Access to water and sanitation services on Bangalore’s peripheries: Research Reflections of an MSc student
By Hannah Crichton-Smith
A member of ASSAR's East Africa team, Hannah is studying for a Master’s of Science in Water Security and International Development at the University of East Anglia, UK. Demonstrating the truly cross-regional nature of ASSAR, Hannah recently spent three months as an intern with the ASSAR-India Team in Bangalore where she conducted a literature review on peri-urban conceptualisations and primary research for her Master’s thesis. Her thesis aims to examine how peri-urban dynamics and climate variability are shaping people's access to water and sanitation services on Bangalore's peripheries.
Arriving in Bangalore just over three months ago, my eyes were quickly drawn to the specks of blue and black that sit atop the brightly coloured houses. Initially believing these to be some sort of rainwater harvesting system, on closer inspection I realised that these were in fact large stores of groundwater, pumped up, in some places, from 800 to 1000 feet beneath the earth. I later learnt that Bangalore’s piped water supply is sourced from the Cauvery River, around 100km away and pumped up 500 metres, at great cost to the city’s Water Board. Further reading revealed that historically Bangalore’s water was supplied through an ingenious system of man-made lakes and tanks. This great feat of engineering provided safe drinking water and an irrigation mechanism and controlled the risk of flooding during the monsoon season.
Today, many of these old tanks have been encroached on or filled up as a result of multiple urbanisation processes. Many tanks have been transformed into bus stations and sports stadia, increasing the risk of flooding. The few that remain have been compromised by other development and are heavily polluted by industrial and domestic waste. Two lakes which recently featured in the local, and even national news, were Bellandur and Varthur. The former was so polluted it caught fire, the latter so contaminated a permanent cloud of foam breathes in time with the outflow of water, and waits for the slightest breeze to lift its purple-tinged froth into the air and nearby traffic.
The extent of Bangalore’s water woes are hard to ignore, particularly on the city’s peripheries. Municipal pipes are yet to reach these areas, despite many households having paid for their constructioni. Lacking alternatives, groundwater is being abstracted at an alarming rate. Between February 2009 and January 2010 the growth of borewells stood at 14.88%, and with limited recharge rates, is now recognised as ‘over exploited’ by the Central Groundwater Boardii.
I came to Bangalore to explore how peri-urban dynamics and climate variability are shaping access to water and sanitation services, and reshaping the vulnerability of peri-urban communities.
Conducting field research for the first time, let alone in another country, was a challenging task. I needed to identify key informants, locate sites, decide upon my methodology and, importantly, find a translator! Luckily, being based within IIHS, I was given the names of several useful key informants. These individuals provided great insights into Bangalore’s current water crisis. These interviews snowballed into a series of meetings with WASH practitioners, senior employees of the city’s water utility (Bangalore Water Supply and Sewerage Board) as well as other researchers working on water issues in Bangalore. Looking at maps of Bangalore, I learnt where in the city groundwater levels were lowest, where piped connections were absent and, with the help of Google satellite imagery, understood how land-use had changed over time. Overlaying these maps, I selected three peri-urban sites, one each in the North, South, and East of the city (see map).
In all three sites, water seems to dominate daily life. Water tankers fill the streets of the small village of Varthur. Women with brightly coloured plastic pots delicately balanced on their heads, walk back and forth from the community borewell in the hamlets of Srirampura and Jakkur. Children play and help their mothers capture water as it flows from plastic piping into open drains, becoming useless for their needs in Avalahalli. Walking around these places, I was greeted by curious faces and smiles. It struck me how their experiences of accessing water were so different from my own; just a few kilometres away, a turn of the tap released clean water straight into the sink of my flat.
During the interviews, although households identified both positive and negative changes, most positive changes were linked to the rise in job opportunities in the past ten to fifteen years. Many were now employed as casual labourers in construction and housekeeping (in the newly-built apartments) or as lorry and auto-rickshaw drivers. The list of negative changes was significantly longer and included: an increase in traffic, air pollution, rising prices for basic goods and insufficient drainage to keep up with the rising population. When it got to talking about the climate, over 75% of households reported an increase in temperatures and 73% cited a decline in rainfall since they were young. Others (23%) also cited unpredictable rainfall and unclear seasons.
These biophysical and socioeconomic changes had altered how households accessed water for drinking and domestic purposes. While 53% of households had previously collected water from private or community wells, they now acquired water through tankers, private or intermittent community borewells or bought bottled water. Although most households had access to toilet facilities, many families shared these, some with up to nine other households (which, by JMP standardsiii, is considered ‘unimproved’). Households repeatedly cited a rise in mosquitoes as being a considerable threat to their health and described the rise in population and new apartments (constructed without adequate drainage facilities) as the main culprits.
Now home from India, I am busy writing up my findings. I would like to thank my supervisor, Roger Few, and the ASSAR-India team at IIHS for welcoming me and guiding me through the last three months.
i In 2003, the Greater Bangalore Water Project was launched to extend piped water to the city’s peripheral residents. The project adopted a market-orientated cost-recovery framework. At first, payment was simply encouraged, but later, a more coercive approach was adopted with the introduction of penalties. For more information click here.
iii JMP is the Joint Monitoring Programme of global water and sanitation services headed by WHO and UNICEF. More information on the standards can be found here.