Cat Wheeler: Author, Environmental and Social Activist

Cat Wheeler is the author of Dragons in the Bath, a book I reviewed on my other blog Desert Book Chick earlier this week.

Cat lives in Bali, Indonesia, and is intensely involved in environmental education and social development:

Environmentalist, writer, Reiki master and remorseless optimist, Ibu Kat helps to raise funds, write proposals and design programs for a variety of environmental and community needs.

She lives in Ubud with three dogs, a bald parrot, and a succession of unsolicited wildlife.

Cat, who’s lived and worked in Bali for nearly a decade, has written a book that presents a rich tapestry -both humorous and informative- of life in Bali. Dragons in the Bath is rich with ritual, authenticity and understanding. As I have a strong connection with Indonesia (I went to university in Java for a while) and visit nearly every year, I enjoyed Cat’s insights into life in Bali. Being an anthropologist who specialises in environmental anthropology, I found Cat’s book and experiences both entertaining and sobering.

Although Bali (and most of Indonesia) is not stricken with poverty like other places, it suffers from underemployment, overpopulation, lack of infrastructure and is reeling from the effects of the Green Revolution and an obsession with plastic wrapping. Add to this the millions of tourists who visit Bali every year, and the pressure upon the island’s environment shouldn’t be hard to imagine. Indeed, it’s almost unthinkable that a tropical island like Bali would suffer from water shortages, but it does.

Keen to learn more, I decided to ask Cat (known in Bali as Ibu Kat) a few questions about her book and the issues it raises.

DBC: What has been the reaction to the book in Bali, especially from those people or the communities you write about?

Cat: So many expatriates living here have contacted me to say how much the book resonates with them, and how accurately it reflects their lives here.  They buy it for friends and relatives to help them understand the realities of living here.

When I write about issues and NGOs, I always tried to include contact details in the book so readers can follow up if they are so moved.  In several cases this has resulted in donations, visits and broader networks.

DBC: I enjoyed the manner in which you conveyed the complexity of environmental and social issues in contemporary Bali. For example, the collection of tropical fish by Balinese fishermen is not a simple matter of stopping or prohibiting people from collecting fish; rather you showed that there are communities and families which rely on the income from these industries, and the answer to ensuring the survival of endangered species and entire ecosystems might be education and the adoption of sustainable collection methods. In hindsight, how effective are education, community control and management in relation to sustainable harvests such as live tropical fish? What have been the longer term outcomes for the communities involved?

Cat: It is a slow process, of course, but community involvement is probably the most effective and sustainable method of environmental management. (If you want specific details about the tropical fish issue, please contact Gayatri Lilley whose project this is at gayatri@lini.or.id).  These situations need win-win solutions.  Outsiders, whether they be government agencies or well-meaning foreigners, can’t just walk into a community and impose a solution.  The communities know what their problems are and what will work.

DBC: In the book, you mention underground rainwater reservoirs in Australia. Rainwater collection from roofs into rainwater tanks is a primary water source for many rural and semi-rural Australians: rainwater tanks, gutters and downpipes are everywhere. Yet it is astounding to me that hardly any rainwater is collected in Bali (and other parts of monsoonal Asia), given the both the reliability of the monsoon and the well known problems about scarce water resources in these areas. Are rainwater tanks not culturally appropriate, too expensive or simply not widely known in Bali? Do you think they could offer part of the solution to securing household water supplies?

Cat: I believe part of it is cultural/social…  strategic planning is not part of the culture here!  This is probably due to the tropical abundance which ensures people will never go hungry, so the skills of planning ahead for survival through a cold winter never had to be developed (they are hard-wired into Scandanavians and Canadians!) (DBC notes: this is exactly what I’ve noticed after 10 years of living and working with Aboriginal communities in Central Australia. Strategic planning is a cultural meme descended from thousands of years of life in cold climates).  Around most of Bali until a generation ago, people went to the river to bathe and socialise and do the laundry, and collected drinking water from wells or springs.  The capital costs of large rainwater tanks, guttering, taps and perhaps pumps are still too high for most families. I believe rainwater is the best solution here — during a heavy rain it all runs off into the sea and a week later people are complaining that there is no water!  My Rotary club and other organizations are investing in simple rainwater catchment tanks in dry areas. I understand the government has started to build dams, but I am having trouble getting information about these.

DBC: Having read anthropologist Stephen Lansing’s ethnography of the subak system, Perfect Order, I’m interested in hearing more about it from a resident’s perspective. To what extent is the subak system still functioning in Bali, and what is people’s current awareness of the role of this system in Bali’s economic and social structures?

Cat: The subak system is still operating well in more remote areas such as Jatih Luih (one of Lansing’s study areas) but it is breaking down in places around Ubud. The water supply on the island generally is decreasing dramatically as water tables drop.  Half of Bali’s rivers have dried up in the past decade.  Some subaks no longer grow rice at all because there isn’t enough water; the fields are fallow or now grow corn or peanuts.  In other areas, rice farmers are quarreling about water and witholding it from other farmers (this has never happened before as far as I am aware).  And of course subaks in the south and around Ubud have become housing developments. Bali loses about 800 – 1000 hectares of agricultural land a year to development.

I talk to farmers about this and they are bewildered. These are unsophisticated people, and rice farming is all they know.

DBC: Can you suggest some local community development/ environmental projects in Bali that would benefit from readers’ support?

These are a few of my favourites:

http://www.eastbalipovertyproject.org/(poverty alleviation, sustinable agriculture, basic health care, water)

www.humanitarianprojectsindonesia.org Cataracts/TB/cleft lip

www.fnpf.org (Friends of the National Park Fund – reforestation on Nusa Penida)

www.senyumbali.org (Smile Fund – facial deformities)

www.sjakitarius.nl (children with mental disabilities)

DBC: Lastly, have you plans for another book about Bali?

Cat: Well, the book came out of many years of writing the column, and I am still writing it… so there may be another one eventually.

If you’d like to learn more about Cat’s book and work, her website is here. If you’d like to learn more about  social and environmental projects in Bali, and get involved, please visit the links above. Finally, get hold of Cat’s book and give it a read. You’ll find find life through the eyes of an expat Canadian a hilarious and sobering read.

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4 thoughts on “Cat Wheeler: Author, Environmental and Social Activist

  1. Hello, really interesting interview. I collaborate with a small NGO based in Geneva that deals with sustainable approaches to development (spirulina culture, water potabilization). I discover Cat Wheeler and her books/projects. Thanks for sharing

    Steve

  2. I have a hunger to learn more about this stuff… at this deeply intelligent and solution-oriented level. I may have to pick this up.

    Grazie.

  3. Hello Cat,
    I found your lovely blog when I googled rainwater tanks bali. We are building south of Ubud and want to install large rainwater collection tanks for our water supply mainly because we’ve read about the dropping water tables. Do you have any idea where we might find large collection tanks?
    Your outlook on resolving problems by looking at the whole situation rather than waltzing in to ‘do-good’ is refreshing. Thanks for sharing your knowledge.

    • Hi Shane,

      This is Amanda, I’m the blog’s owner. I interviewed Cat about 6 weeks ago and put the interview up on the blog. You might like to check out the links in in the interview to visit Cat’s website and make contact with her via email. Thanks for the kind comments about the blog. Good luck with your rainwater tanks… as an Australian living in the outback (Alice Springs) I cannot understand why we are all not harvesting water for household consumption.

      Cheers

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