Tegallalang rice terraces (Photo via Vacation Bali Indonesia)

This water management system is what's keeping Bali's rice fields alive.

Retno Wulandari   03 November 2016 16:12

Brilio.net - Anyone who has been to Bali may already be familiar with the beautiful rice terraces such as those in Tegallang and Jatiluwih, popular sites for tourist photo ops. Beyond the stunning panorama, however, these terraces are actually part of an agricultural system called subak that helps maintain the growth of these very fields. 

Recognized by Unesco as one of its World Heritages, subak is a Balinese traditional agricultural system that is believed to have existed before the 11th century, according to an ancient epigraph called Prasasti Raja Purana Klungkung. That makes it earlier than the construction of the majestic Pura Besakih, the largest temple in Bali, which was established in 1284. 

Tegallalang rice terraces (Photo via Ubud Scooter Rental)

According to Steve Lansing of Arizona University, subak is a very democratic agricultural system. After a 30-year research, Lansing found that the process is more than just a system of management and distribution of water for irrigation. It’s also a religious and social system governing the life of Bali's farmers. 

Bali boasts over 1,274 subaks and each of them comes with one rice cultivation area. The practice isbased on a local wisdom called Tri Hita Karana, or the three causes of happiness, namely Parahyangan, the harmonious relationship between man and God; Pawongan, the harmonious relationship between fellow humans; and Palemahan, the harmonious relationship between human and the nature.

Balinese farmer plowing the soil (Photo via Berita Bali)

How it works

Agriculture in Bali relies heavily on natural water sources, such as rivers and lakes. The subak system manages those resources in order to give farmers all over region the water they need, at the right and equitable amount. The concept focuses on prosperity and equality for everyone, a bottom-up system that even the government cannot interfere with.

A village may have more than one subak, eahc of which will be managed by a highly respected, customary leader calle kelian. Before building any irrigation system, the kelian would hold an initial meeting with his subak members, including farmers and local community leaders, to determine how the subak will help in irrigation, how much water is needed for the growth of rice fields, and how long the work would take. Throughout this process, the principles of kinship and justice is embraced, resulting in a sense of contentment among members.

When all has been discussed, members of the subak will work hand in hand to building water ducts (jelinjingan) from the river all the way to the rice fields, along with other structures such as tunnels, bamboo pipesm and water dividers. These locals are also responsible for building road access from the rice fields to the main road.

Subak as an irrigation system in Bali rice fields (Photo via Kadek-Elda)

Subak system (Photo via Unesco)

In order to achieve harmony with the nature,  the subak system doesn’t change the surrounding natural landscape, such as the flow of the rivers and the contour of the lakes. All they do is regulate the flow of the water to irrigate the farm. In order to achieve harmony with each other, all farmers will get an equal amount of daily water for their farms, regardless of their social status or wealth. In achieving harmony with the deities, in every Subak lies a temple called Pura Ulun Carik or Pura Bedugul to worship Dewi Sri, the goddess of rice and fertility.

During the dry season, when water is scarce, the Kelian will once again hold a meeting with members of the subak, in which they discuss a possible redesign and find out whether or not other members are in need of more water. In such cases, a water loan policy applies, where farmers with sufficient water would "lend" their water quota to those in need. Should the same issue come up in the future, other members will do the same. The water loan policy also applies between two different subaks.

Water ditch in Subak system in Bali (Photo via MDKarya)

Water cascades are one of Subak structures (Photo via Menara FM)

Balinese farmers are planting and harvesting their crops simultaneously (Photo via Wanderingfarmers)

The subak system also manages planting and harvesting periods in order to establish an unified irrigation system. That way, everyone starts to plant and harvest their crops together, without anyone getting a headstart. All of these policies are set as part of an unwritten customary law, with consequences for anyone breaking the law. This includes pecuniary fines or the obligation to carry out ceremonies.

Subak system is governing Bali's agriculture for centuries (Photo via Indonesiakaya)



Up Next: Indonesian Pencak Silat Featured In Ben Affleck’s ‘The Accountant’

Brilio questionnaire

Hi, dearest Brilio English readers!

Spare some time to fill in our survey so we can upgrade our content quality for you!