Bali: the tropical island of Indonesia that is running out of water

Denpasar, Bali – The people of Bali have shared water resources through & # 39; subak & # 39 ;, a sophisticated irrigation system that diverts water from the canal to the rice field and vice versa, since the ninth century. More than just a means to irrigate crops, subak is a manifestation of Balinese Hindu philosophy of harmony between people, nature and the spiritual realm.

But the diversion of water to urban areas in the densely populated south in recent years and the excessive use of groundwater by hotels that house the 16 million local and domestic tourists who visited the Indonesian island last year is disrupting the system.

Along with a drought, the International Federation of the Red Cross says it is affecting 50 million people across Indonesia, including hundreds of thousands in Bali, the island faces a water crisis that threatens food security, traditional culture and Quality of life on the island. .

"I think Bali is in real danger," said Anton Muhajir, a local journalist who has been covering the water crisis in Bali for a decade.

"Some of my friends have had to move from their ancestral homes in Denpasar because the water in their wells has become salty. In Jatiluwih, where thousands of tourists go every day to see the most beautiful rice terraces in Bali, farmers are using plastic pipes to pump in the water they have to buy in the south because the springs in the mountains are drying up. And now we have drought, not only in Bali but in almost all the provinces of Indonesia. "

The traditional Bali irrigation system known as & # 39; subak & # 39; He kept the green and lush fields for generations and is on the World Heritage list. But the drought and the growing demand associated with tourism has left parts of the island dry. (Ian Neubauer / Al Jazeera)

Dewie Anggraini Puteri, fundraising officer of the IDEP Foundation, an Indonesian NGO focused on sustainable development, shares Muhajir's concerns.

"The subak system is still being used by all the villages in Bali, but they are now fighting with people who work in tourism because their water sources are drying up and many rice fields are disappearing as a result," he said. According to IDEP, sixty-five percent of the island's water is used for tourism.

The rivers dry

In 2017, Stroma Cole, a senior professor of tourism geography at the University of the West of England, organized a conference on water at the Udayana University of Bali.

Bali tourism under threat

The discussions revealed how serious the situation had become.

Cole had previously written a scientific article citing several sources, including Indonesia's own Environmental Protection Agency, which discovered that 260 of the 400 rivers in Bali had dried up, Lake Buyan, the largest water reservoir on the island, It had fallen 3.5 meters and a fall of the water table was causing the saltwater intrusion The southern coast of Bali.

A more recent map shows that salt water now intrudes at many different points around the island.

"The Bali freshwater problem is only expected to worsen unless there is a paradigm shift in the mass tourism model and adopting quality sustainable tourism," said Cole. "It is absurd that a tropical island is running out of water."

Vibeke Lengkong of I & # 39; m an Angel, a local charity that provides water assistance to villages in areas affected by the drought in Bali, said authorities had exacerbated the crisis.

"The government has built pipes to divert water from the central lakes, but there is no water flowing in the pipes due to lack of funds and corruption that affects all levels of government in Bali," he said.

"They talk about satisfying people's basic needs, but then they go and sell large quantities of water to companies like Coca Cola and Danone-AQUA that have large factories in Bali."

Lengkong estimates that the average tourist uses between 2,000 and 4,000 liters of water per day, a figure based on the daily use of water in luxurious resorts and villas, as well as in swimming pools, gardens and golf courses and in the construction of a tourist infrastructure growing

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The terraced land for growing corn in eastern Bali has turned brown in the middle of a prolonged drought and water shortage (Ian Neubauer / Al Jazeera)

Demand is depleting the underground waters of the island.

Sayu Komang, program coordinator for water projects at IDEP, said the new data shows that depletion is much worse than previously imagined.

"We have three main underground water channels in Bali and they are all changing shape and decreasing because hotels extract too much water from their wells," Sayu said. "Our research also shows that water quality is also really bad."

Delayed showers

IDEP has developed a double solution to the water crisis: the education of people in rural and urban areas about water conservation, and the construction of gravity-fed recharge wells that in India have replenished the water tables in excess in three or five years.

"We have built 10 recharge wells in the center of the island and we are planning to build 126 more. The government is also building some in the south," Sayu said. "But these are just pilot programs. We need thousands to restore the water table in Bali to a healthy level."

In the shadow of the revered Mount Agung of Bali, Karangasem is the poorest and least developed regency on the island.

This year, the El Niño phenomenon has increased drought to residents' problems, creating a longer and hotter dry season.

Now, the Indonesian Meteorology, Climatology and Geophysics Agency warns that the rainy season, which normally begins around now, will probably not begin in Karangasem and two other poor regencies in northern and western Bali until early next year.

Seraya Timor, on the east coast of Bali, is one of the dozens of villages that already suffer.

Dyed by stone terraces built to grow corn, the hills here are so dusty and dry that it feels more like a desert island than a tropical one. But water for agriculture is not the most immediate problem for residents.

Most do not even have access to enough clean water to drink, bathe and cook.

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Some villages in Bali only have water for a few days in a week and are forced to buy their supply from passing tankers. (Ian Neubauer / Al Jazeera)

Wayan, a merchant in Seraya Timur who, like many Indonesians, only has one name, said he only has water for three days a week. On other days, he draws water from a 3,000-liter tank that cost him $ 200, once and a half the average monthly salary of Bali.

"I was born in this town and lived here all my life," he said. "It has always been dry. But never like that."

Higher up in the hills, the Komang corn farmer's faucets have been dry for more than a week.

He uses dirty green water from a concrete tank that he dug by hand to produce subsistence crops for his family, but says he doesn't have enough water for cash crops like corn. "The rain always comes in December," he said, looking over the mustard-colored hills that descend to the sea. "But that is only within 10 days and the air is very dry."

About 50 kilometers north, Tianyar Timor, a town on the slopes of Mount Agung, is even drier; Here there are no taps at all. Farmers must rely on a series of 5,000 rainwater catchment tanks installed by I & # 39; m An Angel at the beginning of this decade.

Need to discuss tourism

But without a raindrop since April, the tanks are completely dry and the only way to fill them is with water trucks provided by the state, sometimes.

"Last month, the government brought four water trucks, but there have been none this month," said Ketut, a cashew farmer in Tianyar Timor.

"I hope it rains soon. Otherwise, I don't know how we will survive."

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Millions of tourists come to Bali every year, and NGOs say the industry uses about 65 percent of the island's water resources (Ian Neubauer / Al Jazeera)

The Balinese government could finally be taking the water crisis seriously, he said Lilik Sudiajeng, professor of civil engineering at the Politeknik in the state of Bali.

"This year, the governor commissioned the bureaucracy to create a roadmap for sustainable water management in Bali with a greater focus on surface waters that will have an indirect positive impact on groundwater," he said.

"There are two dams under construction in addition to the three we already have and have built four 32m deep recharge wells, as well as 40 shallow wells."

But Cole says that things will not improve until the government takes stock of the elephant in the room: tourism.

"You can say that the drought in the north, east and west has nothing to do with tourism because there is very little tourism there and it has always been chronically dry," he said.

"But the water in the lakes can be distributed equally throughout the island, or it can be used excessively for tourism, as is happening now. They are damming rivers to divert the water to the south, while they could be directing it north ".

"The villages up there are not dry because of the drought. They are dry because of the policy, the decisions that are being made."

With reports from Lala Samsura