Rural Laos Struggles with Dwindling Water Resources Amidst Climate Change

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The main river that serves as the primary water resource for Vanghuea village; however, it begins to dry up starting in December every year. (Photo: Chono Lapuekou)

BY JONATHAN MEADLEY AND CHONO LAPUEKOU

Amidst abundant water resources available in Laos, rural communities are grappling with a pressing challenge: access to clean water. 

Once abundant and clean, the water sources in Vanghuea village, Vientiane Province, have become increasingly contaminated and scarce, posing significant threats to livelihoods and exacerbating existing inequalities. As climate change intensifies, the urgency of addressing water accessibility issues in rural Laos becomes increasingly evident.

“In the past, we could cultivate rice twice a year, and the river water was clean and drinkable after boiling. However, nowadays, we can only farm rice during the rainy season, and the water is no longer clean or safe to drink, even after boiling,” said Kaoxue Yang, a resident of Vanghuea village and a university student currently studying in Vientiane Capital.

Decline in Farming Opportunities

A few years ago, villages enjoyed two farming seasons annually (December and July). However, the situation has changed, and now they rely solely on the rainy season for cultivation. This reduction in farming opportunities has led to decreased income levels, intensifying food insecurity and prompting a surge in migration to urban areas or abroad. This condition has also heightened the risk of financial instability within these rural communities.

The rice fields used to support two farming seasons, but now they’re waiting for the rainy season to plant. (Photo: Chono Lapuekou)

“This decrease in water has significantly impacted us [youth], particularly in terms of career opportunities. We often find ourselves uncertain about our future in the village as we have no idea what we can do there in the future,” said 19-year-old Lay Chu Yang. “Many of my friends have sought work abroad, in South Korea. I see that people are also moving to the city as the situation worsens in our [village] community.”

Lay Chu Yang is a second-year university student and is concerned that many of his fellow villagers aren’t aware of how serious the water shortage has become. He fears that the ongoing deforestation, slash-and-burn agriculture, and unregulated coal production might permanently affect the livelihood of rural communities.

“Together, climate change and the operation of the hydropower projects and other water infrastructure upstream and throughout the basin contribute to changing patterns of the hydrology of the Mekong River,” said Dararath Yem, Climate Change Adaptation Specialist at the Mekong River Commission (MRC) Secretariat. “Projected changes are potentially very significant and many people and communities are vulnerable to potentially wide-ranging impacts.”

Challenges in Rural Water Accessibility, Impacts of Climate Change and Development

Laos boasts abundant water resources, with the Mekong River coursing through its heartland with the basin area of the river covering 202,000 square kilometers in the country. For generations, the Mekong has sustained communities, providing essential resources for drinking, irrigation, fishing, and transportation. However, the effects of climate change are increasingly evident, with rising temperatures, erratic precipitation patterns, and the proliferation of hydropower dams threatening the delicate balance of ecosystems and livelihoods, according to the World Bank

As shown by a 2021 Joint Monitoring Programme update, while 84 percent of people in Laos have basic water services at home, only 18 percent can access a safe water supply that meets their daily needs for water, sanitation, and hygiene. 

The challenges faced by rural communities in accessing clean water are multifaceted. Ongoing deforestation and hydropower development exacerbate environmental degradation, while climate change intensifies droughts and floods, further disrupting water availability. 

In addition to the issues posed by erratic weather patterns, the Mekong River faces threats from upstream development projects, including hydropower dams that disrupt the river’s flow and ecological balance. Laos has embarked on an ambitious plan to harness the Mekong’s hydropower potential in order to become the “battery of Southeast Asia,” with numerous dams either planned or already under construction. While these projects promise to generate much-needed revenue for the impoverished nation, they also raise concerns about their long-term impact on water quality, fisheries, and the livelihoods of downstream communities.

The Nam Mang 3 Hydropower Plant water reservoir, situated upstream of Vanghuea village (Photo: Chono Lapuekou)

Kao Lao, an 80-year resident of Vanghua village, highlights the significant changes in the water situation since the construction of dams began in 2000. Water retention has become common, leading to rare flows into the village during the dry season. The river, once a vital source for drinking and washing, is now contaminated, forcing residents to purchase drinking water from a company. 

“The water situation has changed significantly between the past and the present, particularly since the construction of the dam began in 2000,” she said. “During the dry season, the main river that villagers depend on gets blocked in some places. People living nearby can still use the water, but it’s dirty and stagnant. If some houses aren’t close to the river, they’ll use a large tractor to fetch water from different spots.”

Some sections of the main river in Vanghuea village are almost dried up. (Photo: Chono Lapuekou)

Expanding on this perspective, Dararath, the Climate Change Adaptation Specialist at MRC, observed that the effects of climate change on drought conditions are influenced not solely by precipitation but also by shifts in local temperature, humidity, and other contributing factors.

“The impacts of drought in the Mekong River Basin can be severe, especially on food production and livelihoods that depend on agriculture and other natural resources. Low river flows can affect fish populations and result in larger areas of high salinity in the delta,” he said.

To address the issue, the MRC has been collaborating with regional leaders and sectors to establish strategic priorities and actions at the basin level, enhancing the commission’s role in addressing climate change risks and bolstering basin-wide resilience.

“The MRC, along with GIZ, a German development agency, has created a plan to integrate flood and drought management and early warning systems in the Lower Mekong Basin (LMB) using nature-based solutions. This project aims to improve climate observation and build capacity to respond to climate-related risks like floods and droughts, and to plan for climate change adaptation in the LMB region,” Dararath added.

Social Inequalities and Vulnerabilities

When climate-related events affect water access, minority, and marginalized groups are affected the most. This includes women and children, poor households, ethnic minorities, and people with disabilities, exacerbating existing inequalities and widening the gap between different social groups.

This accurately depicts the situation in Vanghuea village, located in the uplands of Toulakhom district, Vientiane Province, Laos, which is primarily home to Hmong communities.

Cycles of the Mekong River which were once predictable, have become a predicament for communities relying on the mighty river. Shifts in drought and rain patterns make it difficult for rural communities to decide when to start their agricultural processes.

As the pressures on the Mekong mount, the need for action becomes increasingly urgent.

Efforts to address these challenges include government initiatives to improve water supply infrastructure and sanitation services, global initiatives for freshwater conservation, and community-based water management initiatives that empower local residents to monitor and conserve water resources.

Call for Urgent Action

With the pressures on the Mekong mount, Laos’ Ministry of Public Works and Transport set ambitious goals in 2023. Their aim is to provide clean and safe water to 85 percent of urban residents by 2025, with a further increase to 90 percent by 2030. This project is anticipated to enhance capacity in the water and sanitation sector at both central and local levels, as well as among water supply enterprises. It is also expected to improve regulations and institutions related to water supply and sanitation.

“It is a challenge to meet targets,” Deputy Minister of Public Works and Transport, Vilaykham Phosalath, said when addressing a project steering committee meeting under the Water Supply and Sanitation Sector Project in August 2023.

Global initiatives such as the Kunming-Montreal Global Biodiversity Framework offer hope for freshwater conservation, while community-based approaches empower local communities to adapt to changing conditions.

Moreover, ongoing efforts aim to promote community-based water management initiatives that empower local residents to monitor and conserve water resources. Organizations like the MRC collaborate with governments and civil society groups regionally to formulate policies and practices ensuring fair water distribution while safeguarding the river’s ecological health.

“Sustainable development and water security for all basin countries could be enhanced by identifying and implementing opportunities not yet considered in national plans, including significant joint investment projects and projects of basin-wide significance, with a view to achieving a better overall outcome across sectors and between communities, including protection against major floods and droughts,” said Dararath.

Addressing reductions in crop yields due to projected increases in extreme heat during staple crop growing seasons, especially for poorer communities reliant on subsistence and rain-fed agriculture, necessitates significant adaptation efforts.

Looking at the future, as the region’s economy becomes more integrated, cooperation in water-related matters is needed from local communities to the national and regional levels to address this challenging issue. This involves enhancing resilience, adaptation, and mitigation efforts in response to climate change.

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This story was supported by Internews’ Earth Journalism Network.