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Water Woes

Bali's Tourism Is Sucking The Island Dry

The majority of groundwater in Bali goes to luxury villas and golf courses, leaving some locals to resort to stealing from neighbors for their everyday water needs.

by Jed Smith
26 February 2018, 7:30am

Seaweed farmers work under the sun at Geger beach in Nusa Dua, Bali, while in the backdrop workers operate construction cranes to build more resorts on the island August 1, 2011. Photo by Olivia Rondonuwu/Reuters

Wayan* remembers the way life used to be on Bali. This was before the hotels and villas took over this picturesque resort island, back when the rice paddies were valued for their rice, not their postcard-pretty views.

"Before the tourists came we enjoyed being a farmer," Wayan told me. "It was an easy life before. We never thought about being a rich man because life was so easy. Now people want more. So many of them get stressed because of money."

Back when Wayan, 40, was a child, he would work his family's rice fields, rising early to sweat it out in the morning sun alongside his father before it got too hot. The fields provided much of what they needed, and the island's then nascent tourism sector had yet to reach his village in Cemagi on Bali's increasingly developed western coast. Back then Cemagi was still the remote heartlands of the island. Today, it's a land of $1 million USD beachfront villas and soaring property prices.

A few kilometers north in Tanah Lot is the land earmarked for a sprawling new resort built by Indonesian tycoon Hary Tanoesoedibjo and his business partner US President Donald Trump. It's the latest instance of money pouring in from outside the island to capitalize on its tourism industry.

Tourism makes up as much as 80 percent of Bali's economy, although the vast majority of the sector, an estimated 85 percent of it, is in the hands of non-Balinese investors. For many Balinese like Wayan, the island's growth has passed them by. His family sold off their land once it became too difficult to farm. Today, he maintains a wealthy company's villas, hotels, and resorts, working three times longer than he ever did as a farmer in a bid to keep up with Bali's rising cost of living.

"When the tourists came in everything got so expensive," he told me. "We cannot get vegetables and rice anymore because the Balinese people kept selling their land. There are so many buildings, but not so many vegetables in Bali at this time."

Wayan has started to notice something else missing on the island—water. Bali's farmers first built communal irrigation systems back in the 9th century, back when the ancient ruins of Cambodia's Angkor Wat were little more than plans in someone's head. For centuries, Balinese farmers had access to fresh water to irrigate their crops and drink. But now, this water is running out.

"Before we didn't have a problem with water, but now, when the dry season is coming, we have problems," Wayan told me. "Sometimes we have enough water. Sometimes we don't."

Local farmers have started to steal their neighbor's water under the cover of darkness. Now, to combat the theft, some farmers are sleeping in their fields at night, Wayan explained. It's a dramatic change from the days when fresh water was communally owned and theft was the last thing on anyone's mind.

Wayan paused for a moment and thought about where all the water went. "Maybe it's global warming or something like that," he said.

The real culprit is staring everyone in Bali right in the face. It's the tourism industry. As much as 65 percent of the island's groundwater is being used by the tourism sector, according to a series of studies. Those same studies found that, island-wide, hotel rooms and villas consume some 3,000 liters of water every single day.

That's not even taking into account the water used by pools, excessive showering, construction projects (you need water to make cement), and golf courses—like the new 18-hole course planned for the new Trump resort. Altogether, the tourism sector has caused 260 of Bai's 400 something rivers to run dry and it's lowered the island's water table by some 60 percent. Bali's biggest body of fresh water, Lake Buyan, had dropped 3.5 meters and the aquifer is fast approaching a point of no return as sea water seeps into the fresh water reserves.

It's enough that some experts have taken to calling it a "water crisis."

"This is really significant," said a researcher who has studied the topic extensively. "The more we take water out of the ground the more we create a gap for salt water to fill that gap because there is a constant enormous pressure the ocean is putting on the land."

Once Bali’s aquifer becomes contaminated, the damage would irreversible, explained the expert, who wished to remain anonymous after receiving death threats for previously speaking out on this issue.

“Coastal areas where aquifers continue to be over-exploited will suffer further leakage of salt water into groundwater, which is forever non-reversible, meaning total dependence on expensive desalination plants to treat seawater for Bali residential, agriculture and tourism water supplies,” said Ida Bagus Putu Bintana, a civil engineering researcher at the University Politknik Negeri Bali.

So far the impacts have only been felt by farmers adjacent to tourism areas. In other areas of the island farmers contacted by VICE reported business as usual with between two and three yields a year.

“I would say for the next five years the rice fields situation still be fine,” Ketut Karda, 65, a member of the Singaraja Subak council, located 8 kilometers inland of the tourist area, told VICE. He believes the situation has actually improved for many farmers.

“Now, everything is handled well," he said. "Before, there was no support from the government. Now, in fact, the farmers can get a capital cost or any other financial support to expand their yields."

Nevertheless, with Bali hoping to attract seven million foreign visitors in 2018 the “water crisis” is set to deepen unless government and tourism authorities step in.

“The more tourism goes up, the more the level of the water table goes down,” the researcher said. "So in the short term, water is not a problem. But in the long term it will be a much bigger issue because the water is table is going down, and in all coastal areas there is salt water intrusion."

There is a solution. IDEP, a water rights NGO, told me that a system of “re-charge wells” could redirect wet season rainfall underground to reseed the island's water supply. This system could cost as little as $1 million USD—a sizable sum but still far less than any of these hotels cost to build. But still, there's been little movement by the government or the tourism industry to start the project.

“Water is basically free so there is no incentive to protect water and most of the industry and the government thinks short term,” the researcher explained when asked about the lack of progress on these “re-charge wells.”

I contacted the head of the Bali Hotel Association to see if he knew about the island's dwindling water source. Wayan Marta told me that he hadn't received any "formal information," from the government, but that he had been contacted by several NGOs who told him that the "Bali water crisis is something near in the future."

He also acknowledged the tourism sectors role in "speeding," up the crisis.

“The rapid growth of development and increased population," where definitely a factor, he said in an emailed response, adding that "the conversion of green area into built area is one of the main factor that we believe [is] speeding this water crisis."

According to Marta, the hotel association is taking action by “encouraging” their members to "implement green initiatives."

“We share and discuss a lot of best practices and ideas on how to reduce, reuse and recycle water usage which can be directly implemented on our premises,” Marta wrote in the email. "Those include changing water faucets with ones that use less water, giving guests a choice whether to change linen/towels every day or not, and only use dishwashing machine and laundry machines when fully loaded, et cetera.”

But even with these changes, there's no doubt that Bali has been irrevocably changed by tourism—and not always for the better. Wayan lamented the fact that so much land was leaving Balinese hands for good, questioning what the future holds for an indigenous people who no longer own much of their own island.

"I think it’s the wrong thinking because their land will be gone and they won’t have anything again in the future for their son," he told me. "The Balinese people will be gone."

*Wayan is not his real name. He preferred to stay anonymous because of the sensitivity of this issue.