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Subak Irrigation Management 1  

by on Tuesday, 21 November 20066 Comments | 4,531 views

Balinese rice cultivation is famous all over the world for its efficient use of irrigation water. At the heart of irrigation management are the water user associations called subak. They are the backbone of Balinese rice cultivation.


Subak has been described by several authors. It is commonly recognized as an autonomous socio-religious association which deals with matters related to the cultivation and irrigation of rice. They have evolved over centuries, organized by the farmers themselves without (or little) guidance from central authorities. The subak are considered to be one of the most effective irrigator organizations in the world.


The subak is a mixture of different units within a clearly defined geographical area. They are:

a. It is a technological unit including a main water inlet and a complex system of collectively owned in virilocal residence sons stay in the father’s compound uniting the men of a given patrilineal group. Irrigation canals which secure equal access to irrigation water to all the subak members. The water shares are determined by a combination of area sizes and mutual agreements, and technically implemented with fixed proportional flow division structures.

b. It is a physical unit. The boundaries of a subak are defined by all the rice fields which receive water from the subak irrigation infrastructure. The rice fields are also part of the nearest customary village. Yet, the subak does not correspond to the social unit of the village (Bray, 1994).


c. It is a social unit comprising all farmers who cultivate land within the subak boundaries and receive water from the subak irrigation infrastructure. The farmers live in the surrounding villages.

d. It is a legal unit given the status of customary law societies with clearly defined rules and regulations written down in a law book called “awig-awig”. This set of laws regulates rights and duties among the members. It includes public obligations, regulations concerning land and water use, legal transactions of land transfers, collective religious ceremonies, and sanctions when breaking the subak laws. The awig-awig of subak has been passed down orally over generations. Nowadays, however, most subak have a written version at their disposal.


e. It is a religious unit including ceremonies on the individual level, the subak level, and the inter-subak level. The ceremonies vary in scale, involvement and duration. The ceremonies ask for protection against pests and diseases, and honour god for letting human beings work the land. The most elaborated ones involve all subak who receive water from the same Crater Lake.

to be continued

search more story | Part 2 | Part 3

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    • rachel said:

      Hello, thank you for citing Stephan Lorenzen’s and my (Rachel P. Lorenzen)’s work from our conference papers which we held in Bali in 2005. If you would like to know more about our research, please visit our websites: and

    • Manhattan Beach Day Spa said:

      I have seen a Subak only from books, magazines, and movies. I would love nothing more than to see this in action. It really amazes me how this cooperative existed for centuries and is still going strong. If anything, it’s just amazing how in this day and age, peaceful and tranquil places like this still exist: A place filled with a small population who are set out to complete their part of this cycle so that everyone can earn a living. It’s like clockwork in the most respectful sense of the word.

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