Indonesia: Rice Terrace Landscapes and Irrigation Associations (Subak) in Bali Island



  • United Nations University Institute for the Advanced Study of Sustainability (UNU-IAS); Japan Wildlife Research Center (JWRC)


  • 06/03/2012

  • REGION :

  • South-eastern Asia


  • Indonesia (Bali)


  • This study was commissioned to be included in the publication “Socio-ecological Production Landscapes in Asia”. This chapter provides an overview of rice terrace landscapes and irrigation associations in the area.


  • Rice paddy cultivation, rice terrace, inland water


  • Japan Wildlife Research Center (JWRC); Kaoru Ichikawa (UNU-IAS), ed.

  • LINK:


Summary Sheet

The summary sheet for this case study is available here.


[Note: this case study originally appeared in the publication Socio-ecological Production Landscapes in Asia.]

Bali is a volcanic island located in the tropics, to the east of Java, the main island of the Republic of Indonesia. It has an area of approximately 5,600 km2 and a series of volcanoes at an altitude of the order of 2,000 m stretching from the east to the west nearly at its center. This backbone range creates a diversity of natural conditions on the island. Bali has clearly alternating rainy and dry seasons. The rainy season corresponds to the northwest monsoon season approximately from November to March, while the dry season corresponds to the southeast monsoon approximately from April to October. The precipitation along the north and south coasts is low at up to 1,500 mm, while thatin the central highland and mountainous area is as high as 2,000-3,000 mm (Shimmi, 1993).

The vegetation on Bali Island varies from monsoon forests in highlands to tropical rainforests in the lowlands through to savanna vegetation in between, as well as to mangrove forests in the coastal areas. The main animals include Bali cattle – a domesticated species of banteng (Bos javanicus), Long-tailed Macaques (Macaca fascicularis) and marbled cats (Pardofelis marmorata). Over 300 species of birds inhabit the area and Bali Starling Leucopsar rothschildi, designated as the provincial bird, is an endangered species endemic to Bali (Ministry of Forestry Indonesia, 2011).

Indonesia is a predominantly Muslim country, accounting for more than 90% of the population, with a minority of Hindus. Bali Island, however, was inhabited by an overwhelming majority of Hindus, accounting more than 90%. Although the number is slightly decreasing as those who believed in other religions increased partly due to migration from other islands, Hindus still remains a majority (Nagano, 2007). Bali Island, which is well known as “the last paradise,” “island of the Gods” or “island of festivals and entertainment,” attracts many tourists from all over the world due to its unique of Bali-Hindu culture (Shimmi, 1993). Balinese people’s common values are based on the doctrine of “Tri Hita Karana.” “Tri” means three, while “Hita” denotes happiness and harmony and “Karana” means ‘cause of’. According to the doctrine (‘three causes of happiness and harmony’), happiness can only be achieved if “the Creator”, “human beings” and “nature” exist in harmony with one another. Thus, on Bali Island, local communities are closely tied to nature, culture and religion (Soehartono and Mardiastuti, 2009).

The number in the workforce in agriculture, forestry and fishery sector is decreasing. In 1971, the agriculture, forestry and fishery sector constituted two-thirds, or 66.7% of the total workforce (Maotani, 2000), while in 2004, it decreased to 35.3%. On the other hand, the number is increasing in the secondary and tertiary industries being 23.0% in commerce, restaurants and hotels, 14.2% in manufacturing, 13.4% in services and 7.2% in construction. (Nagano, 2007).

The subak system Supporting the Rice Terrace Landscape

Rice terrace landscape in Bali island

The paddy field (rice terrace) landscape is a typical landscape seen in Bali Island (Photo 1). In terms of topographical conditions, paddy fields on Bali Island can be largely categorized into those in the lowlands in the lower reaches of rivers; those in valley floor plains; rice terraces in areas of steep slopes; and those largely carved into slopes covered with pyroclastic flows in gently sloping areas (Shimmi, 1993). The paddy fields provide various benefits, including sustainable watershed management, flood control due to the temporary reservation of rainfall in the paddy fields, groundwater recharging and the stabilization of river flows due to the delayed discharge of water. Moreover, other benefits include water quality management by absorbing nitrogen and phosphorus, the provision of habitats for wild animals and the mitigation of substantial changes in temperature due to evapotranspiration (Gany, 2010). In Bali, the perennial crops grown on the land around the rice terraces include bananas, oranges and mangoes, with bamboo groves and different kinds of palms growing well. In the north, due to the lower precipitation than in the central south, coffee and coconuts are cultivated and livestock farming is practiced. In the west, stretches of hilly areas are mostly covered with forests (Nagano, 2007).

Photo 1. Rice Terraces in Bali Island (Photo: Japan Wildlife Research Center)

The Irrigation Associations (Subak)

The paddy field landscape is founded on the subak system, a system of highly developed traditional irrigation associations. It is not known exactly when the subak system was established. Some ancient epigraphs, however, have indicated that it was introduced in Bali Island several hundred years ago from East Java (Gany, 2010). It was in 1071 that the existence of the subak system came to be more widely known. This traditional irrigation system was developed on Bali island and has been handed down from generation to generation up to the present (Windia, 2010).

Each subak is organized by independent farmers who own the paddy fields where the irrigation channel runs or the tenants who work on them. A single farmer can be a member of several subak. The subak is not only an association engaged in irrigation activities, but an organization performing religious services, including fertility rituals dedicated to the Dewi Sri (the Goddess of rice) or the Batara Wisnu (the God of support and sustain the Universe) (JWRC, 2009). Each subak has its own temple. The temples and stone altars are set up at intake weirs. The members of the subak maintain the temples and perform a variety of rituals according to the growth stage of the paddy rice.

Subak have customary law known as awig-awig that provides for the obligations to be met by its membership, which each member has to abide by. All these affairs are managed by the leader of the subak, called pekaseh (Nagano, 2007). Based on customary law, the subak establish the rules according to which the leader convenes meetings of the association, enforces the decisions and regulations made for irrigation channel maintenance and water allocation, and imposes fines against violators, if any (Nagano, 2007).

Rice planting in the paddy fields is subject to regulations known as kertamasa and gadu. In December during the rainy season, the kertamasa governs the paddies by allowing all the members to conduct rice planting, while in August during the dry season, the gadu require only half of the members to plant rice in their paddy fields, taking the shortage of water into account. Thus, subak members plant rice during the dry season under the gadu regulations every other year, or double cropping is performed biennially, resulting in three harvests in total every two years.

The gadu provides the most important regulations for the subak, and hence the relevant official documents are addressed to each household every year to inform them about their turn for gadu cultivation that year. Under the gadu system, rice is harvested in around 3-4 months, followed by the planting of soybeans. In the year when gadu is not applied, the paddy field is fallowed after the harvest of soybeans in July. Therefore, the gadu system not only addresses the shortage of water, but maintains fertility by leaving the paddy fields fallow for a certain period. The lunar calendar is applied to determine the timing of rice planting and harvesting, which can be observed by the members through their section leaders. A penalty is imposed on those who do not follow them.

Seedlings planted earlier than the determined date will be uprooted or the premature rice stalks will be cut down before harvesting. The period for rice planting is set for 15 consecutive days, with the intention that concerted rice planting within a certain limited period will avoid the concentration of damage by birds or insects on a particular paddy field (Nagano, 2007).

Irrigation Facilities of the Subak

The total number of the subak is about 1,200, covering approximately 100,000 ha of irrigated fields. The area of paddy fields irrigated by a single subak varies from several hectares to hundreds of hectares, with an average area of some 80 ha (Shimmi, 1993). The subak irrigation system comprises such facilities as intake weirs, channels and tunnels (Photo 2). Since the river valleys on Bali Island are canyon-like, an open channel along a wall cannot convey water up to the slopes where the paddy fields are situated. Therefore, irrigation channels have been constructed to pass through unlined tunnels. The number of intake weirs on the island is over 1,600, of which 85% constitute the traditional type of masonry weirs and the remaining 15% are permanent structures made of concrete. In terms of the area of paddy fields, amounting to approximately 100,000 ha in total, each type of weir has an equal share of 50%, with the irrigated area per weir amounting to about 40 ha for the former type and some 220 ha for the latter type. The appropriate maintenance of these irrigation facilities, including reconstruction and repairs, has been indispensable to the establishment of paddy cultivation on Bali Island. Thus, renovation and construction projects for the subak irrigation system have been implemented proactively since Dutch rule (since early 17th century until 1945), which promoted labor intensive cultivation methods (Shimmi, 1993).

Challenges and Responses

Photo 2. Irrigation channel (Photo: Japan Wildlife Research Center)

At present, rice cropping on Bali Island is under the threat of a decline in its practice for both technical and non-technical reasons. Serious problems include the competition for land and aquatic environments, the decline in the area of irrigation and the resultant decline in rice yields. The marked physical changes resulting from rapid economic development on the island is clearly reflected in the reduction in the irrigated area, which is being replaced by the accelerated development of tourism infrastructure, including amenities such as hotels and restaurants and amusement facilities. The strong demand for skilled workers in the tourism sector increasingly affects the shift of a substantial proportion of the workforce from agriculture to the tourism sector. Coupled with stagnant levels of wages for hired labor such as for rice harvesting, as well as rice prices, paddy cultivation has become unprofitable today. In this context, at least 5,000 ha of paddy fields have been converted to nonagricultural uses, including housing and industrial sites over the last seven years. According to recent records, the average rate of decline in the area of irrigated agriculture in Bali Province is 1.01% per year, or about 870 ha of irrigated land is lost every year in this province (Gany, 2010). Tourism development on the island has influenced the subak system in a variety of ways. In the rapidly urbanizing West Denpasar District, in Denpasar city, for instance, five subak disappeared during the period from 1995 to 2000 (Nagano, 2007). Besides, the deteriorating living conditions pose problems, including polluted water discharged from souvenir factories such as batik dyeing factories and the encroachment of plastic garbage in paddy fields (Nagano, 2007).

Taking into account the fall in the yield and price of rice in Bali Island, the sociocultural functions, one of the most important functions among the nontechnical aspects of paddy agriculture are brought to attention and the approach that does not simply treat irrigated agriculture as a technical domain, but as an integrated cultural system is suggested as effective (Gany, 2010). In the midst of changes resulting from rapid development, it is worth noting that the “customary village contest”, which evaluates how the local communities in Bali Island are under the guidance of the government, raises awareness among the local people about their own traditions and prevents the land they own, including paddy fields, from being converted to non-agricultural purposes (Nagano, 2007). On the other hand, the problems with regard to polluted water and garbage are attributed to the fact that those with different occupations, including those in the tourism sector, have migrated and settled in areas with paddy fields managed under the subak system (Nagano, 2007). The Mangrove Information Center, which was established in Denpasar city by the Ministry of Forestry with support of the Japan International Cooperation Agency (JICA), had implemented various activities to raise awareness about the massive amount of garbage drifting down to the mangrove forests from the upstream reaches of rivers or paddy fields by organizing workshops for representatives from each settlement and installing carts for garbage collection (Nagano, 2007).


Gany, A.H. 2010. Multifunctional roles in social, cultural and religion perspectives of irrigation water: with a particular context to the paddy field irrigation management practice in Bali Island, Indonesia. ARDEC World Agriculture Now. 43. p. 22-26. (accessed 2011-08-01).

Japan Wildlife Research Center. 2009. Report on the SATOYAMA Initiative in FY2008, p.31-49.

Ministry of Forestry Indonesia. (accessed 2011-09-05).

Maotani, S. 2000. Development and Socio-political Change in Contemporary Indonesia. Keiso Shobo, p.307.

Nagano, Y. 2007. The increase of immigrants and disorganization of the traditional way of life in the period of global tourism in Bali, Indonesia : a case study of Desa Pemogan in the suburbs of Kota Denpasar. Bulletin of Yamagata University (Social Science). 37(2), p.161-208.

Shimmi, O. 1993. The Subak as a traditional irrigation system in Bali, Indonesia. Journal of Geography. 102(7), p.806-827.

Soehartono, T. and Mardiastuti, A. 2009. Human Coexistence with Nature: A case of Indonesia. Presentation materials for the International Workshop on the SATOYAMA Initiative (March 6, 2009, Tokyo)

Windia, W. 2010. Sustainability of Subak Irrigation System in Bali. Paper presented in the Seminar on the History of Irrigation in Eastern Asia, organized by ICID. IID. October 13, 2010.