Inclusive and strategic basin planning in Lao PDR – a case study of collaboration 

In Lao PDR, poverty levels have halved over the past 30 years. Development of water resources and water infrastructure has been a key driver of this improvement. Water is an essential part of life and culture in Lao PDR. In addition to watering crops and livestock, water also powers most of the country’s electricity, with hydropower keeping the lights on for millions of households – and earning the country billions of dollars in export revenue. However, as the development of water resources increases, populations grow and the Lao economy continues to mature, signs of challenges are emerging: deforestation, land degradation, soil erosion, water pollution, reducing sediment loads and bank erosion, dwindling fish catches, fertility of floodplains and the impacts of climate change, as well as the nascent challenges of sharing transboundary water are all emerging as issues that need a cohesive management response. 

In response, the Government of Lao PDR is undertaking an ambitious program to develop river basin plans for all major basins in the country. River basin planning seeks to understand and manage the different needs and interests of the many water users in a basin. It seeks to reach agreement on basin governance arrangements and action plans to support economic and social development, whilst enabling environmental sustainability.  

Basin stakeholders discussing opportunities and challenges in the basin as part of basin workshop 1

As part of this ambitious basin planning program, the Australian Water Partnership supported an Alluvium-led team (also comprising AMEPRES, International Water Centre at Griffith University and University of Technology Sydney Institute for Sustainable Futures (UTS-ISF) along with local partners, including the Lao Gender Development Association and independent consultants, to work closely with the Lao Department of Water Resources (DWR) to develop an Integrated River Basin Management Plan (IRBMP) for the Nam Xam Basin. The development of the IRBMP illustrated best-practice approaches that could be applied by DWR in developing other basin plans.  

The Nam Xam Basin Integrated River Basin Management Plan 

The Nam Xam is located in north-eastern Laos within Houaphanh Province and is home to almost 200,000 people. Many rely on agriculture for their livelihoods. As climate change imposes an increased threat of flooding and droughts across the basin, the impacts will be widely felt. 

To mitigate these risks, protect environmental resources and support local livelihoods, the IRBMP for the Nam Xam was developed.  

Aligning with Lao PDR’s regulatory requirements, the IRBMP vision is a clean, pollution-free Nam Xam River Basin that can conserve biodiversity, support abundant livelihoods and agriculture for all its residents and be an ecotourism destination. The plan supports the adoption of sustainable water resources management to help mitigate floods and droughts, support sustainable agriculture and protect and maintain the environment.  

Underpinning the development of the Nam Xam IRBMP are principles from Australia’s BasinGuide: A guide for river basin planning which builds on Australian and global practice to outline an approach for basin planning that can be applied in countries across Asia and into the Pacific.  

With a strong focus on inclusive engagement, the planning process included four workshops in Xam Neua District, Houaphan Province, with participants from across the water sector, civil society, sector agencies, industry and community.  

The Nam Xam IRBMP was approved at a workshop attended by Mr Chanthanet Boualapha, the Vice Minister of the Ministry of Natural Resources and Environment, and Mr Phonesouk Inthavong, the Vice Governor of Houaphanh Province in Xam Neua, Laos on Thursday 25 May 2023. Following this workshop, the IRBMP is in process for approval by the Lao PDR Prime Minister.  

Vice Minister of the Ministry of Natural Resources and Environment and Vice Governor of Houaphan Province approving the Nam Xam IRBMP

A case study of collaboration and improving practice  

The success of the development of the Nam Xam IRBMP was driven by three key factors. 

Collaboration: The plan is a result of close collaboration between DWR and the support team led by Alluvium. Weekly progress meetings and regular in-country visits enabled the development of a trusted partnership with constant and open communication to work through the challenges of basin plan development. The Chief of River Basin Planning in DWR, Singthong Phanthamala, noted that “…the Nam Xam plan development was an excellent collaboration between Lao DWR and the support team from Australia, the plan development process was highly consultative with stakeholders in the basin which has led to a higher level of support for the plan.” 

Support team member presenting to basin stakeholders on the planning process as part of basin workshop 2

Ongoing and inclusive stakeholder engagement: Feedback from DWR suggests there is much stronger support for the Nam Xam IRBMP compared to other plans they have developed, largely because of the focus on stakeholder engagement. A collaborative approach to developing the basin vision set the tone for the plan implementation, reflecting the input of a range of stakeholders. At the finalisation workshop, there was a high level of support, with the overall result being 97% agreement with the IRBMP’s programs and activities among stakeholders (26% strongly agree, 71% agree). 

Prioritisation of action plans: A structured process was used to prioritise the actions to be included in the Nam Xam IRBMP. This led to a set of action plans that were strongly aligned with the objectives and targets of the plan and were feasible within the time and resourcing constraints of the plan. This is important in a resource-constrained environment and will make implementation of the plan more feasible.  

Australia’s ongoing support to Lao PDR’s water management trajectory 

The development of the Nam Xam River Basin Management Plan is the latest of several projects Australia has supported in partnership with the Lao Ministry of Natural Resources and Environment since 2020, supporting the vision and goals of Lao PDR’s national water and water resources management and utilisation strategy toward 2030. As Lao PDR shifts from strategy and plan development to implementation, there will be further opportunities for Australian water experts to be part of the knowledge exchange between the two countries.  

Featured image: Support team members meeting with basin stakeholders.
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