Community-Scale Water Sovereignty: Part I

As part of a mini-series examining best practices in water resilience at the home and community level, this post spotlights three stories of traditional community-managed water systems in Indonesia.

Muntilun, Central Java

A young artist and organic farmer, who grew up in Jakarta, recounts the water management systems in his father’s village in Muntilan, Central Java in the mid-1900s.

‘In villages in Central Java, each family typically had two ponds for water storage, sealed with red clay or rice paddy soil. One pond was used for storing clean water; people shaped the land into contours in such a way that rainwater runoff flowed over the land and into the pond without erosion. The other pond — filled with graywater from bathing and laundry — was used for wastewater treatment. In one corner of this pond, an area was designated for defecation: fish in the pond consumed the nutrients, and the pond was always large enough and situated far enough away from wells and clean water ponds that it didn’t present a health or environmental hazard.

‘In those days, villages embodied deep local knowledge of how water flowed over the land. Each village had one or two older people who knew the surface and underground topography of the land and understood natural water flow and storage patterns. If any part of the village experienced flooding, pooling, or a scarcity of water, these elders looked at the issue on a village-wide scale and advised on changes in land use or infrastructure to correct the issue.

‘Asphalt did not exist at that time; porous pathways made of gravel or crushed roof tiles provided points for water to re-enter the earth. Surface water runoff in the rainy season reliably recharged the wells for the whole year. In that village, folks always allowed neighbors to use water from their own wells if needed. Everyone knew that the water didn’t belong to any individual person; it came from the earth, and would return to the earth.

‘The system doesn’t work as well with deep wells, which are more common these days, because people can’t easily see and manage the water available to them. They become inherently disconnected from the water cycles; this disconnect can lead to overuse of water and fear of sharing due to fear of scarcity.

‘My father said to me, right now oil seems to be the most important commodity in Indonesia. In the future, it will be water. As long as the air, the water, and healthy soil are free for all to access, humanity will be all right.’

Left: A water runoff and defecation fishpond in Bali built by a Javanese farmer, characteristic of traditional water management systems in Central Java. Right: A pond in Bali used to store and filter water runoff, built using an adaptation of traditional methods: clay, manure and rice husk mixed with cement.

Wonogiri, Central Java

In the dry mountaintop fields of the village of Giritirto in Wonogiri, Central Java, residents continue to farm corn, soybeans, rice, and tobacco in rotation, following the traditional Javanese planting calendar, as they have always done. An underground cistern collects and stores runoff from the land in the rainy season, and the community directs the water towards different fields on a rotational basis during the dry season.

Inconsistent wet and dry seasons in recent years have complicated life for subsistence farmers throughout the monsoon tropics, decreasing water security and therefore food security. Giritirto is no exception. A few years ago, residents and the government increased the community’s resilience by using solar power to pump water from a nearby underground river in Cerme Cave — a modest tourist attraction — to water the fields and to replenish the cistern. This modification enables the community to continue with their traditional crops and planting schedule in the face of climate change.

Left: A sign above the cave, illustrating the workings of the solar-powered pump. Right: the adjacent mountaintop fields in Giritirto.


Bali’s iconic rice terraces are sustained by a thousand-year-old network of irrigation canals, weirs, and tunnels, and by a social system that democratically apportions water to rice terraces and fields throughout the island. This system, the subak, is at the heart of Balinese culture.

The subak system functions at both a local and a regional level — from the island-wide coordination of tens of thousands of hectares of fields, down to the coordination of water flow between individual rice terraces. At the source of the river systems high in the island’s central mountains, high priests direct the flow of the water to associations along each watershed on a rotating basis. Bali has approximately 1,200 subak associations, each with 50 to 400 farmers, who distribute the water that arrives in their villages.

Junction boxes along the major irrigation channels direct water flow to rice fields. Photo: Beat Foundation

Within an association, members are part of active working groups responsible for maintaining the infrastructure, keeping out animals, preventing theft, and engaging with each stage of the planting process. Planting, weeding, harvesting, and storing rice are traditionally collective efforts; though each farmer keeps the income from his own crops, the shared workload increases the chances of a successful harvest for everyone.

Members of different associations along the same watershed congregate at the large temples near the river sources, to pay homage to the water gods and emphasize the need to respect and honor the water that sustains all life. Additional gatherings occur at large temples where the water finally meets the ocean, to commemorate the water’s purification before it falls as rain and continues the cycle anew. Smaller temples near rivers, springs, and rice fields provide daily reminders of the water’s sacred nature, and of people’s duty to protect it.

Tirta Empul, one of Bali’s largest and holiest water temples, through which subak water passes on its way to fields downstream. Photo by Burmesedays on Wikimedia Commons (CC BY-SA 4.0)

The Balinese have long known that reliable, democratic, local access to water is the cornerstone of food security and of harmony between human communities, ecosystems, and the sacred — embodying and upholding Bali’s overarching philosophy of Tri Hita Karana, a harmonious balance between man, nature, and the gods. The Babahan Subak Association in central Tabanan province maintains a gathering site and runs educational programs to help locals and visitors understand more about the system’s history and spiritual significance. As the location of some of the oldest written records detailing the operation of the subak system, leaders in this mountain community view themselves as keepers of the wisdom of traditional rice cultivation, and have successfully led a village-wide effort to adapt traditional organic rice farming practices to a globalized, modern context through the Uma Wali rice cooperative program (link in Indonesian).

The Babahan Subak Association in Tabanan, Bali, maintains a gathering site in the rice fields for visitors to learn about the history, culture, and practice of the subak system. The structure is built above a fish hatchery pond to demonstrate that buildings need not take agricultural land out of production.

While some communities and individuals have actively chosen to retain organic, natural practices, the majority of the island’s rice farmers — swayed by the ‘Green Revolution’ programs of the 1970s — use chemical pesticides and fertilizers. When chemical pesticides and fertilizers are used in the upper parts of the watershed, it is difficult for those downstream to grow chemical-free food, as sharing water means sharing whatever has flowed into the water. And despite what one might think based on the lush vegetation and often-abundant surface water in the irrigation channels and rivers, Bali’s groundwater tables are dropping rapidly, largely due to water used in the construction and maintenance of tourist establishments. Please visit the website of the Bali Water Project, managed by IDEP Foundation, for more information on Bali’s hidden water crisis and on the use of recharge wells to replenish groundwater supplies. With water sovereignty, as with so many things, sustainability is all about understanding what’s beneath the surface.

Read more about the Babahan Subak Association, and other projects for preserving local agricultural sovereignty, on the Local Food page of our Planet Local library of initiatives.

Article written by Carly Gayle for Local Futures.

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Local Futures works to renew ecological, social and spiritual well-being by promoting a systemic shift towards economic localization.

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Local Futures

Local Futures works to renew ecological, social and spiritual well-being by promoting a systemic shift towards economic localization.