments have gardens?), wash clothes (but how can it be diverted into washing machine inlet pipes?) or clean floors and flush toilets. Most of the waste water just runs off into drains - and we are talking of an enormous volume of it. Add to that the wasteful use of water in shower cubicles, double-faucet sinks and washbasins, toilet flushes and dripping taps.

Those who don't have RO filters installed depend on bottled water suppliers. Pitchers (of 5, 10, 20 and 50-litre capacities) are home delivered, often two to a home. A residence of four occupants consumes about 12-15 litres for cooking and drinking -- a 20-litre pitcher lasts about two days. Where does the water in the pitchers of mineral water come from? No one can tell for sure, but since there's a great quantity of them in the market, their source can't be that big a secret. It's most probably tap water -- or worse, lake water -- that's treated and packaged. And, of course, every supermarket in the vicinity stocks crates and crates of bottled water marketed by every major brand. They cost from Rs 12 to Rs 50 for a litre. You are spoilt for choice. And so is your wallet.

In 2006, The Hindu reported that the total annual per capita consumption of bottled water "grew from about 1.5 billion litres to five billion litres" in the five-year span between 1999 and 2004. That makes India the tenth largest consumer of bottled water. Offices serve bottled water at conferences, especially to foreign visitors and customers. Many of these water bottles are opened and not completely consumed. The water is most often thrown away with the waste. That also brings us to the problem of disposal -- what happens to all those plastic bottles? They end up in landfills, along with plastic waste imported from the First World (see the video at the end of this post).

The Times of India recently reported the state government's plan to construct four artificial lakes in Bangalore to resolve the city's water woes. One of the locations mentioned is Bellandur. It would be a good idea to try to clean up the big lake first - even if some of us die trying.

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Interestingly, this video by The Story of Stuff handles the problem of bottled water in a scientific, sensitive and sensible way. The example of Cleveland, Ohio is equally applicable to any city in the world. The message: let's clean up our tap water and stop our pathological dependency on bottled water. Why pathological? Because our need for bottled water is generated artificially (and with great artifice, indeed). You must watch this - it will change your mind.

As much as possible, I don't drink bottled water. I try to carry water with me when I'm on the move. And whenever I travel long distances, I try to reduce my dependence on packaged drinking water by filling up bottles and lugging them along. There are health risks, though, but I find that the practice of boiling water reduces most of them. I have noticed this most in Kerala, where smaller restaurants and teashops serve hot water. That's comforting in two ways -- you know for a fact that it's been boiled, and nothing slakes thirst like hot water. Try it!