Subak, the 1,000-year-old water irrigation system in Bali

Have you ever taken a walk around Bali’s rice fields and wondered how they supply water for the crops?

Rice fields in Bali are watered by an ancient irrigation system that dates back to the eleventh century. This system, known as subak, is the foundation of Balinese agriculture and life. It’s also listed as a World Heritage by UNESCO!

Unlike the Romans, who relied on aqueducts to water their crops, the Balinese created an irrigation system around temples, local rulers, and farmer communities. Known as subak, the traditional Balinese irrigation system has existed since the ninth century and is still used today. But, it is not a mere irrigation system; it is a complex social system that embodies the philosophy of Tri Hita Karana or the three harmonious relations of humankind.

Talking about subak involves many technical terms and can get rather confusing, so we’ll cut through the jargon and keep it simple. Imagine an old Balinese village with many small temples, a royal building (usually a palace), and farmers organized in a community. Farmers tend the fields, rulers manage royal affairs, and priests tend the temple. In the village, a central water temple is usually built near a large body of water, usually a lake or a river. The farmers and rulers determine which fields will be watered first to ensure a continuous harvest cycle and equal water distribution amongst the farmers. The priests then manage the ceremonies related to agriculture and the preservation of vital water sources. But the subak is not only about the people involved. The agricultural infrastructure (fields, water canals, etc.) and nature in the village are also an integral part of the subak. Thus, the natural aspects of the subak are also given utmost attention. The community shares responsibilities in taking care of the natural aspects of the subak to ensure sustainability.

The subak system reflects the age-old Balinese wisdom of maintaining three mutual relationships with God, people, and nature to create a sustainable cycle that maintains life on the island. Without the subak, agriculture in Bali might not have flourished and given the island its picturesque rice fields. Despite its old age, the wisdom of the subak remains relevant in the world today, where people are becoming more aware of climate change and the environment.