Hot water – a tale of two villages

Lapoa village: some Balinese houses retain their unique, temple-like front.

The cool of collaboration or the heat of conflict – what determines the outcome in commons sharing? Rahma Ma’mun takes the temperature in rural Indonesia.

Visiting rural areas, talking to local people and learning from their experiences was probably the most enjoyable part of my post graduate research. My fieldwork visit to two villages in the South Konawe regency in Southeast Sulawesi Province in Indonesia during 2017 was fascinating and fun. It was a long way from where I live in Adelaide, Australia but it was actually a return to the place where I had lived most of my life.

It took almost the whole day and night to arrive in Jakarta with a stopover for several hours in Perth. After another flight the next morning and a stopover in Makassar, South Sulawesi, I reached Kendari. Kendari city is a regional capital in the south east of Sulawesi – the third largest island of the Indonesian archipelago situated north of Java where most Indonesians live.

I drove from Kendari city for two and a half hours. I remember the first time I made this same journey in a shared taxi about eighteen years ago. There were ten passengers in the car with bags and things from the market. Movement was almost impossible. There was no air conditioner. The choice was either to open the window and endure the dust from the unfinished road or stifle and tolerate the smells. Driving past the Wolasi Mountains was scary. The road has many bends and curves with ravines on either side and it is slippery in the rainy season. After heavy rain, landslides can happen at anytime.

“There is a strong community commitment to ensuring equity and fairness in times of shortage.”

On my drive to my fieldwork villages I passed a mixture of rice fields, dense forest, scrub and grassland. In the settlements I passed housing that ranged from huts to modern concrete houses. In some areas, the ethnicity of the house owner was clear. Stilt houses, for example, belong to the Bugis – the culturally dominant people of Sulawesi. Meanwhile, some Balinese houses retain their unique temple-like front. Houses with windows covered by one or more planks tend to belong to Tolaki people – only a few of these houses remain nowadays. I take this as a sign that their livelihoods have improved over the past eighteen years ago and they have moved away from their tradition of living extremely simply.

Like many parts of Indonesia, the South Konawe regency was experiencing seasonal water scarcity. A long drought in 2015 caused the harvest of more than 2,000 hectares of dry paddy fields to fail. Water shortages during the second cropping season are common in the area. Surprisingly, different farming communities, even though they are in close proximity to one another, can respond in very different ways. This was clearly evident in Lapoa and Moloo Indah, the two villages that I visited in 2017.

Lapoa was a settlement of local people (Tolaki ethnic) mixed with the Buginese from South Sulawesi. Farms in this village, like almost everywhere in Southeast Sulawesi prior to the 1970s, were rainfed and located on the hilly sides of the village. Slash and burn was a common practice and sago was the main staple food.

Following the expansion of irrigation projects outside of the island of Java, a transmigration programme – started by the colonial government in the early 1900s – brought people from Bali and East Java to Lapoa in the early 1970s. The idea was to move people from densely populated areas in Java to outer islands where the population density was low. After independence, the Indonesian government continued the programme and Lapoa village was one of the target areas.

The migrants brought their irrigated rice farming system experience to the village. From then on, irrigation was adopted gradually by every one and the old farming practices were left behind. Irrigated wetland rice production now dominates the landscape and rice has replaced sago as the main staple food.

I was struck particularly by something a farmer told me in Lapoa village during a focus group discussion I ran: “Water is cool and hot at the same time,” he said, adding: “While in general water is cool, if not managed properly, people will fight and shed blood to get water.” He went on to explain that an understanding of the potential for conflict over water resources has motivated all the farmers involved to collaborate.

“Meetings only seem to be necessary when water is getting scarce.”

In the late 1970s, they formed a traditional water user group – well before a government directed water user association (WUA) was formalised for the area. The formation of the water user group was based on the experience of farmers from Bali, which suggests that the transmigration was not necessarily problematic. People from different socio-cultural backgrounds can learn from each other.

Importantly, the Balinese system was adapted to the local conditions. In Bali, the decision-making in the Subak irrigation system is tightly linked to religious water temple activities. In the Sulawesi region I was visiting, water allocation arrangements are negotiated between WUAs and farmers’ groups across four villages (Asingi, Bomba-Bomba, Lapoa and Telutu Jaya)1. Farmers from these villages have agreed to stagger planting. As is common throughout Bali, the village closest to the canal gets water first to allow planting before the water flows onto other areas one by one until it gets to the last village to plant.

In response to declining water supply in 2014, WUAs in Lapoa agreed to rotate the water allocation between the left and right intakes for the irrigation system once every day. Water was then distributed to outlying areas by Ulu-Ulu (a ditch tender) under close coordination with the heads of the farmers’ groups. Under this arrangement, the head of each farmers’ group is responsible for ensuring that each farmer in his group gets enough water to grow at least some part of his/her plot, depending on water availability. That is, there is a strong community commitment to ensuring equity and fairness in times of shortage.

Surprisingly, this water allocation arrangement, which has been working for two decades, appears to run smoothly without any of the issues that normally dominate meetings in most other areas of the province. Along the way, there have been some adjustments but the institution as a whole is still intact. Meetings only seem to be necessary when water is getting scarce. So with the deepening drought in 2015, the farmers all agreed to change the cropping pattern from padi-palawija-padi, to padi-palawija-palawija which requires less water.

“We realise, that if we don’t cooperate and organise ourselves, conflict will easily arise”

In this system, adapted from the Balinese system, decisions are taken collectively. What to grow, when and how many cropping seasons are decided by the farmers’ group as a whole as they consider the implications of water availability information supplied by irrigation-system staff. This is where the head of Gapoktan (farmers’ group union), Pak Ketut, plays an important role. He has to stay in close communication with irrigation and agriculture department staff and the WUAs. In 2015, he was the one who suggested the daily rotation between the left and right intakes which, he explained, was derived from the observations he made when he visited Bali in 2014.
The enthusiasm showed by Pak Ketut during my interview amazed me. A medium built Balinese in his late thirties, he was so passionate about his profession as a farmer. A result of high exposure to the sun while working in his fields, his skin is dark just like many other Indonesian farmers. Since his youth, he has been known as a pioneer among his village peers. He learned from his parents, who were among the early settlers from Bali that initiated the water user group in Lapoa. His parents encouraged him to improve his knowledge and skills by attending various courses and trainings.

“We realise, that if we don’t cooperate and organise ourselves, conflict will easily arise and nobody will get benefits from the irrigation water.” Pak Ketut said. He admitted that even though they tried to be as fair as possible, inevitably less water was delivered to the end-tail of the irrigation system during a long drought. Ulu-Ulu and head of farmers’ groups play a crucial role in keeping their members informed on the water situation, so they could adapt their cropping systems to reduce the impacts of any water scarcity.

The national transmigration programme has also brought people from Lombok and several parts of Java to Moolo Indah village around 13 miles away from Lopoa. However, their approach to irrigation could be worlds away. Unlike the bottom-up approach in Lapoa, the formation of the WUA in Moolo Indah was initiated by irrigation officials after the completion of a small reservoir in the village in 1992.

An irrigation officer who lives and works in Moolo Indah told me about it, repeating the message from the farmer in Lopoa: “My father said to me, ‘be very careful when working as an irrigation staff. The water is cool but it can get hot’. I didn’t understand it at first, but I came to know later when I started doing my job as Juru Pengairan (assistant of sub-district irrigation water observer).”

“The worst experience he had was when two men came knocking at his door in the middle of the night, armed with a parang.”

According to him, conflict over water in the second cropping season is common in his area. Initially, the water rotation schedule was discussed and agreed by members of WUA. However, not all farmers obey the operational rules. At one point the Ulu-Ulu in the village, the ditch tender, even gave up and handed back his responsibilities to my informant. Soon after this happened, so I was told, the water gate was opened by the irrigation staff so that water could run freely in the canal and everyone could access the water. As a result, the canal dried up after three days and no-one got any more water.

The worst experience he had was when two men came knocking at his door in the middle of the night, armed with a parang (a tool that is used for chopping or cutting woods), ready to fight for water access. He tried to mediate the conflict and asked the younger farmer to concede. According to him, this type of dispute usually involved old farmers.

“Perhaps it was a language barrier,” he said. Indonesia consists of various ethnic groups. Each has its own language. Older generations usually prefer to use their own language. “This sometimes creates a misunderstanding which leads to dispute,” he continued.

The life of an irrigation official was not an easy one he explained: “In the rainy season, we worry that the irrigation infrastructure could get damaged due to too much flow. In the dry season, we worry that conflict between farmers will start.” It is clear that in this system, local irrigation staff indeed need good communication and conflict mediating skills. Empowering farmers so that they can collaborate and manage their own irrigation system seems to be the secret to success. Not long ago, a new WUA was established in this village but it is not clear whether it will improve the situation or not.

Clearly, collective action is not easy and if it fails everyone loses out. This is captured by the well-known phrase, “the tragedy of commons”. In Moolo Indah the state, through external regulation, sought to enforce collaboration with limited success. Similar situations have been reported from many irrigation districts in Indonesia. In contrast, the farmers in Lapoa can be classified as what Elinor Ostrom describes as a successful, self-governing common pool resource institution (CPR). Notwithstanding the religious and cultural heterogeneity, farmers acted in their common interest and collectively managed their irrigation system.

The Lapoa system seems to have had two things going for it: the farmers initiated and crafted their own institution and operational rules, and these farmers have found a trusted and respected leader. Moolo Indah village was not so lucky. This begs the question: how can we resolve the paradox of wanting to create more Lapoas while also letting them emerge for themselves from communities.

1 Before 2001, there were only two villages, i.e. Asingi and Lapoa. Following the decentralisation program, Lapoa was split into three villages, i.e. Lapoa, Bomba-Bomba, and Telutu Jaya.
2 Palawija are secondary crops such as maize, peanut, soya, mung bean, etc.

Sitti Rahma Ma’mun

Rahma is currently a PhD student at the Centre for Global Food and Resources at the University of Adelaide. She is researching irrigated farming, institutional arrangement of common pool resources …

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