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Jakarta Post

Irrigation infrastructure prone to climate change, catastrophes

  • Jonatan A. Lassa

    The Jakarta Post

Singapore   /   Fri, November 28, 2014   /  08:26 am

President Joko '€œJokowi'€ Widodo is looking forward to reaping some low-hanging fruit in the first two years of his presidency. In order to do this in food and agricultural production, he has been stressing the fact that more than half of Indonesian irrigation infrastructure is either damaged or in very poor condition.

However, with a changing climate and recurrent hazards such as floods affecting most of the already vulnerable irrigation infrastructure, there is a danger of underestimating the need for careful and deliberative planning.

What is lacking from Jokowi is an explanation as to how his Cabinet will address the natural hazards such as floods and earthquakes to which most of the Indonesian irrigation infrastructure is vulnerable.

How will the ministries anticipate the fact that due to the changing climate, some dams may run out of water due to changing patterns of precipitation in some food-production regions? Irrigation development should be carefully planned, designed and implemented.

Indonesia lost half a million hectares of rice land in only a year. Its irrigated rice land experienced a loss of 10.3 percent during 2011-2012 when it dropped from 4.9 million ha to 4.4 million ha. Most of this loss of arable land was concentrated in eight provinces such as Jambi, Papua, West Kalimantan, East Kalimantan, Central Sulawesi and Southwest Sulawesi. The rice production centre in the eastern region namely South Sulawesi experienced a loss of 52 percent during the same period. West Java also lost 82,000 ha of irrigated land in 2012.

The decline in rice land has been strongly associated with the increasing reduction in function of irrigation infrastructure. In addition, ineffective governance of irrigation amid decentralization has contributed to the problem.

The governance of irrigation infrastructure in Indonesia is shared by national, provincial and district governments. According to public works data, as of 2010, out of the total 3.7 million ha of irrigated land, 2.7 million ha were managed by the national government, 0.56 million ha were managed by provincial governments while only 0.44 million ha were managed by district governments.

In fact, almost half (48 percent) of irrigation infrastructure managed by provincial governments has malfunctioned. This signals the problems of decentralization where provincial governments do not have clear governing power in food security especially in maintaining irrigation infrastructure.

Both national and district-level governments also poorly manage their irrigation infrastructure as indicated by the fact that one third of the irrigation services are either in poor condition or are ruined. In fact, only 51 percent of the total national irrigation infrastructure is in '€œgood condition'€ measured in hectares. Again, only 39 percent of the provincial governments'€™ irrigation infrastructure is in good condition.

Therefore, it is clear that Jokowi should also deal with the non-physical dimension of irrigation systems. However, there are also other issues to be considered. Most of the Indonesian irrigation infrastructure is old, some was built in the 1970s and 1980s during the Soeharto period, while some is mostly refurbished irrigation infrastructure from the colonial era.

The recurrent natural hazards such as flooding and earthquakes often damage the existing infrastructure, notably in the last 10-15 years.

Irrigation damage due to earthquakes and tsunamis has been seen in Aceh and West Sumatra. Damage due to vulnerability to floods has been witnessed in many more regions. With climate change in mind, the question is can Indonesian irrigation infrastructure and agricultural systems be resilient and stand against future climatic extremes? This question is not a speculative one. In fact, many dams often contain little or no water increasingly due to some anomaly in the local climate.

The sustainability of Jokowi'€™s investment in irrigation will depend on how his Cabinet addresses the issue of irrigation vulnerability to climate extremes while at the same time he should also solve the governance problems in the sector.

Jokowi recently posted on his Facebook page that he is going to endorse food sovereignty rather than food security as his key food policy. He argues that food sovereignty means we produce and market our foodstuffs ourselves, while the surplus of agricultural crops is exported. If we are sovereign in our food production, any disturbances abroad will not have a significant impact on our food reserves and we can still have adequate supplies to feed our people.

There is a strong indication that Jokowi is going to be targeting '€œsovereignty'€ in rice '€” meaning achieving rice self-sufficiency in his own way. However, this effort may not show results in the near future. In addition, boosting agricultural production is not only about irrigation for rice. It is time for the country to move beyond rice. Policy on food production should shift from only rice to considering high-value crops including crops such as maize, soy and others including perennial trees like cacao and coffee.

In regard to ensuring future food demand, some old problems such as production technology and poor infrastructure have been identified as issues to be resolved.

The Asian region including Indonesia faces significant changes in demography and consumption patterns, performance declines in agriculture, environmental degradation, natural-resource depletion and climate change.


The writer is a research fellow at the Center for Non-Traditional Security Studies, the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies (RSIS), Nanyang Technological University (NTU), Singapore.

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