Bali’s Rice-Field Irrigation System Faces Collapse

A panorama overview of Bali’s famous, terraced subak irrigation system. (Photo: Creative Commons)

Bali’s mystically beautiful rice fields, watered by an intricate, centuries-old subak irrigation system, are near collapse as farmers sell their properties to developers for villas and as other pressures bear on them, according to a global food research organization.

The Consultative Group on International Agricultural Research (CGIAR), a worldwide consortium of public research agencies originally funded by the Rockefeller Foundation, says that with more than two million tourists swarming the island each year, the irrigation system is “is in danger of being loved to death.”

As many as 1,000 hectares per year of Balinese rice fields, which have been awarded World Heritage Cultural Landscape status by UNESCO, are being taken out of production, said Steve Lansing, an ecological anthropologist who has been studying the system since 1974.

“Because the entire system is integrated, when a few terraced fields are sold, the taxes on neighboring farms increase, putting pressure on more farmers to sell, which threatens the viability of the whole,” Lansing was quoted as saying in a CGIAR news release. “At the current rate of loss of rice fields, all subak are under threat and unless something is done in the next few years, the entire system could collapse.”

For decades, Bali has assumed almost magical status, a Hindu island of perpetual festivals with stunning temples, gorgeous tropical landscapes and a populace seemingly steeped in tolerance. But the threat to the island took on ominous new proportions in the 1970s, when authorities built an international airport in the capital of Denpasar, which allowed jumbo jets to arrive with daily flights from Australia and other nearby countries, swamping the island’s own population of 3.5 million with beer-drinking party goers who swarm the tacky beach bar areas. In the 1980s, as the surrounding islands fell into poverty, another invasion of mendicant Indonesians also flooded the island.

Then a new flood of investment bankers, journalists and wealthy expatriates working in business in Hong Kong, Jakarta and other cities swarmed in to take advantage of the cheap land and building prices to build sprawling villas in the rice fields.

“Hotels and resorts started popping up all over Bali, erasing coconut trees and beaches to make way for private terraces and infinity pools,” Point Consulting said in a recent report. “Other beaches were widened and the background nature was destroyed, transformed into parking lots to accommodate the masses of tourists flying in from Australia and Europe.”

Every day, 13,000 cubic meters of waste is dumped and only half of it is recycled, the Point Consulting report said. “Traffic jams are becoming increasingly problematic, with the island’s road connections struggling to accommodate the 13 percent annual increase in number of cars.”

The rice fields, terraced into the hills in emerald green profusion, played a major role in the island’s beauty. In an effort to save them under the auspices of UNESCO, Lansing and his Balinese colleagues have developed what they call a “bottom up model” used by the subak themselves is being adapted for their protection. A governing assembly consisting of elected heads of villages and subak will manage the world heritage area, the CGIAR report said. The Assembly will decide which aspects of the landscape visitors should engage with, collect fees from their visits, and use this revenue for the benefit of all.

“This will be the first UNESCO site in Asia to be managed locally and not by government,” Lansing told the 6th Annual Ecosystem Services Partnership Conference in Bali on Aug. 26. “We hope that the councils will be able to act quickly enough to stop the threat to their own existence.”

“An important development to note here is the preservation not just of the rice terraces but also of the management system,” Meine van Noordwijk, Chief Scientist at the World Agroforestry Center and head of the conference organizing committee, was quoted in the CGIAR report. “The subak manage their own specific irrigation system that is intimately linked to all the others. This is unique to UNESCO heritage sites in Asia where the requirement normally is to first set up a management system that has a top down approach.”

The system was earlier put to the test as a consequence of the Green Revolution of the 1970s when the Indonesian government introduced a package of new rice varieties, chemical fertilizers and organic pesticides. Farmers were urged to plant rice as often as possible with the new fertilizers and pesticides, bypassing the controlled pattern of the water temple systems that provided natural fertilizer and pest control.

“The results had unintended consequences because the absence of synchronized fallow periods led to an explosion of pests,” Lansing said. “Substitution with high technology affected other aspects of the ecosystem because use of fertilizers in the already nutrient-rich water meant that the fertilizer was washed into the sea via the rivers, causing growth of algae that covered and killed the coral reefs. Today, the water temples are in control again but problems caused by excess fertilizers persist.”

In Bali, the water temple system enables the subak to coordinate their activities along entire river systems. Inscriptions issued by Balinese kings in the 11th century describe subak and water temples, some of which are still functioning today, the CGIAR report notes.

“Irrigation water is regarded as a gift from the goddess of the volcanic crater lakes. Each subak performs ritual offerings to the goddess and other deities in their own water temples,” Lansing told the conference. “These temples also provide a venue where farmers meet to elect leaders and make democratic decisions about their irrigation schedules. Groups of subak that share a common water source form a congregation of regional water temples, where all subak agree on watershed-scale cropping schedules.”

That allows each village temple to control the water that goes into nearby rice terraces; regional temples control the water that flows into larger areas, Lansing said. The control of water is key to rice growth, in two main ways. First, the water flows over volcanic rocks rich in mineral nutrients, such as phosphate and potassium.

The rice paddies are effectively artificial ponds in which the fertility of the water creates an aquarium-like effect. The processes in the water help the rice grow through providing the necessary nutrients. Second, the upstream subak ensure that water flows to their downstream counterparts. This brings about a synchronized planting and harvest pattern that has turned out to be an excellent pest control and management system, providing benefits for all, the CGIAR report noted.

By synchronizing irrigation schedules across neighboring subak, pest populations are controlled when the fields are harvested and flooded, depriving the pests of food and habitat.

“The subak have achieved such success by getting the right scale of coordination through a system of controlling and sharing water that forms an integrated irrigation system in Bali, which has enabled them to maintain the ecology of their rice terraces for over 1000 years”, said Lansing.


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