Thirsty Bangalore: all tanked up and nowhere to go

June 27, 2012

If you live in one of India’s big cities, you share the road with water tankers. They thunder down the streets, delivering water to houses and apartment complexes, often spilling through some invisible leak. Tucked away on side streets, locals throng them with buckets. Tankers are part of an economic ecosystem that are inseparable from a country whose cities teem with millions of people, but whose public utility companies often don’t have enough water to go around.

Bangalore, India’s “BPO” and information technology capital, is full of them because of the city’s population growth in the past 25 years 1.5 million people in 1971, 9.5 million in 2011, according to census data.

The ‘Pensioner’s Paradise’ cannot satisfy the demand for water. Nor can it always handle routine problems and maintenance. A recent decision by the Bangalore Water Supply and Sewerage Board (BWSSB) to do some major work on the pumps at the Cauvery river, which delivers much of the water supply from nearly 100 kilometres away, shut down service to large parts of the city for two days.

Enter the water tankers, privately owned. The tanks should be coated in EPI (Ethoxylated polyethyiemine) to prevent hazardous chemical reactions between the tank’s metal and the salts that are dissolved in the water it carries. The supplier also must purify the water so that it is safe for washing clothes, bathing, cooking and drinking. Often, it is not.

Tanker drivers told me that the coating was painted on the tank’s exterior, refreshed to make the trucks look nice. This duty they obeyed as if it were regulated, even if the truck was old and coughed up clouds of soot.

By law, they cannot drill wells in residential neighbourhoods to extract and transport water to other places. They are supposed to apply for separate water supply pipes. Trouble is, following the rules would shut down a large part of the city’s private water supply, as claimed by a number of private operators who say that in order to comply fully with the norms, the infrastructure wasn’t available and would result in shutting their operations that were fuelled by residential bore well units.

Instead, they get fresh water throughout the city, feeding illegally at houses that double as filling stations.

Filling your tank can cost as little as 200 rupees a week, and up to 1,300 for a tank that serves a small residential building. That includes transportation, filling and paying the workers. Paying the authorities to look the other way costs extra.

As for the water quality, it’s hard — hard enough to consume copious amounts of soap before even a hint of lather forms.

Is there a way for Bangalore to buy its way out of the problem? It’s not likely. People on the street say the money would vanish as fast as the water during the dry months.

If Bangalore must cope with more people, it will need a radical infrastructure overhaul and better enforcement of tanker regulations, each a difficult goal. There is no clear idea among government officials or activists on when that need will become acute.

One possible solution: take advantage of the city’s reputation for producing technology geniuses. What if some of them used their money and their minds to find a way to make the place where they got their education sustainable and beautiful?

(Private water tank supply workers dump water on a dusty driveway in Bangalore. Photos: Robert MacMillan/Reuters)

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