Tuesday, February 5, 2013

Bali, the neglected island

A holiday in Bali can be eye-opening in many respects. The blackness of the beaches of the volcanic island reminds us of the importance of nature in shaping our environment. The rice paddies clinging on to the hill cliffs remind us of how humans have mastered the physical environment around them and created one suitable for them to live and thrive in. And the piles of bottles on public beaches, the odd shoes found on the sand at low tide, the plastic bags clogging up ditches also remind us that humans have forgotten about actually caring for the environment around them.

Tourism began in Bali in the 1970s, when groups of Western hippies came to the island, attracted by the beauty and spirituality of the landscape and the friendly and tolerant reputation of the island’s inhabitants. Tourism then was what is called cultural, with foreigners expressing interest and concern for the region’s culture, the locals’ lifestyle, the island’s architecture and history. However, cultural tourism slowly made way to mass tourism, booming in the 1990s and 2000s as developers realised the huge tourism potential of the region. Hotels and resorts started popping up all over Bali, erasing coconut trees and beaches to make way for private terraces and infinity pools. Other beaches were widened and the background nature was destroyed, transformed into parking lots to accommodate the masses of tourists flying in from Australia and Europe.

Bali’s environment is at threat of succumbing to mass development. Every year, 700 hectares of land is lost to hotels, luxury housing and roads. Every day, 13,000 cubic metres of waste is dumped and only half of it is recycled. Traffic jams are becoming increasingly problematic, with the island’s road connections struggling to accommodate the 13% annual increase in number of cars.

Today, the main environmental issue regarding Bali is water, with one expert saying that Bali could face a drinking water crisis by 2015. Waste dumping is dramatically polluting freshwater reserves. The non-existent garbage collection system leads to individuals and hotels disposing of their waste in open-air public dumps, polluting the groundwater as rain trickles through the waste and soil, filled with polluting products. Intensive water usage is also a concern, with hundreds of hotels absorbing a large part of the freshwater reserves, depriving locals of an essential irrigation and drinking resource.

Locals and foreign tourism organisations are slowly realising the need for a sustainable plan of action regarding water and waste. Previously non-existent regulation regarding waste dumping was introduced last year, and information campaigns regarding water scarcity are being organised. But locals and foreigners alike will all have to seriously tackle the environmental issues facing Bali. The booming tourism industry, which involves both industry players and tourists, will have to become more aware and informed, and actively play their part in protecting the island’s environment, which is, after all  the lifeblood of the tourism industry. With the participation of all stakeholders, the environment catastrophe looming over Bali will easily disappear and a lose-lose situation averted.