Govt may address water pollution from oil palm mills

KOTA KINABALU: If oil palm industry players cannot address the issue of water pollution that results from their activities, then the government has to do so, by policy, legislation and enforcement.

“One of the issues of concern is that, overall, statewide, not enough space and time is allocated by mills to allow the water used in the mills to process the fruit, to have all the organic waste processed by bacteria, before that water ends up on land and in rivers.

“If you look at the big picture, the message is : the owners of the mills have to devote more attention to converting their waste water into clean water, gases than can be burned to produce energy for human use, plus indigestible residue and minerals. That is the issue that needs to be addressed. If the industry cannot address it, then the government has to do so, by policy, legislation and enforcement,” said Borneo Rhino Alliance (Baro) executive director Datuk Dr Junaidi Payne when asked to comment on Tourism, Culture and Environment Minister, Datuk Masidi Manjun’s urge on all oil palm operators in Sabah and particularly those operating at Kinabatangan to keep their promise to stop effluent flowing into the river.

He emphasised that the impact of the palm oil industry on our water quality was enormous.

“Oil palm plantations cover about 20 per cent of Sabah land area and there are said to be 124 palm oil mills, which in total would produce perhaps six million tonnes of crude palm oil per year. That means that about 15 per cent of all rain falling onto Sabah falls onto oil palm plantations, and perhaps 30 billion litres of freshwater are used annually by the mills to convert palm fruits to oil,” he said.

As a comparison, he further estimated that the human population in Sabah of four million would probably use about 300 billion litres per annum.

“That is far too high, because people do not pay enough for water they consume, but that is another issue. More interestingly, about 30 trillion litres of rain falls annually on to the 210 million oil palm trees currently planted in Sabah. That means that about 100 times greater volume of clean water flows through oil palm plantations annually than are consumed by the entire human population of Sabah.

“The question is this: is the industry paying reasonable amount of money to the state of Sabah through taxation for the use of that water and protection of water that it results in. The answer is, I have no idea, but it is a valid and important question,” he said.

Meanwhile, Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil (RSPO) secretary general Darrel Webber said he quite emphatise with the frustrations expressed by the Minister (Masidi) and shared his perspective as a Sabahan as well as from the perspective as the secretary-general of the Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil (RSPO).

He said from the perspective of RSPO, it is very clear.

“RSPO rules state that it’s members must: (a) comply with the laws and policies of the land (in this case Sabah, as well as Federal Laws) (b) identify environmental and social impacts caused by their operations, then develop plans to mitigate or avoid such impacts and, (c) allow independent third party auditors to verify that they do comply with the necessary laws and that they have implemented appropriate actions to avoid and/or mitigate these negative environmental and social impacts,” he said.

He added that the RSPO scheme hoped to enable the industry to adopt best practices quickly and be less reliant on government enforcement to steer clear of unsavoury practices.

“In other words, this is an effort by members of RSPO to self regulate and self-enforce.”

He said RSPO was currently experiencing phenomenal acceptance not just from producers of palm oil but from buyers of palm oil.

“We have now close to 1,000 members from 52 countries within the RSPO. Our current memberships are diverse, coming from giant Fortune 500 companies to smallholder organisations. These organisations include the producers and buyers of palm oil, bankers and also social and environmental NGOs. This tangible growth in the acceptance of RSPO means that the demand for the production of palm oil that is good for the planet, good for the people and good for profit is increasing … globally.”

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