Strengthening water cooperation in Laos

Over the past 5 years, Australia further strengthened water cooperation with the Government of Lao PDR by supporting the development of a National Water Resources Management Strategy. A consortium of Australian Water Partnership (AWP) partners led by AMPERES together with eWater, Australian Rivers Institute (ARI), Truii and the National University of Laos (NUOL) worked closely with the Laos Department of Water Resources (DWR) to design and develop the National Water Strategy using the best available science and an inclusive stakeholder engagement process. The National Water Strategy is now in the final stages of discussion and adoption by the Lao government, moreover, the learning and information developed from the cooperation is being used to inform current and future work of DWR.

This cooperation is the latest effort to bring water managers from the two countries together to share lessons and to leverage Australia’s long experience in river basin planning to improve the sustainability of water management in the Mekong.

Water has been at the heart of Lao society and economy for generations, and in recent decades has also contributed to the growth of the Lao economy. Since the 1990s, the development of water infrastructure has made an important contribution to GDP growth, which has increased more than 10 times over the past four decades. As the development of water resources continues, populations grow and the economy continues to mature, signs of challenges are emerging. Deforestation, land degradation, soil and bank erosion, water pollution, reduced sediment loads, dwindling fish catches and fertility of floodplains, rising fiscal debt and the nascent challenges of sharing transboundary waters are all emerging as issues that need a cohesive management response.

Water has emerged as central to both the opportunity and the challenges facing Lao society.

To respond to these emerging challenges, DWR led an intersectoral effort to develop a new strategy to govern how water resources and water ecosystems are used, conserved and managed. Central to the new strategy is establishing a national process of integrated river basin planning in Laos that aims to significantly improve the sustainability and inclusivity of decision-making. The strategy also emphasises an improvement of how the benefits of water utilisation are shared, while elevating the importance of conserving the health and integrity of Laos’ fluvial estate, which is the basis of water productivity.

As development of Laos’ rivers continues, it is becoming increasingly important to shift the purpose of water management away from simply utilisation of water resources to balancing trade-offs and competition between different types of water uses and functions. Economic, social and environmental outcomes of water are all equally important to Lao society and the wider region, and we were pleased to support DWR advance the ambitious new agenda they have planned for the future of water in Laos” said AMPERES Director and Policy Lead, Tarek Ketelsen.

Australian support was designed by DWR and AMPERES and structured around three primary pillars: (i) strengthening the evidence base, (ii) enhancing inter-sectoral engagement, and (iii) fostering a multidisciplinary review process.

AMPERES led the Australian support to DWR, designing a multi-level, intersectoral stakeholder engagement process and setting priority areas of focus for the strategy. AMPERES also worked with NUOL to review current policy instruments and ensure the new strategy is embedded within the existing planning context.

Central Government participants at the National Water Management Strategy Visioning workshop: (Centre -Right ) DWR Director General Dr Inthavy Akkarath, (Centre-left) Mr Dominique Vigie, Acting Deputy Head of Mission, Australian Embassy in the Lao PDR.

eWater, Australian Rivers Institute and Truii led two rapid scientific studies—a surface water resource assessment and an eco-hydrology assessment. These two studies were designed to fill critical information gaps about the availability of water in all river basins of Laos, as well as to quantify the connections and functions that each river basin contributes to the wider Mekong fluvial system.

The main technical outputs produced with Australian support include:

  1. Policy Positioning paper (AMPERES and NUOL)
  2. Rapid Surface Water Resources Assessment (eWater)
  3. Rapid Ecohydrology Assessment (ARI and Truii)

These reports are informing ongoing water resource management projects in Laos including basin planning, development of water legislation and coordination of flow regimes. The information developed can be used to further inform ongoing and future water cooperation by Australia and other development partners with Laos.

Feature photo: Facilitated working sessions with representatives from all lao water related ministries to determine the priority areas of action in the national water strategy (credit: Tarek Ketelson, Ameperes)
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