Water, arguably the most important resource for life, is causing crises to develop across the world as the years pass. With higher concentrations of people in cities, hotter and drier conditions, and greater agricultural demand, water is struggling to remain clean and plentiful for our daily consumption. Unsurprisingly, palm oil has ties to water pollution. However, the media gives it little to no attention. I believe it's an aspect of the process that is vital in truly understanding the oil and its effects.
Back in 2014, Stanford University and the University of Minnesota investigated how palm oil plantations affected the water quality of streams. After studying streams in western Kalimantan, they discovered that the streams in plantations had elevated temperatures, sedimentation, and metabolism: the rate at which oxygen is consumed into creek water. The environmental chemistry behind this is deep and complex and the articles the two institutions publicly presented omitted any chemical explanation. They did however mention that a loss of canopy coverage and riverside vegetation allowed for increased sun exposure, boosting water temperatures. The higher sedimentation was also a result of decreased brook plant life, which provide filtering and limit riverbank erosion.
Fish health can be easily impacted when water chemistry changes occur. Lower riverbank plant populations have been shown to correlate to lower levels of fish life. Xingli Giam, an assistant professor of ecology at the University of Tennessee, speculates that increasing riparian vegetation can boost fish populations due to the nutrients and shelter leaf litter can provide for aquatic organisms.
Palm Oil Mill Effluent, or POME, was also found in high concentrations in streams near oil extraction facilities. This not only degrades the water quality for aquatic life, but also for nearby communities who use the water for drinking and bathing. Instead of being dumped into rivers, POME is occasionally disposed of in open pools, which generate a gas composed of nearly 65% methane: one of the strongest greenhouse gases.
Clean, fresh water is essential to the sustainability of life. The quest for the economic benefit of palm oil is directly putting at risk the survival of the ecosystem. To quote Suzy Kassem “He who controls the water, controls us all. Water is the true gold.”