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Bali's ancient irrigation system

Some farmers in Indonesia are hoping UNESCO heritage status will help preserve the water-efficient Subak technique.
Last modified: 29 Aug 2012 12:24

No superlatives are being spared when it comes to describing Bali: Island of the Gods, Paradise Island, Island of peace and even Island of Love.

After landing at the overcrowded airport in Kuta, it takes quite an effort to find this love and peace and Gods for that matter.

The south of Bali has been recklessly over developed to the point that hardly anything reminds visitors of the idyllic place it used to be when tourists started landing in the 1960s. There are heavily congested roads, construction everywhere and endless rows of shops and hotels.

Most visitors will never be lucky enough to see "paradise".

Hidden in the mountains, a few hours drive on a small winding road Bali contains a secret few tourists are aware of.

They know the scenic rice terraces from post cards they buy in souvenir shops or if they are lucky they have taken photos themselves.

That these ingeniously carved paddy fields are the result of a nearly thousand years long tradition of unique water management is something hardly anyone knows.

The so-called Subak system was placed on the World Heritage list by Unesco in June because its harmony between man and nature can be an example to the world.

An estimated few hundred traditional Subak systems are still being used in Bali today.

Chickens and rice fields

When we travel up the mountains past Tabanan, the scenery drastically changes. From being stuck between rows of cars we are now surrounded by cows, chickens and rice fields.

The air is fresh and slightly chilly. At small farm houses rice farmers are sorting out their harvest. Bali, Paradise Island, is near.

We find Ketut Susila resting in his house after finishing his daily round through his Subak.

The farmer is the head of the Gunung Sari Subak in Jatiluwih not far from Tabanan. His job is to make sure water is divided in a democratic way among 35 farmers who are connected through the Subak.

Their paddy fields are irrigated by water that flows from the mountain through the fields of their colleagues - one by one - to finally arrive at the bottom.

When there is not enough water for everyone Ketut Susila will call a meeting with the farmers and together they will decide who will get water first.

This has been the same procedure since the 10th century.

“It is not only a system to divide water but the Subak is the veins of Bali's food production,” says Professor Wayan Windia, who teaches agriculture at Udayana University in Bali.

"It’s a system that unites the community and has therefore a much greater role then simply water irrigation."

God-man-nature harmony

The system is based on the Hindu philosophy of Tri Hita Karana, harmony between God and man and nature. At the centre of every Subak is a water temple and in the old days it was a priest who was in charge of dividing the water.

Still all steps taken in the Subak are surrounded by religious rituals.

Although Ketut Susila has the best work environment imaginable - endless stunning rice fields - he is not happy. Two months after Unesco's announcement farmers are still struggling to maintain their ancient irrigation system.

“Many parts are broken," he says. "We have enough water but we can't provide it to all farmers anymore because many canals have collapsed. We tried to fix them but we need the government to help."

There is a cry for help of a Balinese farmer who has seen most of the land being sold for huge amounts of money to project developers.

“Don’t blame us if we decide to change the function of this land,” he says slightly threatening, “if we can’t maintain the Subak we have no other choice.”