Potassium deficiency and water stress in oil palms in Southeast Asia


Palm oil is the main vegetable oil in the world, and is mostly produced in Indonesia and Malaysia. The oil palm needs large amounts of water and fertilisers to produce optimally. Although there is enough rainfall in most areas of Indonesia and Malaysia to meet the water demand of the oil palm, periods of drought sometimes occur and are increasing in frequency and severity due to climate change. In other locations such as Thailand, large parts of Africa, and South and Central America, water shortage is common.

We have observed large nutrient deficiencies (especially potassium (K) deficiency) in smallholder plantations in Indonesia, as potassium fertiliser is required in large quantities but is considered very expensive. The literature suggests that potassium deficiency increases the negative effects of drought in highland bananas (Taulya, 2013)and reduces stomatal conductance in oil palm seedlings (Corley, 1976). We would like to know more about the effect of potassium deficiency on water use of mature oil palms in the field, in order to develop a mathematical model which can incorporate both water stress and nutrient stress.

We are looking for an MSc student who is willing and able to carry out the following research activities:

-        Review the literature to find the latest information on the relation between potassium and water use in crops

-        Consider the different available methods to measure plant water use and select the one which is most appropriate

-        Practice the selected method in the Netherlands and then apply it in the field in a selected country (probably Indonesia, Malaysia or Thailand) in Southeast Asia

-        Collect data of good quality and precision in mature oil palm plantations

-        Develop the results into a thesis with a strong methodological section and a thorough analysis of the collected data

The collected data will be used to calibrate and test a mathematical model, as part of a PhD thesis. If the data is of sufficient quality then it will probably be used for the development of a publication with the MSc student as one of the co-authors.

The expected duration of the project is 6 months (36 ECTS) of which 1-2 months proposal development and method selection, 2-3 months field work, and 2 months data analysis and thesis writing. Costs for transport in the field, tools and equipment, an interpreter/assistant, and visa application are covered by the chair group (Plant Production Systems). The remaining costs (flight, housing, food) are to be paid by the MSc student.

Location and Period

Field work abroad; any time


Corley, R. H. V. (1976).Photosynthesis and productivity. In Oil Palm Research, 55–76 (Eds R. H. V. Corley, J. J. Hardon and B. J. Wood). Amsterdam: Elsevier.

Taulya, G. (2013). East African highland bananas (Musa spp. AAA-EA) ‘worry’ more about potassium deficiency than drought stress. Field Crops Research151: 45-55.


Maja Slingerland                                0317 – 48 35 12                      maja.slingerland@wur.nl

Lotte Woittiez                                                                                     lotte.woittiez@wur.nl