Shrinking water bodies, chopped up trees, and a complete disregard for ecological balance have turned Bangalore into a city of inadequate water and disappearing lung spaces. City Express caught up with Leo F Saldanha, full-time coordinator of Environment Support Group-Trust (ESG) and a commentator on urban development, to get some answers.
Can you talk a little about your work with ESG?
I work with Environment Support Group (ESG), a not for profit organisation that has over two decades worked to protect lakes and other water bodies in Bangalore and across Karnataka.
Could you tell us the number of water bodies in Bangalore?
There are over 900 lakes in about 1000 sq km of built Bangalore. About 300 have been lost in the past two decades due to encroachment and pollution, or diversion by government agencies.
Is there an excessive reliance on borewells in Bangalore?
About half the cities population depends on ground water, mainly by extracting water through borewells. This situation is neither sustainable nor healthy. Ground water is known to contain many chemical impurities that cannot be easily cleaned.
Have we failed to conserve natural resources in the city?
Quite obviously yes. All lakes are potentially drinking water sources if the water that is conserved in them is rain. But today almost all lakes in the city are contaminated by raw sewage and industrial effluents, which seep into the ground water aquifers with disastrous consequences. While the Bangalore Development Authority (BDA) must take a major share of the blame for urbanising the city unmindful of the need to protect lakes and watersheds, the BWSSB and BBMP must also be held accountable for letting sewage and garbage pollute these water bodies.
The Forest Department did well in protecting many lakes, but they did not get any support from the Revenue Department which looked the other way when complaints of encroachment were brought to them. The Lake Development Authority has for the most part been involved in farming out lakes to private companies, and is an entity that is largely toothless. The future of lakes can only be ensured if local governments, such as BBMP and surrounding Panchayats, through Ward Committees and Gram Panchayats, are held accountable to maintain, protect and conserve these water bodies for the benefit of present and future generations.
Can we plan to conserve water?
Sensible urban planning that factors in the nature of landforms and assists urbanisation to work with the existing contours and watersheds, can go a long way in protecting lakes and forests - which are the best watersheds. But none of the planning authorities even comprehend this possibility and are content in "developing" lakes, which essentially ends up in turning them into concrete "soup bowls" ensuring their certain death.
With ecologically sensitive and climate friendly architecture that addresses conserving water, especially rain, it is possible to build homes and offices that harvest all rain and let no waste water out. Further, intelligent building design that works with climatological factors can avoid the need for air-conditioning - which is a major water and energy guzzler.
Do different areas have different types of water circulation and needs? Are there architectural systems which carry water throughout these areas?
In water conservation, there is no single solution for all areas. Local and building-wise solutions must be evolved and are possible. The necessary thinking and the technology are all there. Home owners and commercial complexes are just too lazy and are content with building monstrous and expensive structures that simply waste water and energy.
Does the government help in conservation?
There are several meaningful efforts initiated by various divisions of the Government. More recently the Environmental Management Policy Research Institute has undertaken a comprehensive survey of lakes. Some officers of LDA and BBMP have also worked to protect lakes. The Karnataka State Council for Science and Technology is a pioneer in rain water harvesting. But what is missing is administrative and political will at the top levels to allow these initiatives to proceed without hindrance and facilitate more such positive outcomes engaging communities to prosper.
What does you organisation do to help the environment?
After years of campaigning failed to convince the government to take necessary steps to protect the lakes, ESG filed a comprehensive Public Interest Litigation in the High Court of Karnataka to present various progressive possibilities. The High Court responded by constituting the Justice NK Patil Committee which produced an excellent report containing detailed guidelines to protect and conserve lakes. The Court fully accepted this report and directed that its findings must be implemented to protect all lakes and their raja kaluves (canal networks) not only in Bangalore, but across Karnataka. The Court directed that each and every lake and its raja kaluve must be surveyed, encroachments removed and no pollution should enter them. To ensure local communities got agencies to do the work, District and State Level Lake Protection Committees have been set up in coordination with the Karnataka Legal Services Authority. People now need to ensure these orders are implemented, pollution stopped, encroachers removed, a 30 metres no-development zone is enforced wherever possible, and borders of all lakes and raja kaluves must be planted with endemic trees and bushes to improve their biodiversity value, and also as a protective shield from future encroachments.