Wandering Farmers

Balinese Subak system of rice irrigation: Social and ecological farming system


Bali is known for its picturesque landscape of rice terraces. Neatly shaped mountains covered with lush rice crops. The integrated rice-field irrigation system of Bali, Indonesia, called Subak has been awarded World Heritage Cultural Landscape status by UNESCO. It is more than a traditional, organic and efficient way of growing rice. It is deeply ingrained since the 11th century in the Balinese culture and it includes social, water management and spiritual aspects. The Balinese Subak system is a great example of a self-sustaining farming system, which has been developed to fit perfectly the Balinese landscape and culture. It is economically productive, ecologically sustainable, based on a democratic and equal distribution of resources, completely independent from political and administrative institutions and does not rely on fossil fuel or heavy machinery.

Basically, water from rivers is channelled through temples and into canals to irrigate flat and mountainous land. The Balinese Subak system is the cooperative social and spiritual system that controls the water. This system provides unique solution for water management by communities in a densely populated, mountainous area. It is an egalitarian system where water is fairly distributed upon the number of rice field to irrigate.

subak irrigation system

Subak irrigation system with canals to distribute water to the different rice fields below

‘In this way, each village temple controls the water that goes into nearby rice terraces; regional temples control the water that flows into larger areas’, explained Lansing.  ‘The control of water is key to rice growth, in two main ways. First, the water flows over volcanic rocks rich in mineral nutrients, such as phosphate and potassium. The rice paddies are effectively artificial ponds in which the fertility of the water creates an aquarium-like effect; the processes in the water help the rice grow through providing the necessary nutrients. Second, the upstream subak ensure that water flows to their downstream counterparts. This brings about a synchronized planting and harvest pattern that has turned out to be an excellent pest control and management system, providing benefits for all’. http://blog.worldagroforestry.org/index.php/2013/08/30/balis-world-heritage-rice-field-system-on-brink-of-collapse/


The Subak system is based on the Balinese philosophical principle of T ri Hita Karana that draws together the realms of the spirit, the human world and nature. Because the Subak system is manage by community and not government, it has proven to be very flexible and to continuously incorporate new farming technique and adapt to changes.

Balinese rice crop is the most productive in Indonesia. In total Bali has about 1,200 water collectives and between 50 and 400 farmers manage the water supply from one source of water. Though UNESCO has recognised 5 sites, which still respects the natural, religious, and cultural components of the Subak system and which still grow organic traditional Balinese rice without the use of fertilisers or pesticides.

The sites are the Supreme Water Temple of Pura Ulun Danu Batur on the edge of Lake Batur. whose crater lake is regarded as the ultimate origin of every spring and river. The Pakerisan Watershed the oldest known irrigation system in Bali, the Subak Landscape of Catur Angga Batukaru and the Royal Water temple of Pura Taman Ayun.

Even though UNESCO works to protect the 5 sites mentioned above, most rice terraces in Bali are under threat from not only modern farming but also from tourism.

‘The landscape and its cultural traditions are so popular, farmers are selling their rice fields to developers, taking out of production about 1000 hectares a year’, said Steve Lansing, an ecological anthropologist who has been studying the system since 1974. ‘Because the entire system is integrated, when a few terraced fields are sold, the taxes on neighbouring farms increase, putting pressure on more farmers to sell, which threatens the viability of the whole. At the current rate of loss of rice fields, all subak are under threat and unless something is done in the next few years, the entire system could collapse’ http://blog.worldagroforestry.org/index.php/2013/08/30/balis-world-heritage-rice-field-system-on-brink-of-collapse/

The green revolution has also brought its share of grief. The Indonesian government introduced new rice varieties, artificial pesticides and fertilisers. Farmers were urged to plant more often which deregulated the Subak irrigation system. The rest period and irrigation schedule, which kept pests and diseases at bay, is not being respected anymore so the use of pesticides increases.

So in a few words the Balinese Subak system is resilient, sustainable, democratic, equal, productive, flexible and based on collaboration and community instead of government and centralised management.


A video which explained perfectly the cultural, economic and social benefits of the Balinese Subak system




About Author

Hi, I am Marine a wandering farmer. I am a marketer and blogger by profession and a passionate sustainable farmer by heart. I just quit my job to travel and discover the world’s countryside, its farming communities and the roads least traveled. I want to change our food and agricultural system by documenting successful sustainable farming initiatives across the world and prove that another future in cooperation with nature is possible.


  1. Bali Glory on

    Very proud that Subak in Bali has been defined by UNESCO as world cultural heritage, Subak for Balinese people is not only an irrigation system, but also the philosophy of life for the people of Bali itself. In the view of Balinese people, Subak is a direct overview of the concept of Tri Hita Karana.

    • Yes, be proud! it’s an incredible system. Thanks for sharing a link with more information, i didn’t talk too much about the concept of Tri Hita Karana, so any information you have is welcomed

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