The Catastrophe that Flows Like Water: The Centrality of Water Issues for a Just Transition

by | May 27, 2024 | Focus, Food and Social Reproduction, Solidarity, Study

The issue of heavily polluted water in palm oil plantation zones has severely affected local families and workers. Despite water issues appearing like a mundane problem, the communities near these plantations suffer from diseases caused by toxic rivers. According to this, rapid assessments led by two environmental research activists, Sigit Karyadi Budiono (Kruha) and Riska Darmawanti (Litoral Indonesia), reveal chemical contamination in water resources in two villages surrounded by the palm oil, Desa Dusun Tua, Kabupaten Pelalawan and Desa Sijang, Kabupaten Sambas. This report will share the methods and findings of the rapid assessment in both villages held in May 2024 and December 2024.

Through this article, we condemn the forced disbandment of the People’s Water Forum in Bali 21 – 23 May 2024, a global water justice movement to fight for human rights to water in Southeast Asia. Solidarity for the People’s Water Forum! 

Deprivation of the Right to Clean and Healthy Water

The well-known Indonesian aphorism, “Let life flow like water” teaches us to accept life’s conditions. However, in the context of palm oil plantation communities, the flowing water is no longer a life taken for granted. Instead, it portrayed an imbalance of power dynamics among those who had the right to manage clean water and those affected by polluted water, such as workers, villagers, fathers, mothers, children, and all humankind. Nevertheless, this social inequality has been triggering socio-ecological problems, which are reflected in health problems.

Many people believe polluted water is caused by palm oil workers who have not been trained to manage the chemicals they use, which leach into the water and soil. Another is that village residents throw out their rubbish carelessly, as seen by the numerous plastic waste items strewn on river beds in the region. Even though, in particular, it may be correct, this problem requires a broader point of view to reveal that there is a giant control called “the palm oil companies” that introduced unknown toxic chemicals to maximize (their) profits while leaving workers and villagers exposed to these harmful substances. 

Instead of dwelling on these myths, it is important to understand water conditions as a strategic entry point for organizing workers and local communities that have been powerless due to the palm oil corporate deprivation of clean water rights. When examining the water landscape from this scale, it becomes clear that the palm oil industry has caused spatial changes and the seizure of water sources, which threaten water sustainability for workers and villagers living around plantations.

In this scenario, plantation companies usually turn a blind eye towards the fact that it is their plantations and palm oil mills that poison existing water sources through the poor management of hazardous chemical waste. The consequence of this neglect is that day by day, the very water that we depend on has become deadly for all living things, including river life, workers and the entire community surrounding the plantation.


Water Rapid Assessment in Local Communities

One way to debunk the myth is to actively involve workers and communities in sustainable water resource management. We can do this through water quality monitoring, which involves training the plantation communities on measuring water pollution, identifying its impacts, and addressing their issues with companies and the government. Generally, this method is known as PKA (Pengecekan Pemantauan Kualitas Air or PKA).

The PKA itself is a method for determining the level of pollution at a certain period of time along with the source of the pollution. This process allows workers and communities to measure the quality of the water they use so that they can know the exact level of pollution in their water sources. The data can also later be used to claim their right to water from the company and government.

One of the important things is that the PKA held with a participatory approach. This approach allowed workers and communities affected by plantations to sample their water resources in particular locations that have become primary roles for livelihood, such as artificial lakes, artificial infiltration ponds, rivers, rainwater, tamping pond water, boiler water, wastewater, well water, as well as basin water used for drinking water and latrines. Each of the sample checks is demonstrated publicly. Then, the findings are openly presented through a focus group discussion.


Deadly Poison

In the PKA in Pelalawan and Sambas, workers and communities carried out the checks using three testing parameters: copper, chromium VI (or Chromium valence 6), phosphate, and chlorine. Although copper, phosphate, and chlorine are natural chemicals in the human body, their high thresholds of those chemicals can cause malfunctions. For instance, chromium valence 6 is a carcinogenic substance – too much of this substance will raise cancer. In addition, if you wonder why there are so many chemical substances in communities, these three substances are basic materials of chemical fertilizers in palm oil plantations. 

The result of the PKA in Pelalawan in mid-2023 showed that lakes, ponds, and wells were polluted with high levels of copper, chromium, and phosphate that endangered workers’ health in the plantations and communities around the plantations. On the other hand, similar findings were also found at the PKA from November 2023 in Sambas, that found four rivers in the three villages were polluted by chlorine, copper, and chromium valence 6, which exceeded the threshold of government regulations. Furthermore, various water resources such as lakes, ponds, ditches, and family reservoirs are also polluted by copper.

The most shocking finding was that the rainwater in one of the palm oil workers’ barracks in Sambas was contaminated with 0.016 mg/liter of chromium valence 6, which was higher than the levels of chromium valence 6 in the ditch. This finding is horrifying, because most workers and their families use rainwater for domestic needs such as bathing. They also sometimes boil the rainwater for drinking.

One thing to believe is that the samples were taken from ISPO and RSPO-certified plantations. Although one company improved its waste management after being exposed by the media, the related company nearby seems to fall short as it repeats the same mistakes.

Thus, after knowing the huge levels of water pollution align with health risks, plantation workers and communities are urging the government and private sector to solve the water problems seriously. On the national levels, workers’ demands minimize the use of chemical fertilizers in plantation plots and improve overall chemical fertilizer management. Not to mention, at the company level, one of the important workers’ demands was to move the fertilizer warehouses away from housing areas and create proper waste management immediately.(Corporate Social Responsibility)

Summary of PKA (Water Quality Monitoring) Results in Two Districts

Parameter Regency. Palalawan Regency. Sambas Legal Analysis Health Risks
Dissolved Copper Levels 0.02-0.18 mg/L 0.00-0.53 mg/L Does not comply with PP. No. 22/2021  Long-term consumption of copper causes stomach ache, vomiting, diarrhea, decreased intelligence (IQ), liver cirrhosis, brain damage, and kidney disease;
Phosphate 0.53-2.5 mg/L Does not comply with PP. No. 22/2021  Increased consumption of phosphate can damage blood vessels, increase the risk of cardiovascular disease (such as coronary heart disease and stroke) and cause higher death rates in people with kidney disease.
Chromium VI 0.004-0.015 mg/L. 0.00-0.08 mg/L The standard is 0.01 mg/L, currently Minister of Health Regulation no. 492/2010 does not regulate Chromium VI in Chromium trials. Long term exposure triggers cancer
Free chlorine 0.00-0.33 mg/L Standard 0.03 mg/L, some samples do not meet PP. No. 22/2021  Indicates the condition of the water that is not suitable for drinking, such as smell, taste or color
Bound Chlorine 0.00-0.31 mg/L


Let’s Stop Palm Oil Expansion for the Right to Clean and Healthy Water

In conclusion, water problems in the plantation areas need sustainable solutions, not new profit-driven water businesses. For instance, many households in Sambas now have to buy clean water for bathing and drinking instead of using the contaminated water available. This situation highlights the inadequacy of the plantation companies’ CSR (Corporate Social Responsibility) programs, which provide clean water through a limited number of delivery trucks without addressing the fundamental right to clean water for workers and local communities. A just and sustainable approach to water management is urgently needed to ensure that all affected individuals have access to safe and sufficient water. 

Based on the results of the rapid water quality monitoring carried out by plantation workers and community, recommendations for further steps that need to be taken immediately are as follows: 

  1. In the short-term, workers and community must stop consuming well water as drinking and cooking water, and demand companies to temporarily replace it with other ready-to-drink water such as gallon/bottled water to minimize exposure to heavy metals (copper and chromium VI); 
  2. In the medium to long term, encourage the company and the governments to provide ready-to-drink water treatment plants by demanding either the company or the government as the main actor responsible for the water rights of its citizens. This ensures that plantation workers’ and communities’ right to water can be fulfilled both in quantity (flowing at all times, sufficient quantity, affordable) and quality (safe, healthy and protected from all sources of pollution); 
  3. Implement appropriate water management to prevent further pollution of clean water sources and create greenbelts along irrigation channels to prevent surface runoff water (rainwater that is not collected and flows on the ground directly into rivers/waterways/lakes) from entering laborers’ and communities’ water sources. Guidance on creating greenways is contained in the RSPO Manual on Best Management Practices (BMPs) for the Management and Rehabilitation of Riparian Reserves (as in required indicator of RSPO principles and criteria 7.8.2); 
  4. If the company plans to treat drinking water independently, then they should consider using a reverse osmosis (RO) system combined with an activated carbon filter to remove 97-99% of pesticides and phosphates 2 or other filtration systems that are capable of removing pesticide residues. In addition, when testing the suitability of ready-to-drink water based on PERMENKES no 492/MENKES/PER/IV/2010, it is best to carry out all test parameters (mandatory and additional) considering the high activity of spraying and fertilization in plantations; 


Read more of our finding documents through the following link; 


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