Away from Bali’s beaches and hotels, farmer I Ketut Jata stands on a mountainside and overlooks the terraced land too dry to grow the rice his family has long used as a source of food and income.
“It is no longer possible to work in the fields as a farmer,” he says.
Experts and environmental groups warn that Bali’s water crisis is worsening due to tourism development, population growth and water mismanagement. Water scarcity is already affecting UNESCO sites, wells, food production and Balinese culture, and experts say the situation will only get worse if current water control policies are not implemented across the island.
Bali, a tropical, volcanic island in the center of the Indonesian archipelago, relies on water from three main sources: crater lakes, rivers, and shallow groundwater. A unique traditional irrigation system called “Subak” distributes water through a network of canals, dams and tunnels.
Protected by UNESCO in 2012, the subak is at the center of Balinese culture and represents the Balinese Hindu philosophy “Tri Hita Karana”, the harmony between humans, nature and the spiritual realm.
“This is one of the very special examples of inhabited landscapes in Asia,” said Feng Jing, who works with UNESCO in Bangkok.
Putu Bawa, project manager for the Bali Water Conservation program led by the IDEP Foundation, a Bali-based nonprofit, says the pressures are putting a severe strain on subak and other water resources.
The island’s population grew by more than 70% from 1980 to 2020, reaching 4.3 million people, according to government census data. The growth in tourism has been even more explosive: less than 140,000 foreign visitors arrived on the island in 1980. By 2019, there were more than 6.2 million foreign and 10.5 million domestic tourists.
With the tourism boom, Bali’s economy has flourished at a cost. Bawa said the rice fields that once crossed the subak have been turned into golf courses and water parks, while forests that naturally collect water and are vital to the subak have been cut down for new villas and hotels.
Stroma Cole, of the University of Westminster, who studies the impact of tourism on Bali’s water resources, says another problem is that the water table is falling because Balinese residents and businesses rely on unregulated wells or boreholes instead of government-owned pipes for clean water. supply.
“Currently the cheapest source of water for people to use,” Cole said. “Then why don’t you use it?”
In less than a decade, Bali’s water table has sunk in some areas by more than 50 meters (164 feet), according to data provided by IDEP. Wells, especially in the south of the island, are drying up or filled with salt water.
Cole said Bali has regulations, such as water licenses and used water taxes, aimed at managing the island’s water resources, but no sanctions.
“The current rules are excellent rules, but they’re not being enforced,” he said.
Bali’s municipal water utility and Bali public works department did not respond to requests for comment.
The dire impact of the water crisis can be seen in Jatiluwih in northwest Bali, where farmers are heading for the island’s largest rice terraces.
For generations, the lush rice terraces have relied on the subak system for irrigation. But in the last decade, farmers have had to import and pump water through white plastic pipes to irrigate the fields.
Back in central Bali, Jata said he tried planting cloves, which require less water. However, the lack of land and subak water ideal for rice spoiled this plan.
“In the past, the water was still fine when the subak was active,” Jata said. “But no results so far… all the cloves are dead.”
According to Cole’s research, other Balinese farmers say they only get one harvest of rice a year instead of two or three due to water shortages. This could reduce food production on the island.
Bali’s tourism plummeted when Indonesia closed its borders at the height of the epidemic. Environmentalists hoped the shutdown would allow the island’s wells to recharge. IDEP is currently placing sensors in wells on the island to better probe water levels.
However, development continued across the island, including a new government-sponsored toll road that activists said would further disrupt the subak system. New hotels, villas and other businesses are driving demand.
Bawa said tourism is key to Bali, but better practice and more monitoring is needed to protect the island’s water resources. “We need to do this together for the survival of the island,” he said.
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Quotation: Bali’s water crisis threatens local culture.
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