Missing data: Who’s using Bengaluru’s water?
The piece has been authored by Veena Srinivasan and Apoorva R (CSEI at ATREE, Bengaluru)
Bengaluru is home to more than 10 million people and thousands of commercial and industrial establishments including multinational and information technology firms. The city gets piped water supply (~60%) from the Cauvery river and this is supplemented with local groundwater (~40%) to meet overall water demand.
But as the city grows, Bengaluru is running out of water sources.
The crisis of water is not unique to Bengaluru and is a serious concern faced by all rapidly-urbanising Indian cities as the demand for freshwater rises steeply. To take effective action, we need to know how much water is available and how much is being used by whom.
In addition to complete water use data across establishments, we also need to be able to compare water use efficiency through metrics such as water consumption per litre per employee or litre per tonne of product, at each factory or office location
The data gap
While we can get a reasonable estimate of domestic water use from surveys and billing data, there remains a serious knowledge gap on water use by commercial, industrial and institutional (CII) water-users in Indian cities.
Groundwater use data, in particular, is a critical missing gap. Without such an estimate it would be difficult to understand what population the city’s aquifers can support and what risks the sector will face during a future drought.
To address this gap, a recent report by the Ashoka Trust for Research in Ecology and the Environment (ATREE) estimated CII water use to be ~380 million litres per day for 2015, about a quarter of Bangalore’s domestic water use. Of this, ~71% is from local groundwater - either through bore wells or supplied from tankers. Much of this is in the newly growing suburbs of Bangalore, where groundwater levels are declining.
Need for better data on groundwater use
Piped supply metered records are the most reliable available datasets on water use. Bangalore Water Supply and Sewerage Board (BWSSB) supplies piped water to CII establishments and this is metered and estimated to be ~110 million litres per day in 2015. But groundwater consumption by such establishments remains largely unmetered.
CII establishments are required to report their groundwater and total water use to the Karnataka State Pollution Control Board (KSPCB) as a part of compliance requirements through the consent to establish/operate and the annual environment statements. For most establishments, the water use reported to KSPCB is based on estimates and not actual metered readings. Although metering was mandated under the erstwhile Water Cess Act (which was repealed in 2017), and many large IT campuses do submit detailed consumption reports, many small and medium enterprises do not track their water use or extraction from borewells.
Need for better metrics and benchmarks on water consumption
Most CII units report aggregate water consumption across all locations. However, to benchmark companies and track progress, what is needed is disaggregated information on water consumption from different sources and at different locations. This means companies need to disclose water use by source at each location.
The Central Pollution Control Board (CPCB) published water use benchmarks for some industries for the period 1980-2012. Since then, to our knowledge, there has been no other benchmarking initiative for the sector in the public domain. If ESG standards for water are to be developed and enforced, we first need standards for water data reporting.
Approaches to estimating water-use
In the absence of reliable groundwater data and water use benchmarks for different industries, the ATREE report used two different approaches to estimate CII water use for Bengaluru city.
First, a sample of different categories of industries/ commercial units in the KSPCB records was considered. This included IT firms, garment factories, electrical/ electronics factories, pharmaceutical companies as well as hotels and hospitals. Using firm-level stated water consumption data, water use per employee per day (as a metric) was estimated for each category of industry, along with a sample survey of commercial establishments. The number of employees in each industry category was obtained from the Economic Census database. Therefore, the water use per employee per day metric was multiplied by employment in each industry in the city to estimate water use for the city.
Second, the city was split into six divisions matching BWSSB divisions. For each division, the dependency on groundwater (in percentage) reported by CII establishments was estimated. As the BWSSB piped supply data to CII users in these divisions was known, it was possible to arrive at a rough estimate of groundwater consumption using the self-reported groundwater dependency.
The analysis indicated that the CII sector is severely underestimating its water use. Groundwater data remains the critical missing gap.
Commitments fall short without the right data
This is a time when business leaders are increasingly showing interest in addressing global water challenges through corporate water stewardship programmes. Companies are paying more attention to their own water footprint and taking measures to better manage water and wastewater, signing up for voluntary targets under initiatives such as the Alliance for Water Stewardship and the CEO Water Mandate.
Adhering to these commitments requires companies to accurately track water use over time. Unlike carbon, over-pumping of groundwater in a water-scarce region cannot be compensated by recharge in some other water abundant region. Sustainability indices are increasingly recognising this and requiring companies to take into account the conditions in the river basin in which facilities are located, when setting “net water positive” targets (a net water positive commitment means a company is committing to replenish more water into the aquifer than it extracts).
Going forward, we need to strengthen the accounting of water use through better reporting and aggregation. But it’s not enough for firms to meter and track water use “within the fence” for their own records. Water is a common-pool resource, so if companies are to de-risk their own operations, they need to ensure water in the river basin as a whole is sustained. This requires better data, not just on their own facilities but on all water users who share the resource. In other words, if we are to plan for a more water-secure future, creating a public database around water use is urgently needed.
Veena Srinivasan and Apoorva R work at the Centre for Social and Environmental Innovation at the Ashoka Trust for Research in Ecology and the Environment (ATREE), Bengaluru The views expressed are personal.
[The piece has been authored by Veena Srinivasan and Apoorva R (CSEI at ATREE, Bengaluru)]