Water Temples in Bali – The Social Dimension of Water Management

During a recent visit to Bali, I spent a day riding through the rice fields to learn more about the traditional irrigation system. I stumbled across an intriguing analysis of the Balinese way of managing water while working on a literature review.1

The Balinese irrigation system is managed through an intricate system of districts, the subaks. These are religious and social organisations that manage everything related to the cultivation of rice, including irrigation. The subak system developed over centuries, constantly evolving to deal with new circumstances. This system resulted in an intricate system, strongly interlinked with Bali’s natural and cultural environment, both at a material and at an esoteric level.

Water Temples in Bali

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Religion plays a strong role in the management of Balinese water. Decisions on water allocations and timing of water supply are made by discussions between subak members, supported by rituals mediated by priests. The performance of these rituals is of critical importance in Balinese water management, not in the sense that the system functions through divine intervention, but in the sense that the performance ritual creates a strong sense of collective purpose. A ritual is not a useless repetitive activity, but rather a means to connect the sacred and the profane.2 The performance of ritual sacrilises the natural environment, lifting it beyond the status of a resource exploited to maximise return. The Balinese system works well through this interplay between practical irrigation knowledge and esoteric rituals. When in the 1970s the Indonesian government decided to implement a Green Revolution, reducing the role of the traditional water temples, the delicate balance was disturbed, causing problems for the local farmers. Nowadays, subaks are again an important aspect of Balinese culture, confirmed by the island’s abundance of rice terraces and intricate patterns of canals, water temples, weirs, offer and other water infrastructure.

The Balinese Subak system is a great example how a decentralised water management approach can be very useful in avoiding a Tragedy of the Commons, as described by Nobel Prize winner Elinor Ostrom.3 Whether such a system would work in Western culture is doubtful. Oriental cultures are more focused on society as a collective, while Occidental cultures seek to maximise benefits for the individual.4

The most valuable lesson from this little excursion to Bali is that water is more than H2O to be controlled by engineering. Water has an inherent social dimension that cannot be ignored by water managers. This social dimension is one of the motivations for doing my research in water utility marketing. The purpose of marketing is to maximise the value that is provided to customers by developing a deep understanding of their needs and wants.

  1. Lansing, J. S. (1987). Balinese ‘water temples’ and the management of irrigation. American Anthropologist, 89(2), 326–341. doi: 10.1525/aa.1987.89.2.02a00030

  2. Normal Habel, Michael O’Donoghue, and Marion Maddox, Myth, ritual and the sacred. Introducing the phenomena of religion, (Underdale: University of South Australia, 1993). 

  3. Ostrom, E. (1999). Revisiting the commons: Local lessons, global challenges. Science, 284(5412), 278–282. doi:10.1126/science.284.5412.278

  4. Hofstede, G. (2001). Culture’s consequences: comparing values, behaviours, institutions, and organisations across nations. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage. 

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