Bali: Going with the flow

The shortage of water in Bali presents significant challenges for the hospitality industry. It’s time for hoteliers to take the lead in ensuring that there is enough to go round, says Elizabeth Mistry

There are many words for water on the Indonesian island of Bali. Yeh, the most widely used Balinese term, refers to everyday water. Amerta is the mythical healing water that, according to legend, restored soldiers to life, and tirtha is the term for sacred or holy water—a key element of the many rituals and ceremonies that are an integral feature of daily life for the majority of Balinese people.

However, there has never been a specific policy on the island on how to best manage this most precious of natural resources. A recent report on Water Equity in Tourism (WET), from the UK-based non-governmental organisation Tourism Concern, claims that access to water for ordinary Balinese people has been severely affected by the demands of tourism on the island. It found that rampant development, with little or no regard for environmental stewardship or long-term social impact, placed an enormous and unsustainable strain on the island’s water supply.

The number of top-end resorts has certainly helped seal the island’s reputation as a luxury getaway with many of them boasting substantial water features or private “plunge” pools and lush, green golf courses, some of which require three million litres of water a day to maintain. Meanwhile, village women in some rural areas have to walk up to 3km every morning to collect a single bucket to share among their family.



Bali’s water crisis is not solely the result of high demands from tourism—the problem is much more complex. “As a tropical island there is plenty of rain but most is being allowed to run off into the sea and the island’s limited underground and lake resources are being overexploited to critical limits,” says Tourism Concern. “All the impacts of over-use of groundwater are being felt in Bali: a falling water table, sea water intrusion, land subsidence and deteriorating water quality.” Whatever the causes, however, it concludes that tourism will be the most seriously impacted by the pending crisis.

Tourism is essential to Bali, employing 25% of its workforce and supporting a further 55% of the population, according to Tourism Concern. Despite the major blows dealt to the industry following the tsunami in 2004 and the bombings of 2002 and 2005, the industry has slowly recovered with the island now receiving around three million visitors annually. The Bali Tourism Board (BTB) says it hopes to boost this to seven million visitors by 2015. And while the island continues to add to its bed inventory, there remains a distinct risk that Bali will suffer a major water crisis by 2025, warns Dr Stroma Cole, an academic at the University of the West of England and author of Tourism Concern’s WET report.

Bagus Sudibya, the vice-chairman for tourism development at BTB, has told Green Hotelier that his organisation recognises that there is a conflict between the needs of the tourism industry and the indigenous population, many of whom are not involved in tourism and do not enjoy the economic benefits that the sector has brought. The BTB is in the process of formulating a response, says Sudiyaba, a local businessman who also oversees a number of tourism-related operations including three resorts.

“Hotels have a moral obligation to do the right thing,” he adds, and cites the island’s governor, I Made Mangku Pastika, the former police chief from the north of the island, as a progressive who has called for a moratorium on hotel development in the overcrowded south, where the best-known resorts are clustered in the peninsula of Nusa Dua.

The governor also chairs a campaign, launched earlier this year, called Bali Clean and Green, which recently convened a meeting with NGOs from across the island to discuss how the island might move forward following a call by the Indonesian President to make the environment the cornerstone of the island’s future tourism strategy.

But activist Agung Wardhana says that while the authorities talk a lot about the environment, their actions have, so far, been virtually non-existent and, at best, contradictory. “The governor only called for a halt to development in the south because he wants to boost investment in his own area.”

There are, however, a number of hotels that have taken the initiative to act boldly without waiting for legislation. Several smaller properties are showcasing innovative technologies to conserve and reuse water—arguably easier for a 10-room boutique lodge than for a 300-room resort complex—and they are joined by some of the biggest players who are demonstrating that they too are taking the need to manage water—along with other resources—seriously.


On the coast at Nusa Dua, the Westin Resort, part of the Starwood Group is an example of where best practice in the sector is reaping rewards.

The Westin’s general manager, Bipan Kapur, who is also the environmental spokesman for the Bali Hotel Association, says that the hotel’s ethos has been substantially shaped by Starwood’s group-wide commitment to reduce water consumption by up to 20% per available room by 2020.

At the Westin, rainfall is captured wherever possible and “grey” water is used for watering the hotel grounds. Anything left over is diverted to water the fairways at the nearby country club— “all the water used on the course is recycled”, he says. “We have an active green committee and a specially appointed director of operational excellence who works with me to continually improve our performance.” This has resulted he says in significant savings and a “very measurable bottom line”.

And even with a recent hike in drinking water costs—permit prices for the hospitality sector rose massively in the past year—his monthly water bill has significantly decreased, too, with current charges down to about US$15,000 a month.

At the other end of the scale, John Blundstone, who runs Bali Eco Stay, a boutique lodging near Mount Batukaru, has already won plaudits from green tourism promoters, such as, for his work on the environmentally and socially focused business model he believes will net a rapid ROI, as well combining a high-level tourism experience with sustainable practices.

The property enjoys an on-site spring and there are fish ponds and rice terraces on site as well as a permaculture garden. The water supply is not limited but is still carefully used and wastewater is managed in leach fields—sealed areas that remove contaminants and impurities from the water to minimise pollution of the water table.

“We get our power from water, too. Our Pelton wheel hydro system gives us 75% of the power we need and we aim to get off-grid as soon as we can build a bigger wheel,” explains Blundstone, who ran restaurants in Australia before bringing his family to the mountains of Tabanan.
Guests are becoming increasingly aware of the sensitive nature of water issues in Bali. Nicolas Pillet, general manager of the Hanging Gardens (managed by Orient-Express), Ubud, says his sales and reservations teams are fielding increasing requests from potential guests and travel professionals about the hotel’s green practices, believes guest demand will, slowly but surely, see an increase in the adoption of better environmental management.

Bali tourism has faced several setbacks in the last 10 years—from the economic impact of the Asian tsunami in 2004 and the island bombings of 2002 and 2005—but its recovery has been impressive. Now the government really wants to future-proof its position as a destination by taking a leadership role in managing its precious water resources as far as genuine sustainable tourism is concerned. To do that it will have to improve internal coordination—there are 11 government departments with direct responsibilities for tourism, says the Tourism Concern report —and come up with a joined-up strategy that embraces the best of what is happening now and roll it out across the sector. Hotels, both small and large, need to work more closely in order to share experiences.

If talk can be transferred into action there is hope that the island can once again enjoy a real “Bali high”.

The Ministry of Tourism did not respond to a request from Green Hotelier for an interview.

Elizabeth Mistry is a journalist specialising in travel and responsible tourism and contributes to a number of publications including New Statesman, Travel Trade Gazette and The Travel Magazine.

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