Farming with the Titimangsa: Losing Weather (and Water) in Time

By Nikolai Sindorf, WWF-US   

In 1997 I went to the western part of Java in Indonesia to perform research on agricultural water management. Java is one of the most densely populated regions and high-yielding rice paddy lands in the world. The focus of my research was how rice farmers dealt technologically and organizationally with ongoing reforms in large, engineered irrigation systems. During this research I met a farmer who had meticulously typed out his traditional cropping calendar. This cropping calendar — a titimangsa — read like a beautiful poem, describing the smell of the dew, the color of the sunset, the touch of the soil, and the observation of insect life cycles. 

Based on this titimangsa, the farmer made decisions about when to start land preparation, sowing, harvesting, and other parts of the agricultural cycle in order to support the traditional rate of two to three rice harvests per year. By the late 1990s, farmers had already observed how traditional agricultural decision making was changing to more centrally planned modern irrigation systems, but each village still maintained a traditional water diversion and distribution networks as well. For village farmers, the traditional system added real flexibility to their daily water management. 

Ploughing rice fields near Bandung, Java, Indonesia

Ploughing rice fields near Bandung, Java, Indonesia

Titimangsa means “time” in the local Sundanese language (spoken by about a third of Java’s population) but has clear connotations for many important spheres of life for these people. It is similar in this way to the French temps or the Spanish tiempo, which refer to both “weather” and “time”. Perhaps the closest English analog is season, which like titimangsa has calendrical and meteorological implications. A steady shift between time and weather in these meanings has been occurring, where time is becoming increasingly separated from weather. It cannot have been such a long time ago that people began to start losing that

combined concept of time as weather. The loss might be related to how developments like insulation, air-conditioning, and heaters have taken the suffering out of weather, at least for a prosperous part of the global population. 

People from the developed world like me do not necessarily experience the passage of time through changing seasons, and we have become increasingly climate insensitive. Weather has thus lost much of the quintessential meaning it has held for millennia. This development will complicate how to communicate the changes that climate is going through, let alone discuss any preparation to adaptation. (“Adaptation? I can still turn up my air conditioner by 5°C. What’s the problem?”) However, a large part of the world’s population still does have this linked concept of time and weather, and these people are often the ones in closest contact with our natural resources, such as farmers, fishers, herders and ranchers, or pastoral nomads. 

In agriculture, the calendar of activities is determined by predictable weather patterns. Though it is neither the sweetness of morning dew nor the beetle that sheds its skin that makes rice grow, a seasonal record of such events might help us better understand how the environment is changing. A titimangsa would therefore be a more effective way to get a grip on structural change than any wobbly statistical data set of temperature or rainfall, for a titimangsa gets at the very subtleties on which agricultural practices depend. In general local titimangsas have not been written down and have probably been under constant revision due to the experimental nature of farming systems. Nevertheless, in the titimangsa I believe we can see the extent to which food security depends on how climate change will impact natural and human systems. Currently, the direct effects of climate change are probably felt most directly by small producers like the farmer who shared his titimangsa with me in Java. Such farmers are among the more vulnerable globally, since they are already managing their resources at the very margins. They have the smallest margin of error in their lives. 

During another research project in 2005, we followed the daily activities of a farmer who was selected by about three hundred other farmers to secure the community’s water supply. Their plots were located at the tail end of the chain of a much larger irrigation system in central Java, almost on the beach of the Indian ocean. This farmer spent between a few hours and over twelve hours a day looking for irrigation water for his community. For him, this often meant negotiating with upstream water users and finding the means to get water to their plots. Depending on his success, he got approximately $0.15 US a day for this extra work, which would amount to approximately 5 percent of extra income. His negotiation skills and solutions surpassed any mere technical knowledge; he was capable of convincing water to flow uphill. 

In my current work at WWF, this man still motivates me to keep us grounded in reality while we are discussing climate-resilient water management. Water professionals who talk about “increasing water use efficiencies” or “increasing crop per drop” are either underestimating the marginal conditions under which water is often being

managed already, or are referring to systems that knowingly waste too much water. The reality of the conditions that I have witnessed in the field is that little agricultural water is being wasted in general. While it is true that the amount of diverted water can be much more than the officially allowed amounts, in many occasions downstream people and ecosystems actually depend on the non-designated “extra” amounts for sanitation, irrigation, recharge, or for the required flexibility in water use that provides them with the necessary water security. Simply focusing on reducing water “waste” may actually mean that species, ecosystems, and many aspects of rural economies will suffer as a result. This man also made me realize that the crux of any water crisis cannot be expressed in the volume of water only, but should always include the number of people who depend on the reliability of a water system. Water efficiency discussions that do not explicitly take into account the number of people per drop will not solve water crises, and may threaten the viability of natural river functions in the longer term.  

In the context of climate preparation and adaptation, this means two key things. First, we have to move water development discussions beyond the rationality of current economic efficiencies. Second, when proposing any water development, it should be evaluated by how many local people the water system supports (or limits) and the extent to which they are dependent on its future reliability. This should not be seen as an extra burden to economic development but as a way to envision the full spectrum of water users and consumers, including ecosystems. Almost by definition, a river system that has most of its natural functions intact is better able to provide water security and benefits to a wider range of people than an overexploited or degraded river system can. Healthy rivers mean healthy people. Therefore, linking economic viability and resilience to ecological resilience is to the advantage of both freshwater conservation and climate adaptation. Ideally, sustainable water development should even mean the restoration of currently overexploited river systems. 

I do understand that this is a challenge and not a solution, but it explains why WWF is working on a whole river basin assessment of the Mekong’s water development that, apart from freshwater habitats and biodiversity, also includes food security in relation to water-based livelihoods such as fisheries, rice farming, and domestic water supply. Healthy rivers are the solution to support ongoing development and not a threat or obstacle, especially in the face of adaptation to climate change.