Waterways of Bangalore: In Search of Lost Paradise


Reviving traditional water conservation methods can help solve the problems of groundwater depletion in Bengaluru.

Bangalore was once known as ‘the city of lakes’. The city had an extensive network of canals, waterways, step wells, and Kalyanis. These human-made water bodies catered to the needs of the population. For centuries Bangalore survived without a major water resource. But the unprecedented urbanization of the past few decades has left these traditional water resources abandoned and polluted. Waterways and lakes made way for apartments and other buildings. Now Bengaluru depends on Cauvery water for 60 percent of its needs. Cauvery water reaches every household in the city but the socio-cultural and ecological impact of the traditional water bodies remains a void in the city’s cultural landscape.

In the past few decades the traditional waterbodies of the city fell into misuse

The decay and destruction of the traditional water bodies have also caused an alarming groundwater depletion in the cityscape. In 2018, NITI Aayog predicted that by 2020 Bangalore will run out of groundwater. The identity of Bangalore as a city has been structured around different water bodies like lakes, water tanks, and step wells. Today most of the residents pay for their water. Manjula Bhat, a 62 year old, who has lived all her life in Bangalore recollects a time when they had a well in their house. “The well was dried up for many years now because there is no underground water. So we had to close it,” she said. Today she and her family pay for water. “There’s no scarcity for water though” Bhat added. 

Water and local culture

But, is getting water enough for a city and its people? When water becomes something that you pay for, something that comes from the tap; it loses the intricate relationship it had with human civilization. “When you don’t have a connection with the waterbody either for daily use or for livelihood or for cultural, recreational purposes, then it falls into disuse.” said Seema Mundoli who is a researcher in ‘urban commons and also a senior lecturer at Azim Premji University. Professor Seema Mundoli added that the several festivals that used to take place around local lakes around the time of monsoon are no longer there.

“If we had told everybody – look, your water source of this particular building or locality is dependent on this lake they would definitely invest much more into protecting it”

– Prof. Seema Mundoli

There were local communities that lived near the lakes. They had local shrines of worship. Water Bodies have shaped local cultures, strengthened communities, and formed social relations for centuries. The disappearance of a water resource, therefore, is not just about water scarcity, it is also about the local culture it gave birth to. “If we had told everybody – look, your water source of this particular building or locality is dependent on this lake they would definitely invest much more into protecting it”- said Professor Seema Mundoli. 

Several lakes had local shrines of worship near them

Past: The Way Forward

In the past few years, public discourse has emerged around water consciousness in Bangalore. Many efforts have been made to tap rainwater and conserve the remaining groundwater. ‘The Million Wells Campaign’ is one such initiative. started by the Biome Environmental Trust in July 2015, the campaign aims to dig wells that will store rainwater. This will help to increase the groundwater table of the city.  The theme for world water day 2022 was ‘Groundwater: Making the Invisible Visible.’ Vishwanath Srikantaiah – water conservationist and the director of Biome trust said that the million wells campaign will also provide a livelihood to the traditional well-digging community. He stressed the fact that as a place urbanizes its relationship with water becomes more problematic. Urban spaces don’t let water percolate underground, resulting in urban flooding. In recent years, Bangalore has become more and more vulnerable to urban flooding. He said it is important to empower every household to collect or recharge the rainwater. 

“We have to look for continuity with the traditional. It just can’t be a nostalgia-driven approach, it has to be a modern, practical, and functional development.”

– Vishwanath Srikantaiah

credit: Bengaluru.urbanwaters.in

Traditional water sources are seen as a key to tackling the world’s water crisis. World bank also pointed out the importance of strengthening communities around India when it comes to water conservation. “Bottom‐up planning of groundwater interventions through community‐led Water Security Plan” is needed to address India’s water crisis. Vishwanath Srikantaiah said that “we have to look for continuity with the traditional.” While we have to grapple with the new world, the local traditional water resources have a lesson to teach us, in terms of principles. But what we have to be careful about is that the traditional water systems also had their inequities. They were caste discriminatory, gendered, and patriarchal. There were huge economic discrimination, social discrimination, and gender discrimination. He added that when we look for traditional water conservation methods to solve modern-day problems “It just can’t be a nostalgia-driven approach, it has to be  a modern, practical and functional development.”

In the 16th century when Kempe Gowda, the founder of modern Bangalore envisaged a city he was convinced of the importance of water in it. Many lakes in Bangalore are, therefore, centuries old. Researches show that the past can serve as a base for making claims to an environmentally just future. As we aim toward a sustainable and just world, it is important to retain and continue the conversation between human and nature individual and collective, the past and the present. 


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