Bali’s troubled waters: from subak to tourism

An ethnographic insight into the social and environmental consequences of land conversion and groundwater extraction for tourism.

A water spout in a temple in Bali, Indonesia. Image: author

Gede lives in Canggu, Bali, Indonesia. He participates in traditional activities such as community events, ceremonies and administrative duties and also hosts visitors in his guesthouse which he runs with his wife and two sons. The guesthouse is the primary source of income for the family and business has only increased over the years. The property is adorned with frangipani trees that carry beautiful flowers. The land was a rice field just a few years ago and is still surrounded by rice fields but under the surface of this scene lies a troubling reality.

Bali is a small tropical island, with volcanoes atop, rice fields and fruit trees on their slopes and reefs offshore the surrounding beaches. The flooded rice fields are an ever-present companion wherever one travels through Canggu and the mountainous regions of Bali. Canggu used to be a fishing and agricultural village. It is a semi-urban area part of North Kuta, outside the urban fringes of Bali’s capital Denpasar, approximately 20 kilometres from international airport Ngurah Rai, and 15 kilometres northwest of popular surf and tourism destination Kuta. Canggu’s tourism ‘scene’ revolves around surfing, and ‘happy hours’.

Bali has over four million permanent residents, and received 6 million international visitors in 2018, the highest number ever recorded and a 6.54 per cent increase from the previous year. Canggu is considered a tourism-hot spot and is indicative of the rapid development this tourism flood brings. Under the surface of this tourismscape lies what is feared to be a threat to the island’s environmental sustainability: the excessive extraction of groundwater has caused saltwater intrusion into aquifers and is threatening to cause freshwater inequality and scarcity.

Water availability and consumption

Indonesia is subject to monsoon patterns caused by a change in air circulation direction every six months that are known as the south-west and north-east monsoon. The south-west monsoon brings heavy rainfalls (rainy season) between November to April, while the east monsoon carries little to no rainfall during May to October (dry season). The dry season is the most popular tourist season, as the lack of rain appeals to tourists who seek outdoor leisure activities. However, this also exacerbates the seasonal stresses on Bali’s freshwater resources.

Bali’s freshwater resources are made up of 1273 springs, 8 groundwater basins, 4 lakes, 4 dams and around 165 rivers. Less than 11 per cent of these rivers flow in the dry season. The reduction of availability of freshwater is already evident across the Badung regency, which includes Canggu, Kuta, Sanur and Seminyak, where 1,200 hectares of wetland has become dry land that is unusable for agriculture (from a total of 19,118 hectares).

While rice farming used to be the main industry and water-consuming activity on the island, tourism has now taken this position and there is growing concern over the management of Bali’s water resources for tourism purposes. Existing research by Senior Lecturer in tourism geography at the University of the West of England, Stroma Cole estimates that the tourism industry accounts for 65 per cent of Bali’s consumed freshwater and that 80 per cent of the island’s economy depends on tourism.

According to a report by the Bali-based NGO IDEP Foundation, the water table has dropped over 50 meters in some areas in less than 10 years. 60 per cent of watersheds are drying and at risk of drying up in the future. Bali’s second largest reserve of freshwater, Lake Buyan, has dropped 3.5 meters in 3 years and an additional 5 meters by 2012. Aquifers in South Bali, around Kuta, Denpasar and Sanur are already affected by saltwater intrusion and the Bukit Peninsular (far South Bali), North and North-West Bali are most affected by critically low availability of water, with the risk of areas running dry if current extraction rates continue. The report estimates that only the tourism industry already accounts for a water deficit of 3,8 m3/day across Bali.

Despite these results, most residents think that water availability is not a problem. Perhaps because saltwater intrusion is very regionally limited or because residents do not want to admit to a potential crisis and risk ruining the reputation of this thriving tourism destination. However, it has become obvious that huge volumes of water are needed to quench the thirst of Canggu’s tourism economy. Tourism businesses such as hotel operators, owners, staff and tourists themselves, consume large quantities of groundwater to maintain gardens, fill swimming pools, golf courses and cleaning services. With Western-style bathrooms and machine laundry services, tourists require almost three times more water than Indonesian residents. While tourists consume 150–200 litres of water per person per day, local residents only require about 30–50 litres.

Gede purchases drinking water in large ‘gallons’, 24-litre plastic containers that are reused and refilled by privately-run refill stations. These are usually small neighbourhood vendors, similar to a corner store. Most residents use such facilities for domestic use in their own households or to provide drinking water for customers in their guesthouses. The need to purchase drinking water arises out of water quality issues. Since 2011, the Ayung and Pakerisan rivers, which run from the central mountain ranges to the south of the island, have been downgraded by the Bali Regional Government to Class 3 pollution, deeming them unfit for human consumption and recreational purposes yet still suitable for agricultural use. The causes of this pollution include “erosion, agriculture, tourism, trash disposal and pesticides”.

Land conversion: impacts on hydrology and cultural heritage

Another factor that influences the social and environmental conditions of water in two ways is land conversion. It changes the surface area and reduces the rate of replenishment of aquifers. While the natural volcanic layers of soil allow water to trickle through and into aquifers, concrete surfaces such as roads and buildings, prohibit this from happening because the land surface becomes impenetrable. Instead, water from rainfall runs along gutters and canals and into the sea.

Converting land also has consequences for Balinese cultural heritage. Bali has a nearly 1000-year long tradition of water irrigation for rice production. The cultural heritage significance of this is important, as the “subak systemhas been declared a UNESCO cultural heritage in 2012. The subak may be described as a collective of priests and farmers who manage water flow, volume, timing and seed planting patterns in accordance with the Bali Hindu lunar calendar pawukon for rice cultivation. Rice and rice fields are considered sacred by Bali Hindus who worship Dewi Sri as the goddess of rice and when a rice field is developed, a ceremony must be held to ask this goddess for forgiveness for disrupting her realm.

While these irrigation collectives draw their water from only a handful of mountain lakes and direct it through the subak system downhill, the way that groundwater is extracted for tourism purposes follows other social norms and regulations. Instead, business owners have to register their well with the government and pay a tax on the extracted amount. An estimated 85% of tourism businesses are owned by non-Balinese, which means that water is increasingly controlled by non-Balinese and money raised from the extraction goes to government departments, not traditional Balinese social organisations such as the subak. As consequence, government departments gain authority over the raised funds, extraction access and volume, whereas the subak do not control groundwater extraction.

Inequality and groundwater

This shift in extraction processes, economic activities and new regulatory bodies resulted in inequity over groundwater in Canggu. Stroma Cole found that a majority of water users extract groundwater through wells and that these extraction processes are mostly conducted without enforcement of existing government regulations. She continues to highlight that there are eleven government departments responsible for clean water who each may set different rules, but not one central agency that establishes coherency. As a result, her research found that most respondents reported ‘weak law enforcement’ and ‘lack of control over lawbreakers’, which has fostered an inequitable sense of competition for groundwater access.

Nyoman is an administrative village leader (Kelihan Adat) and explained to me how Canggu’s residents are increasingly challenged to establish deeper wells that are necessary due to falling groundwater tables. He runs a small guesthouse with eight rooms on his property and had to drill a well (instead of a hand-dug well) to stay competitive in accessing groundwater directly from his property. His well is 60 meters deep and he can extract good quality water, but he is concerned that the water level could drop further because the neighbouring hotel has wells 80 and 100 meters deep. While the hotel is boasting a large beach-front swimming pool and showering facilities for customers only, his poorer neighbours have to go and fetch freshwater from other wells or outside of Canggu in the dry season.

Taking action

Activists and researchers are advocating for the need to ensure the sustainability of groundwater extraction in Bali, by aiming to reduce consumption rates and establishing aquifer replenishment strategies. IDEP currently leads a project titled: “Bali Water Protection Program” with the call to “take action in saving and protecting” Bali’s freshwater and “secure freshwater resilience”. The program helps communities construct recharge wells that would insert rainwater into aquifers through a filtering system, allowing aquifers to fill up again.

Sawah Bali is a foundation that is advocating for the conservation of rice fields near Ubud, Bali’s most famous mountain village and popular tourism destination. The foundation is encouraging alternative farming methods such as permaculture to teach farmers about organic farming. Their pilot project demonstrates sustainable forms of agriculture that are pesticide-free and to create a feasible market for organic heritage rice, to motivate other farmers to keep their fields and to continue subak traditions instead of converting them for tourism developments.

Bali’s waters have become troubled through current extraction processes and lack of enforcement of regulations, that have contributed to overconsumption of water. A collective effort between government, community and business must reduce consumption and increase aquifer replenishment rates to ensure the future sustainability of Bali’s waters.

*Note: Names in this article are pseudonyms used to represent de-identified interlocutors to my research, in order to protect their anonymity. The data represented here were obtained through several interviews with village leaders in Canggu and was the ethnographic fieldwork was undertaken for my doctoral dissertation.

Originally published in German by LE MONDE diplomatique.

Anthropologist and designer interested in design research, environmental sustainability and social inclusivity. Founder

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