Water is the lifeblood of human and environmental health and thus of civilization, the global economy, and sustainable development. Yet access to water is still largely taken for granted by people at all levels, from individual water users to businesses and governments. Problems related to water accessibility, supply stability, and use—as well as inaction in tackling problems—often go unaddressed. Moreover, typical water security indicators that measure water availability and infrastructure in aggregate at state or regional levels have at times served to obscure disparities in security at local consumer levels [Young, 2021].
Neglecting the largely invisible social and environmental value of water and water availability—in addition to its economic value—not only can directly harm the individuals, communities, and businesses who must deal with water shortages and price increases but also can translate into diminished ecosystem services that depend upon water, such as those of wetlands, wildlife habitats, and urban green spaces, which can serve as public amenities. As climate change, urbanization, and development continue, and in many places accelerate, existing freshwater supplies are being stressed by, for example, increased aridity and overuse. It is thus becoming increasingly important to identify opportunities where interventions can help to resolve water security issues at socially, economically, and culturally relevant scales.
When conventional governmental and policy channels for effecting change are exhausted or prove ineffective or unnavigable, locally focused and organized actions can potentially provide solutions and fulfill community needs. A collaboration between Global Water Works (GWW), a U.S.-based nonprofit organization that connects people in need of water solutions with solutions providers, and the World of Water Action Forum (WOW AF), a resident-led collective in India that mobilizes people to implement local water conservation measures, is providing powerful examples of how water solutions can be successfully implemented in urban communities.
Here we present a case study in which residents, through individual and collective action, transformed water provision pathways in their community. This story represents one of many documented by WOW AF in its online collections of videos, podcasts, and blogs. Although each case is unique, reflecting distinct local risks and opportunities, common guiding principles for identifying these opportunities and addressing water risks have emerged—principles that can be transferred to other communities facing similar problems.
Devi Gopalan Joseph lives in Victory Harmony, an 11-year-old high-rise apartment building with 99 units in northern Bengaluru, India. The water supply for the complex has historically come from a combination of its borewells, which source local groundwater, and tanker trucks that transport river water from distant sources to the building. When Devi first took an interest in her building’s water supply in September 2021, the building required a monthly average of 150 tankers supplying 1.8 million liters of water to supplement the dwindling supply from its wells.
Bengaluru, the largest city and capital of the southern Indian state of Karnataka, is home to 12.3 million people. It is one of the fastest growing cities in the world, thanks to influxes of people from rural areas searching for employment and the growth of technology and other water-intensive industries—and water demands there are growing along with the population.
Since the 1990s, half of Bengaluru’s water supply has come directly or indirectly (via water tankers) from borewells tapping deep groundwater aquifers [Tomer et al., 2020]. The remaining water needs are met by pumping water from the Kaveri River, more than 125 kilometers from the city. Groundwater withdrawals deplete slow-to-recharge aquifers, whereas transporting river water to the city incurs costs from transportation and subsequent distribution, fuel and energy use, and infrastructure installation and maintenance, such as installing the pumping and water circulation systems, all of which also contribute to greenhouse gas emissions.
A better alternative to these sources is available. The 900-square-kilometer city receives, on average, 960 millimeters of precipitation annually. Collecting and harvesting this rainwater represent a viable approach to meeting water consumption needs and provide additional cobenefits, such as reducing urban stormwater flooding.
Devi had long been a proponent of water-saving methods in her home and apartment complex. However, advocating similar behaviors among her neighbors using traditional awareness-building methods about the environmental and health benefits of water conservation proved ineffective. As Devi persisted in engaging with her fellow residents about water consumption, she found a common theme: Water was scarce, and residents were frustrated with the resulting price increases, especially given that their regular payments covered only routine borewell maintenance activities, not structural improvements that would result in more water reaching their households. In addition, as water became scarcer, residents were required to pay an additional rupee per square foot of their apartment for their water access—an additional 1,200 rupees (US$15.67) per month for a 1,200-square-foot apartment, for example.
Meanwhile, Devi also came across social media posts describing rainwater harvesting (RWH) technologies, including articles and blog posts by Ganesh Shanbhag (a coauthor of this article), who works at WOW AF. RWH involves the collection, storage, and treatment of rainwater from rooftops, terraces, courtyards, and other impervious building surfaces for on-site use [Campisano et al., 2017]. It has been estimated that during the monsoon season in Bengaluru, RWH can reduce water supply burdens by 15%–20% [Umamani and Manasi, 2013].
Devi reached out to Shanbhag and other local water activists and practitioners. WOW guided her toward a science-backed technology for treating rainwater as it descends through an RWH system. This water can then be stored in underground storage tanks in the short term as well as diverted to aquifers for groundwater recharge in the long term.
Devi devised a strategy to persuade her neighbors of the cost efficiency of RWH, taking on the title of the “adopted mother” of her apartment complex to evoke feelings of care and mindfulness associated with community-centered approaches. She also mobilized eight other adopted mothers, each of whom was assigned to go door-to-door to nine apartments in Victory Harmony, introducing RWH to their neighbors and debunking misconceptions. Among the misconceptions they encountered were that filtered rainwater was of low quality, that introducing the technology would be costly, and that RWH could not be retrofitted to older buildings. (The video below discusses Devi’s efforts to spearhead conversations and develop an initiative to deploy RWH in her community.)
The adopted mothers thus demonstrated an economic value proposition that was directly relevant to their fellow residents’ concerns, showing them how a small initial investment and some simple changes in the ways the building obtained and used water could result in substantial financial savings and help to restore the water supply from their borewells. The proposition motivated residents to change entrenched consumption patterns, and the adopted mothers secured consent from all 99 households to implement an RWH system, which was installed and operational by November 2021. Working with a vendor vetted and introduced to them by WOW, the adopted mothers also installed smart meters to measure the water collected via the RWH system.
The timing worked out well. November is past the peak rainy season of the year, but November 2021 was a much wetter than average November in Bengaluru. Rainfall exceeded the monthly average by more than 300%, and in that month alone, the RWH system harvested 350,000 liters of water for direct consumption. In addition, the system sent water to the building’s borewells, helping replenish them and meet the consumption needs of the residents. As a result, rather than needing 150 tanker loads of water that month to be delivered, residents required only 20 tankers; and the building saved more than 50,000 rupees (US$653) in tanker expenses—money that can be put toward recouping the cost of the RWH system over a few years.
Common themes and characteristics emerge from investigating successful examples of user-led water solutions like Devi’s case. Solutions and technology providers, as well as other individuals and organizations pushing for water conservation, can apply these lessons to implement successful water management strategies and to develop value propositions for their own products and contexts.
Think Locally, Act Locally
Water consumers at the local level are best positioned to identify the water problems that are integral in their lives, well-being, and culture. Indeed, local user-led problem identification is critical to initiating successful deployments of water solutions. This identification, in turn, can help build awareness of local and culturally relevant issues and generate buy-in for technologies and solutions among other affected consumers.
With their intimate understanding of the impacts of water scarcity and how inaction can cost them, financially and otherwise, local users are also best able to identify, judge, and validate the unique value propositions and potential benefits of technologies in their communities. This understanding affords local actors the language and legitimacy within their communities to pursue consensus building and investments in community solutions such as RWH.
At Victory Harmony, in addition to highlighting the fundamental health concerns of water scarcity, the adopted mothers framed practical arguments through a grassroots, socially informed lens, broaching the issue with their neighbors from an economic perspective: The cost-effectiveness and savings of their proposed system underscored its accessibility and viability. By making the financial argument for RWH, Devi, in effect, made the “value” of water visible, resulting in support for not only a reliable solution to the apartment complex’s water problems, but also one with supplemental environmental benefits (e.g., bolstering the vitality of the local groundwater table).
The value of individuals thinking and acting locally has been exhibited not only in Devi’s case but also in many other efforts supported by WOW and GWW, including, for instance, at a residential building in eastern Bengaluru and a home in southern Bengaluru. In these cases, recently installed RWH systems have also provided residents facing water scarcity with needed resources and cost savings.
Collaborate on the Demand Side
Close collaboration among multiple active parties in a local setting is vital for progressing from problem identification to information sharing and promoting science-based, culturally appropriate awareness, then to solution development, and, finally, to solution implementation. These active parties take on the role of “water connectors” within their communities, possessing the contextual and cultural insights needed to determine which technologies and solutions would be more effective and appealing to local water users.
Water connectors like Devi and the adopted mothers were effective in part because of the frequent natural exchange of information between them and the rest of the Victory Harmony residents, and because they themselves were water users suffering the consequences of local water problems. But also, they were supported by a network of other water connectors via WOW, including leaders in Bengaluru’s water sector who facilitated community-level information sharing. This network also included local domain experts equipped with the technical and cultural proficiency needed to connect water users with the right stakeholders and with accountable solutions providers who can offer quality solutions at reasonable prices for each given situation.
Devi’s local domain experts were the members of the WOW network. These experts also validated her community’s water scarcity issues by observing their need for water tankers to meet consumption requirements, and they helped convey the benefits and appropriateness of RWH technology in her context. They empowered Devi and the adopted mothers with technical knowledge, and their support added weight and legitimacy to the group’s efforts to secure the buy-in needed from the Victory Harmony residents to invest in and install water collection and transportation systems on the roof.
Devi’s example makes clear that action-focused collaboration among various demand-side water connectors helps raise awareness of the value of water in people’s lives and in society more broadly, which can then help convince water users to adopt appropriate technologies to solve community water problems.
Craft Messaging to Illuminate the Value of Water Solutions
Effecting behavior change by clearly communicating the financial and cultural value of water to consumers and devising actionable, agile, and locally adaptable technological solutions help ensure the long-term sustainability of both the solutions and the water supplies.
In successful deployments of sustainable technological solutions, changes in behavior and long-term practices result from a multistep process. First, some event or sense of urgency catalyzes local actors and connectors to act to address their water problems. Once their water problems are validated and they are empowered with the necessary information on available solutions, local actors and connectors can develop effective messaging about the value of water and water solutions with which to lobby peer consumers in their community to rethink and change long-held assumptions and practices.
As demonstrated in Devi’s case, a good first step toward developing a meaningful and appropriate value proposition for a community is to converse with and listen to people experiencing water problems, and to identify common concerns and complaints that can be addressed through solutions. The second step is to hone messaging that succinctly acknowledges these concerns and states how a specific solution can help alleviate them.
This messaging can also be used to lobby government agencies and organizations, including building management, for help acquiring the technology and funds needed to implement a water solution in the community.
The principles illustrated by Devi’s case and others provide an effective blueprint for deploying water solutions and technological innovations in cities like Bengaluru, in the immediate term and beyond.
Knowledge networks helping in such deployments, like WOW, are continuing to grow. WOW is expanding its mission to other cities such as Chennai and Trichy, adapting the guiding principles outlined here to local contexts. With more research and data from additional case studies, these principles can be updated and refined, eventually helping people and communities across India and elsewhere to address the global problem of water scarcity on local scales.
This work is supported and monitored by NOAA Cooperative Science Center for Earth System Sciences and Remote Sensing Technologies under cooperative agreement grant NA16SEC4810008. The authors thank Columbia University’s Climate and Society program for supporting a scholarship for C.W.; WOW’s founder, Dr. Hariharan, for sharing his principles; GWW founders for their valuable input and support for making appropriate connections between researchers from the United States and India; and Devi Gopalan and other citizens for sharing their water conservation stories.
Campisano, A., et al. (2017), Urban rainwater harvesting systems: Research, implementation, and future perspectives, Water Res., 115, 195–209, https://doi.org/10.1016/j.watres.2017.02.056.
Tomer, S. K., et al. (2020), A model-based estimate of the groundwater budget and associated uncertainties in Bengaluru, India, Urban Water J., 18, 1–11, https://doi.org/10.1080/1573062X.2020.1836237.
Umamani, K. S., and S. Manasi (2013), Rainwater harvesting initiative in Bangalore city: Problems and prospects, Working Pap. 302, Inst. for Soc. and Econ. Change, Bangalore, India, https://ideas.repec.org/p/sch/wpaper/302.html.
Young, S. L. (2021), Viewpoint: The measurement of water access and use is key for more effective food and nutrition policy, Food Policy, 104, 102138, https://doi.org/10.1016/j.foodpol.2021.102138.
Indrani Pal (firstname.lastname@example.org), Earth Institute, Columbia Climate School, Columbia University, New York; also at NOAA Cooperative Science Center for Earth System Sciences and Remote Sensing Technologies, City University of New York CREST Institute, New York; Celena Wasserstrom and Adriel Chang, Earth Institute, Columbia Climate School, Columbia University, New York; and Ganesh Shanbhag, World of Water, Alttech Foundation, Bangalore, India