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Bali's water question

I Wayan Juniarta
I Wayan Juniarta

The Jakarta Post

Denpasar | Thu, April 13, 2017 | 10:30 am
Bali's water question

Averse reaction: A baby from Tianyar village, Bali, is covered in a skin rash from bathing in unclean water. (JP/Anggara Mahendra)

At the height of the rainy season in early February, when torrential rain fell on a daily basis and triggered floods in Bali, more than 50,000 homes in Denpasar found themselves without any clean water for days.

The tap water company PDAM, owned by the Badung regency administration, cut off its water supply after discovering two of its water purification facilities were clogged with mud, trash and uprooted logs carried by overflowing rivers. It took the PDAM days to clean up the facilities and restore water quality to an acceptable level.

The episode spurred public outrage on both mainstream and social media, with some pointing out the irony of a water scarcity taking place during the rainy season. Others accused PDAM — which last year booked an annual profit of Rp 26 billion (US$1.95 million) — of negligence for failing to anticipate the floods and providing insufficient response as it deployed only seven water trucks to aid its customers during the crisis.

However, the ordeal, which forced many households to spend huge sums of money to purchase bottled water, did result in one good thing: it facilitated the birth of greater public awareness of the island’s water scarcity problem.

A waiting game: Residents of Tianyar village, Bali, place buckets in front of their homes to collect rain water.(JP/Anggara Mahendra)

Lack of water has been Bali’s “pink elephant in the room” for decades. Discussions on the growing gap between the island’s water supply and the everincreasing demand have been a staple among academics, environmentalists and NGO activists.

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As early as 2009, research by the Japan International Cooperation Agency (JICA) warned that the southern part of the island would suffer from a water deficit by 2015. It projected a deficit of up to 2,500 liters per second. Other studies carried out by local scholars yielded similar results.

However, the realization that Bali was suffering from a lack of clean water did not gain traction outside the realms of academia, environmentalism and NGOs.

A majority of the island’s population, especially those being spoiled by easy access to clean water, were not even aware of the problem. Those who were mistakenly concluded that the problem was exclusive to Bali’s poor and arid regions in the east and north.

When nature fails: Children walk home from school under the scorching sun.(JP/Anggara Mahendra)

“It was this ignorance that for years has made water scarcity one of the island’s most unrecognized and therefore most neglected problems,” said activist Viebeke Lengkong.

Dubbed the matriarch of Bali’s AntiReclamation Movement, arguably the island’s biggest pro-environmental grassroots campaign, Viebeke is the founder of I’m An Angel, a charity organization that provides aid to poor villagers in Karangasem regency, East Bali.

Karangasem boasts some of the island’s most impoverished and arid villages, where water scarcity has been a real problem for decades.

In Tianyar, a poverty-stricken region on the slopes of Mount Agung, I’m An Angel has assisted villagers in constructing at least 50 cubang, a water storage tank for harvesting rainfall. Each cubang costs around Rp 23 million and can provide water for up to 25 families. During severe drought periods, the organization usually sends water trucks to fill in the empty cubing. It also provides free health services to women and school supplies to their children.

Read also: Foundation campaigns to help East Sumba tackle water, electricity issues

“In yesteryears, many Balinese people thought that water scarcity was a problem for the poor regions; now they begin to see that it is their problem, too,” Viebeke said.

It is also a truly pressing problem, she added, with three of the island’s four lakes suffering from silting, 260 out of 400 rivers drying up during the dry season and saltwater intrusion expanding at settlements along Bali’s southern coast.

“The island needs to get its act together fast. A comprehensive solution must be followed through with real actions,” senior lecturer Stroma Cole from the University of the West of England said during a recent workshop on water scarcity.

Painful symptoms: The lack of clean water in Tianyar village, Bali, has lead to various health problems.(JP/Anggara Mahendra)

Co-organized by I’m An Angel and Udayana University, the workshop brought together scholars, environmentalists, NGO activists, government officials and figures from the tourism industry and traditional communities to draft an action plan to deal with the problem.

Stroma, who studies water use at various tourism regions across the world and has previously carried out studies in Bali, warned that a failure to act would put local residents in a collision course with the tourism industry — Bali’s economic backbone and one of the primary culprits behind soaring demand for clean water.

In her paper, Stroma pointed out that 100 tourists consume in 55 days an amount of clean water that is enough for 100 rural families to last three years. Now, picture Bali: a tiny island of around 4 million people and annually receives more than 11 million tourists, and imagine the toll on the island’s water resources.

“The solution for [Bali’s] water scarcity problem will have to include a paradigm shift in our tourism approach. We must abandon the existing mass tourism approach and embrace quality and sustainable tourism,” Viebeke said.

Other actions recommended in the workshop include lobbying for unified, island-wide water management; tighter regulations on land conversion and ground water use; campaigning for ecofriendly practices targeting the tourism industry; and continuing assistance for NGOs working on the preservation of water resources, such as IDEP Foundation’s initiative to construct recharge wells in strategic locations across Bali.

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