Navigating between tides, tigers, and tropical storms
Fieldwork notes from Natascha van Bommel, who is conducting research on Bali Island in West-Bengal, India, for the MUSE GRIDS project.
“Welcome to Sundarban: the only tiger inhabited mangrove forest!” Just before stepping into the little wooden boat that would take us to Bali Island, we were greeted by this banner, which also featured a picture of a roaring tiger. I was not completely sure whether I should interpret this as a warning or an invitation. In any case, it didn’t lower my excitement to finally start with my research on the island!
Bali Island is selected as a virtual demonstration site for the MUSE Grids project. Eptisa India, Eptisa Spain, and TU Eindhoven collaborate together on the work on Bali Island for MUSE Grids. Together with a local NGO, Prayukti International, a survey on the use and generation of energy has been conducted on Bali Island in March 2022.
Our research focus, of me and Dr. Johanna Höffken from TU Eindhoven, is on the social impact and social acceptance of energy communities and local energy solutions, amongst others on Bali Island. To understand the (potential) social impact of an energy solution, or any type of intervention really, it is crucial to contextualise and understand an area: my fieldtrips in Bali are an opportunity to bring breadth, depth and context to the survey that was conducted on the island.
The Sundarbans are known for its impressive ecology and biodiversity. The mangroves inhabit many tree, shrub, bird, fish, reptile, and insect species, and not to forget: the Royal Bengal Tiger. The Sundarbans are, however, also known as a particularly challenging area to live in for humans. This is partly due to the dangerous wildlife: attacks by tigers, crocodiles, snakes and bees are not at all uncommon.
Furthermore, the Sundarbans inhabitants have to navigate between tides; the forests guards and their duty of nature conservation and protection; their own dependency on natural resources; eco-tourism; increasing salinity of the water and the ground; climate change causing increasing level of seawater and intensifying (frequency of) cyclones; and breaking embankments and floods. Additionally, they have to face these hardships while having very little opportunities for income generation, which leads to high levels of poverty on the island.
With this knowledge about Sundarbans, gathered before my first trip, I stepped onto the boat! I was not alone: my research team consists of a translator, a local guide, and a toto driver (see photo 3 for the toto and my team, standing in front of a flood center). During this first trip, my research team guided me across the island to indulge in the local context, speak with a big variety of people, see and capture different energy practices, and to understand what it is like to live on Bali Island.
It must be said: the island is remarkably beautiful. The air is clean, there are many chirping birds and frolicking butterflies, many blossoming trees and bushes, the people are friendly and helpful, the food is amazing, and when you stand on the south edge of the island you can clearly see the reserve forest islands. When I asked what people loved most about the island, the natural environment was mentioned most, followed by the friendships and connections they have on the island.
The beauty of this island almost seems to be a disguise for the many hardships that inhabitants of Bali face. However, through talking to inhabitants of the island, these hardships quickly become very real. Despite the paradise that the island appears to be, many of the people that I spoke with during this first trip would leave the island and live on the Indian mainland if they would have enough financial resources to do so. My local guide explained to me that books and articles tend to romanticise life on the island, while life on the island is very tough and hard.
One important issue came to the fore as being especially pressing: the floods, caused by cyclones and sea level rise. This was stressed by the inhabitants of Bali Island whom I spoke with, and underlined by University researchers that I contacted who have done extensive work in the Indian Sundarbans. When the salty water of the delta rivers floods the island, the agricultural land, ponds, and water sources get wasted. This has a detrimental effect on the food supply for all Bali Island inhabitants.
Cyclone Aila has, in 2009, completely washed out the island. Most things that one can observe on the island, from trees to houses to shrines, stem from after 2009. While there are many trees and flowers, the conversations I had with local farmers taught me that the land is still recovering from the salt water that has flooded the island, which is still bringing down yields. The land depends on the yearly monsoons to wash away the remains of the salt water.
In the meantime, other cyclones have rushed over the Sundarbans, for example Amphan (2020) and Yaas (2021). While their impact on the inhabitants was not as destructive as Aila (at least on Bali), these cyclones still posed big challenges to the recovering island. The cyclones do not only cause salinity: they also displace people.
The floods are inextricably linked to climate change. Floods and cyclones have always appeared in the Sundarbans, but rising sea levels and global warming have intensified their frequency, impact, and force. This also shows how lives in the Sundarbans are impacted by the global energy system, which is still largely fossil fueled.
Bali Island and energy
The impacts of global climate change on Bali Island, places its inhabitants at the end of the pipeline of the global energy system. However, their own energy use is very limited: most households have lights, a fan, a television, and mobile phones. Furthermore, farmers use electric appliances like irrigation pumps. Even if their energy use is low, these appliances have had great positive impacts on their lives. For example, mobile phones provide important means of communication in the aftermath of a natural disaster, and chargeable lights provide safety against tiger attacks for fishers and honey collectors.
Furthermore, as the electricity grid was only expanded to reach Bali Island in 2019, most households use Solar PV to get their electricity (often now they use electricity from the grid next to it). The pictures below show how the connection with the main electricity grid is made (photo 5), how the electricity is distributed on the island (photo 6), and the solar PV and satellite that one will find on most houses on Bali Island (photo 7).
As I continue my research on Bali, it is my aim to explore in more detail if, how, and in what form, local energy solutions can contribute to the local topics of concern on the island. Together with the inhabitants of the island, I want to analyze the role that energy can have in building community resilience. To put it in other words: how can energy help the Bali Island community to navigate between the tides, tigers, and tropical storms?
Natascha van Bommel is a PhD candidate at the Technical University of Eindhoven, in the field of energy social science. She will share her preliminary research results at an online webinar, beginning of June, organised by MUSE GRIDS.