Water scarcity and oil palm expansion: social views and environmental processes

Jennifer Merten / Alexander Röll / Thomas Guillaume / Ana Meijide / Suria Tarigan / Herdhata Agusta / Claudia Dislich / Christoph Dittrich / Heiko Faust / Dodo Gunawan / Jonas Hein / Hendrayanto / Alexander Knohl / Yakov Kuzyakov / Kerstin Wiegand / Dirk
External Publications (2016)

published on Ecology and Society 21 (2), Art. 5


Conversions of natural ecosystems, e.g., from rain forests to managed plantations, result in significant changes in the hydrological cycle including periodic water scarcity. In Indonesia, large areas of forest were lost and extensive oil palm plantations were established over the last decades. We conducted a combined social and environmental study in a region of recent land-use change, the Jambi Province on Sumatra. The objective was to derive complementary lines of arguments to provide balanced insights into environmental perceptions and eco-hydrological processes accompanying land-use change. Interviews with villagers highlighted concerns regarding decreasing water levels in wells during dry periods and increasing fluctuations in stream flow between rainy and dry periods. Periodic water scarcity was found to severely impact livelihoods, which increased social polarization. Sap flux measurements on forest trees and oil palms indicate that oil palm plantations use as much water as forests for transpiration. Eddy covariance analyses of evapotranspiration over oil palm point to substantial additional sources of evaporation in oil palm plantations such as the soil and epiphytes. Stream base flow from a catchment dominated by oil palms was lower than from a catchment dominated by rubber plantations; both showed high peaks after rainfall. An estimate of erosion indicated approximately 30 cm of topsoil loss after forest conversion to both oil palm and rubber plantations. Analyses of climatic variables over the last 20 years and of a standardized precipitation evapotranspiration index for the last century suggested that droughts are recurrent in the area, but have not increased in frequency or intensity. Consequently, we assume that conversions of rain forest ecosystems to oil palm plantations lead to a redistribution of precipitated water by runoff, which leads to the reported periodic water scarcity. Our combined social and environmental approach points to significant and thus far neglected eco-hydrological consequences of oil palm expansion.

About the author

Hein, Jonas



Further experts

Brüntrup, Michael

Agricultural Economy 

Dombrowsky, Ines


Hornidge, Anna-Katharina

Development and Knowledge Sociologist 

Houdret, Annabelle

Political Scientist 

Schoderer, Mirja

Environmental Researcher