Supporting water agreements in Lao PDR

Lao PDR is rich in water resources both in terms of quantity and quality. However, water use in the country at the river basin and national scales have increased to support rapid social-economic development, which has impacted availability, quality, and sustainability of the resource. More than a third of GDP and 75% of employment comes from subsistence agriculture, which is heavily dependent on rainfall and Lao’s rivers.

Ensuring existing legislation and laws are implemented and enforced is central in achieving water for all, particularly during a time when the Mekong River, its tributaries and other rivers in Lao PDR are experiencing tremendous transformations, including changing flow regime, degrading environmental assets, increasing population and water use alongside floods and droughts.

The outdated 1996 Water and Water Resources Law was updated in 2017 alongside the development of various strategies and river basin analyses, including the Nam Ou River Basin Profile and the National Water Resources Management Strategy. The updated law contains new provisions on water rights and use, including wastewater discharge permits, wetland and water resources protection, groundwater management, and river basin management. Despite the existing legislation on water resource management, there are gaps in the understanding and application of the regulations for effective and integrated water resource management. Converting legislation and strategy into actions on the ground is challenging and needs coordination and capacity development.

An interdisciplinary project team led by Griffith University and supported by AWP focused on technical support for drafting water agreements in Lao PDR focusing on developing two agreements under the existing law focusing on water quality and water protection zones. The team was led by Dr Andrea Haefner from the Griffith Asia Institute with technical experts Professor Fran Sheldon and Professor David Hamilton, from the Australian Rivers Institute, and Dr Jacqui Robertson from the Law Futures Centre, alongside experts from the National University of Laos and Gender Development Association who worked in close partnership with the Department of Water Resources at the Ministry of Natural Resources and Environment as well as representatives from the Australian Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade, and the Australian Water Partnership.

Meeting at Department of Water Resources

“Providing technical support to the Lao Government will help to improve the implementation of Lao PDR’s Water and Water Resources Law and strengthen the achievement of the United Nation’s Sustainable Development Goal (SDG) 6 [Clean Water and Sanitation],” said project lead Dr Andrea Haefner.

Having agreements in place to implement the laws and regulation is central for the work at all levels of government. The main focus of the project was on collaborative work between the ministry, and Australian and Lao experts focusing on ensuring the agreements drafts include best practices from Australia and other countries, while ensuring there were no overlaps with existing Lao legislations, decrees and agreements and references are included were applicable.

This project included three stakeholder consultations in October 2022 covering northern, central and southern Laos. This included in total  178 representatives from all levels of the Ministry of Natural Resources and Environment, including the national, provincial and district level, as well as other related government agencies, private sector representatives, civil society actors, DFAT and village representatives. The comprehensive and inclusive consultations were important to understand the local context and challenges.

Meeting at Department of Water Resources
Images: Stakeholder consultations

As emphasised by Dr Andrea Haefner “no law, legislation or agreement can be successful if appropriate, inclusive, and comprehensive stakeholder consultations are not part of the whole process. As in many other countries, this is important in the Lao context as there exist gaps regarding technical know-how and capacity to apply legislation, laws, and agreements between the central and provincial and district levels as well as among ministries”.

Ensuring that the agreements are disseminated to all relevant stakeholders when approved is central in guaranteeing the application of the agreements in practice further strengthening water governance and integrated water resources management in Laos.

As emphasised by Somvang Bouttavong, Head of Division Water Utilization Management and DWR project lead “the most important thing after the agreements are approved, is to enforce these at the implementation stage with technical guidelines and build capacity at various levels.”

Featured image: Opening remarks for the consultations by H.E. Mr Chanthanet Boualapha, Vice Minister of Natural Resources and Environment
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