Oh, China! Oh, Water!

Extinguished a dolphin species? Check.

Displaced millions of people? Check.

Flooded archaeological sites? Check, check and check.

This is the story of China’s Three Gorges Dam.

Yallahs River valley
Yallahs River valley, Jamaica (photo credit: Claude Fletcher)

This is also the story of water and how we both manage and mismanage it. From Hetch Hetchy, to the Colorado River, on to the Salton Sea and the Yallahs River, what have we lost and what have we gained?

Now comes this, China’s Three Gorges Dam.

For more on my “River series” see my past posts:

The River Road, Part One

The River Road, Part Two

Of Water Temples

temple 1
Sunol Water Temple

Sunol Water Temple

In a canyon in Northern California sits the classic marble pavilion, the Sunol Water Temple. Built in 1910 by a private water company, it now belongs to the municipality of San Francisco.

you'd be surprised how loud the roar of the water is inside the temple
Three subterranean water sources meet in Sunol

More than half of San Francisco’s water used to pass through Sunol. Now most of the Bay Area’s water comes from the Hetch Hetchy Water System  nearly one-hundred-and-sixty miles away in the Yosemite valley.

Hetch Hetchy Water System

Hetchhetchyprojmap
Water comes from far away Hetch Hetchy Valley in Yosemite to San Francisco

Pulgas Water Temple

Pulgas_water_temple2
Pulgas Water Temple (photo, Wikicommons)

Another water temple, this one made of cast stone, is on the other side of the San Francisco Bay. Twenty-four years younger than its Sunol counterpart, the Pulgas Water Temple (in Redwood City) was built by the municipality of San Franciso to commemorate the completion of the Hetch Hetchy Aqueduct. Compared to the water temples of Bali, however, these two are babes, aged as they are at seventy-eight (Pulgas) and one-hundred-and two years (Sunol).

balinese water temple (painting by U)
Temple on Bratan Lake, Bali, Indonesia (painting by Udit Mathur, India)

Balinese Water Temples

There is an ancient ritual of water management – irrigation – that has been practiced on the volcanic slopes of Bali for over a thousand years. This is subak, a custom built around water temples. It is/was at the heart of Balinese rice paddy/terrace farming. I wonder what materials are used to make these water temples. With their subdued color they blend into the landscape in a way that the California ones don’t.

The Essence of Subaks

In the subak system, priests apportioned the water for farming. Different communities (subaks) planted their crops at different times and allowed their  paddies to go fallow simultaneously. Rotating the cultivation was an effective means of distributing and conserving water; letting fields go completely fallow controlled pests.

Jatiluwih
Jatiluwih Rice Terrace (© Ministry of Education and Culture of Indonesia)

Challenges to the System

The thousand year old subak system came under pressure when Asia embraced the Green Revolution in the 1970s. Conflicts between government agencies and subaks, plus a steady increase in tourism, significantly altered the Balinese landscape. In 1999 there was about 1,500 subaks on Bali (with about two-hundred members each), covering an irrigated area of more than 90,000 ha.* In 2012 when UNESCO gave subaks its national heritage designation, there were five rice terraces (and their water temples) covering 9,500 ha.** Although some of these changes can be attributed to post-colonial migration, much of it is due to the pressures of tourism on land use. Today, the remaining subaks still meet at water temples to discuss community farming decisions.

*Traditional Water Management in Bali, by Suarja and Thijssen, 1999.

**Cultural Landscape of Bali Province, UNESCO, 2012.

Ritual Rice Field (© Ministry of Education and Culture of Indonesia)
Ritual Rice Field (© Ministry of Education and Culture of Indonesia)

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