This year’s El Niño is expected to be the worst in history, and the resultant drought in Indonesia is taking it’s toll. So how is Bali, legendarily green and lush, coping?  by Ibu Kat 

People come and go a lot in Bali, so every year about this time I have a little rant about the island’s water issues. The last couple of months before the rainy season sets in are long and very dry; October is classically our driest month.

In the past few years we’d see some rains starting in mid-November and building up to the monsoon December through February. But the 2015/16 El Niño is expected to be the most extreme on record, and that means even less rain for Indonesia. By August sea temperatures had soared to more than 1.2 degrees Celsius above baseline, an indication of extreme weather in the wings. The El Niño now brewing in the Pacific Ocean is expected to end in January but may, in the long term, become more frequent.

Research published in Nature Climate Change last year predicted El Niño frequency could double because of climate change fuelled by the release of greenhouse gases. So we need to get our collective heads out of the sand and start strategising for the medium term.

This El Niño will probably bring a very active, high-ranking typhoon season (with a possible 11 super typhoons in Asia), and is forecast to result in an earlier or faster-than-average shutdown of the monsoon. This means drought for Indochina, Malaysia and Indonesia. Indonesia’s government has already declared drought in 34 of the country’s provinces because of El Niño. Unless you’ve been living in a cave you’ll be aware that Bali is in a very serious water crisis even when the rains come on time and fall predictably. Which they rarely do these days.

DSCF0106The subak (irrigation unit) Yeh Tengah in northern Payangan has not had irrigation for 8 months due to a broken channel, and farmers can’t even grow dry crops because they’ve had no rain in months. 

Rapid and unchecked tourism development has resulted in falling water tables, salt water intrusion along the south coast, deteriorating water quality, competition with agriculture for irrigation water, an increase in water-borne disease, conflicts over water resources and severe water shortages.

There are no check dams in Bali. The volcanic lakes that serve as reservoirs show an alarming decline in depth as more and more water is piped past dry agricultural land to nurture the lawns and fill the swimming pools of Bali’s resorts. British academic Dr Stroma Cole records that 260 of Bali’s 400 rivers have run dry and Bali’s biggest natural reserve of water, Lake Buyan, is in deep trouble from shrinkage, sediment and the inflow of agricultural chemicals. Many villages near Ubud only get government water a few hours a day. Others are struggling with dry wells and dried-up springs.

According to I Nyoman Sunarta, a researcher at Bali’s Udayana University, “As more hotels, villas, golf courses and businesses are built to cater for tourists, the quality and quantity of forest, lakes, catchments and watersheds decline, reducing the availability of water.” He places Bali’s water deficit at about 15,000 gigalitres per year (25 times the volume of Sydney harbour), rising to 27,000 gigalitres by 2015.

A combination of declining water supplies and a late, abbreviated rainy season this year = dry, dry dry. How did we get into this trouble? Tourism is the main issue. The industry consumes about 65% of Bali’s water, and supports about 75% of the island’s economy. A decade ago Bali’s population was 3.4 million; today it’s about 4.2 million. The island saw 436,000 foreign tourists in 2005. According to Dinas Pariwisata, last year 3.8 million foreign tourists and over 6 million domestic tourists visited Bali.

Tourists use an awful lot of water. The same volume of water that would last 100 rural families for three years is consumed by 100 urban families in two years and 100 tourists in just 55 days. All those showers, swimming pools, spa treatments and freshly laundered sheets and towels add up fast. And tourists expect to see green lawns and golf courses and nicely watered gardens. I’m sure they’re unaware that desperate farmers are selling land that can no longer produce crops because there’s no water.

_RLH5903Will this become a rare sight in Bali in the future?

According to Dr Cole’s analysis, another significant impact of the water crisis is its effect on the poorest and most marginalized members of society. It’s these people whose hand-dug wells run dry. (The villa next door, of course, has a deep well.) The latest data shows that 1.7 million people in Bali have inadequate access to a supply of clean water.

It’s a mystery to me why more houses, especially on the arid Bukit, don’t have water catchment systems. A hard rain will fill a big catchment tank in an hour. When that’s gone, the tank can be topped up with town or well water a little at a time. Then if things go really dry you can still wash the dishes, wash yourself and flush the loo from time to time.

Hotels can reduce water consumption by installing low flush toilets and low-flow aerated shower heads, and directing grey water from showers and basins to water the garden. Timing devices can be used on garden irrigation with moisture sensors to ensure water on demand. Most hotels have already implemented policies to wash sheets and towels less frequently.

Richard Johnson is co-founder of Rainworks Bali, possibly the only company in Indonesia offering simple, low-tech rain harvesting and water saving systems. “Bali’s water problem continues to escalate at an alarming rate with few steps taken to alleviate the problem,” he told me. “We’ve received many more inquiries lately from hotels and individual property owners asking what steps can be taken to reduce their water usage.

“We as individuals can make a big impact on saving water and preserving Bali’s eco system with a few simple steps. Check pipes for leaks and replacing leaky faucets. A leak that has a slow constant drip from a pipe, bathroom or kitchen faucet can lose as much as 150 litres of water in 24 hours. If you don’t already have a rain water harvesting system with a large water tank, it may be something that you should consider. Rain Works also supplies VTO eco air turbo 50% water saving faucets and shower heads which dramatically reduces water consumption and electricity.”

Darsih, a Bali-based environmental activist who learned to deal with drought in California, offers advice. “Conserve water at home and encourage your staff to do the same. Wash your dishes in a plastic tub and use the soapy water on your plants; they love the nitrates. Mulch your garden deeply.

Water selectively – the grass may look dead, but it will come back quickly in the rains. Don’t cut it short in the dry season, and leave the clippings where they fall. Wash the car from a bucket, not a hose. Keep lots of water plants in your fish pond to slow evaporation. Install water-saving shower heads.

Don’t wash the floor every day and when you do, water the garden with the dirty water. If you have a swimming pool, use a cleaning system that doesn’t require changing the water. In dry times you can save the water from the washing machine to flush the toilet, which you’ll of course be doing less frequently. I’ve seen many new buildings in the Gianyar and Ubud areas where roofs are built so rain runs off into gutters built into the buildings, with downspouts going into the ground or into tanks. It’s very important to help your staff understand the issue of water conservation. “

So please be mindful of your water use as we head into the Long Dry. This precious resource is already a luxury for many Indonesians.


photos ©Rio Helmi

This article originally appeared in the Bali Advertiser.

Ibu Kat’s book of stories Bali Daze – Free-fall off the Tourist Trail is available from :

– Ganesha Books in Ubud, Sanur and Seminyak

– Amazon downloadable for Kindle