Around 10,000 Lao citizens die every year from preventable causes due to pollution, with household air pollution alone representing 44% of deaths. In 2017, pollution also caused nearly 100 million days of illness annually, and the costs of such deaths and illnesses were equivalent to 15% of national gross domestic product (GDP). The highest cost was due to household air pollution, but inadequate water supply, sanitation, and hygiene; outdoor ambient air pollution; soil pollution; and lead exposure also represent pressing challenges.
No measurement study of blood lead levels (BLL) in Lao PDR’s population is available. However, if BLLs are similar to the levels in neighboring countries, then over 90% of children and adults in Lao PDR may have BLLs that are detrimental to children’s neuropsychological development and adults’ cardiovascular health.
Tackling pollution and reducing its severe health effects is fundamental to achieve Lao PDR’s broader development goals. Pollution causes illnesses that mainly affect low-income people, children, the elderly, and other vulnerable groups. These illnesses reduce the productivity of adults and, in the case of children, affect their ability to attend school and learn, which subsequently limits their opportunities for professional and human development. Thus, efforts to reduce pollution are an investment in human capital, leading to higher productivity and economic growth.
While solid waste generation in Lao PDR is amongst the lowest in Asia, solid waste generation in several urban cities is increasing, and will continue to increase with economic development, rapid urbanization, and changes in consumption patterns. In Lao PDR, solid waste generation is expected to increase 20% by 2030 and 46% by 2050. The country is already facing challenges related to solid-waste management; these challenges derive from deficient collection systems and inadequate disposal methods.
Inadequate solid-waste management practices such as open dumping and burning can harm human health and the environment. The burning of waste releases dangerous toxins like dioxins and furans into the air; such toxins are associated with cancer, neurological problems, hormonal disruptions, and reproductive issues. In addition, emissions such as greenhouse gases and short-lived climate pollutants are released when waste is burned; these emissions are associated with climate change. Further, plastic waste can accumulate on the banks of waterways and clog drains, leading to increased flooding and river pollution.
China was the world’s largest importer of plastic waste, dealing with 95% of the plastics collected for recycling in the European Union, 70% of U.S. recyclables and other recycled materials from around the world. In January 2018, China enacted a National Sword policy that restricts the import of plastic waste and other materials, closing the market for exporting nations and causing several cities to incinerate or landfill recyclable waste. With the ban, several plastics recyclers have relocated to other Southeast Asian countries, placing Lao PDR at risk.
In 2017, over 93% of Lao PDR’s population relied on solid fuels (wood, charcoal) for cooking, causing severe household air pollution. A study in Savannakhet province found that household cooks were exposed to 24-hour average PM2.5 concentration levels that were 12 times higher than WHO’s air quality guidelines for annual average outdoor PM2.5.
In addition, available monitoring data, although limited, suggests that the majority of Lao PDR’s population are exposed to dangerous levels of outdoor ambient PM2.5, and that in Vientiane Capital, levels may exceed the annual WHO’s guideline by a multiple of 3–4, and possibly more in some sections of the city. Rising pollution from a rapidly increasing vehicle fleet - especially diesel vehicles, continued air pollution from household burning of waste/debris, high level of dust from streets and other sources especially during the dry season, and cooking with solid fuels (that is, wood, charcoal) are likely some of the main sources of air pollution in Laos.
Soil pollution mostly results from illegal land use, uncontrolled mining, electronic waste, and chemical waste from agriculture production. The soil may be chemically contaminated with a wide range of pollutants, including pesticides, lead, and cadmium. Laos has limited agriculturally productive areas, however, there is no organization to check if there are chemical residues in soil. Agricultural land is also limited by risk areas of unexploded ordnance (UXO) and areas with dioxin contamination from Agent Orange during the Vietnam war.
Although exposure to lead has globally declined substantially with the phaseout of leaded gasoline, multiple other sources of lead exposure remain. These sources include, among others, industry and mining; occupational exposure; contaminated drinking water, food, dust, soil, paint, cosmetics, utensils, several herbal medicines, children’s toys, ornaments, and jewellery.
Finally, water pollution is rapidly increasing in urban and rural areas. Most urban areas have no wastewater treatment facilities, so inadequate sewerage facilities have accelerated the discharge of domestic liquid wastes to water bodies. Due to haphazard urbanization, discharge of domestic sewage, faecal sludge, industrial effluents and dumping of solid waste to water bodies, and intensive use of chemical fertilizer and pesticides in agricultural practices have severely deteriorated water quality in the rivers. In mountainous areas, the installation of hydropower schemes poses additional water quality problems or risks.
Key policies and governance approach
Lao PDR’s legal framework has evolved rapidly since the adoption of the first legal instruments for environmental management in the 1990s (the 1994 Regulation on Industrial Waste Discharge and the 1996 Law on Water and Water Resources). Today, relevant legal instruments include: the 2011 Law on Hygiene, Disease Prevention, and Health Promotion; MoNRE’s Ministerial Instruction on Hazardous Waste Management (2015); the 2017 Law on Chemicals; the Decree on Pesticide Management (2017); and the 2017 Law on Water and Water Resources (LWWR).
The 1999 Environmental Protection Law (EPL), with its most recent amendments in 2012, constitutes the backbone of the country’s legal framework for environmental management and includes several provisions focusing on environmental health risks. The 2012 amendments introduced the concepts of environmental health and impact on social environment, recognizing the importance of protecting humans from the potential impacts of environmental degradation. Other provisions throughout the law explicitly refer to the protection of human health as a key goal of environmental protection and pollution control. The EPL recognizes four main types of pollution: air, soil, water, and disturbance (noise, light, odor, vibration, and heat). National Environmental Quality Standards (NEQS) and National Pollution Control Standards (NPCS) control these pollution types.
The 2012 Tax Law provides the legal framework to establish environmental taxes on individuals and organizations generating pollution and environmental degradation. The same law specifies that tax revenues will be used to treat, rehabilitate, or clean pollution.
Lao PDR’s institutional framework for environmental management has relied significantly on the use of Environmental and Social Impact Assessments (ESIA) as a regulatory tool for individual projects. Recently, Lao PDR has taken steps to incorporate the preparation of policy Strategic Environmental Assessments (SEA) to integrate environmental and sustainability considerations at strategic decision-making stages. The GoL adopted the 2016 Prime Minister Order No. 55 and the 2017 Ministerial Decision No. 483/MoNRE, which introduced legal requirements for using SEA to integrate environmental and social sustainability, as well as SDGs, into all policies, programs, and strategic plans. By May 2019, the full set of SEA regulations was ready to be implemented for a variety of policy-level topics, including hydropower, the National Green Growth Strategy, and others priority topics.
Recently announced, Decision on Pollution Control No. 1687/MONRE”, prescribes the measures on control, monitoring, and inspection of pollution; measures to control pollution in case of emergency; designation of hazardous areas; and identification of pollution risks to minimize the impacts to air, soil, water, and public nuisance and to remain within the National Environmental Standard threshold.
The Natural Resources and Environment Sector Vision (NRESV) towards 2030 and the Ten-Year Strategy (2016–2025) and the Natural Resources and Environment Sector Five Year Action Plan (NRESP) also include several goals explicitly focused on pollution challenges.
While environmental legislation has progressed in the country, the regulatory framework for solid-waste management is still limited; consequently, many gaps need to be filled.
SUCCESSES AND REMAINING CHALLENGES
Official documents suggest that Lao PDR’s institutional framework has not yet picked up the signals indicating that the country faces significant environmental challenges. For example, the NRESV characterizes Lao PDR’s environmental quality as good and comparing favorably with other countries in the Asian region. Whereas the World Bank’s assessment of the costs of environmental degradation indicated that the health and economic effects of such degradation in Laos have a cost equivalent to 14.6% of GDP, a higher share than any of the other countries in which the Bank has conducted similar analyses.
The environmental health problems that require attention most urgently are household air pollution; ambient air pollution; water, sanitation, and hygiene; and lead exposure. However, these issues have received minimal attention in the high-level policies, instruments, and budget allocations. This misalignment between environmental priorities, institutional efforts, and resource allocation is largely due to (a) the absence of an integrated system of reliable data to provide analytical support to the decision-making process; (b) the lack of representation of vulnerable groups that are mainly affected by environmental degradation; and (c) the absence of a formal mechanism for allocating financial and human resources according to clearly defined environmental priories that are linked to poverty alleviation and social priorities.
Monitoring capacity is constrained by a lack of reliable time-series data on the state of the environment and natural resources, the nonexistence of a system of results-focused indicators of environmental quality, and insufficient resources to ensure an adequate institutional presence in the field.
Gaps in environmental policies, weak enforcement, and deficient technical capacity have rendered Lao PDR’s environmental management framework ineffective to reduce environmental degradation in the country. Current environmental regulations only apply to (or are only enforced for) a limited subset of activities or in response to a public complaint, and environmental regulation systematically neglects some of the most polluting activities. Government regulators lack resources to enforce the regulatory framework. Because of this, enforcement is selective and compliance with regulations is extremely low.
Weaknesses in executing decisions are associated with inadequate funding for the environmental sector and decreases in the national government’s total environmental expenditure. Budget allocations for environmental protection in Lao PDR are insufficient to address severe pollution problems. According to MoNRE’s own assessment, its budget was insufficient to implement the 2016–2020 Natural Resources and Environment Sector Plan. The limited data that are publicly available indicate that environmental protection activities have been highly dependent on donor funding and that allocations to the sector have fallen even as total government expenditure has risen.
Initiatives and Development Plans
The four-year, USD 6.7 million, Wastewater and Solid Waste Treatment Capacity Building Project for City Environment Improvement in Lao PDR is funded by Korea International Cooperation Agency (KOICA) and Global Green Growth Institute (GGGI). The project, which officially commenced at the end of 2019, supports the Ministry of Public Works and Transport, and city authorities to improve waste management in Vientiane Capital and Pakse city to achieve green city development.
In 2020, the project made progress in terms of setting the foundation for implementing planned activities. Among these achievements include drafting the Vientiane Capital Sustainable Solid Waste Management Strategy, establishing organic waste recovery facility from markets, setting up waste banks at 10 primary schools to collect recyclables, and conducting Pakse city sanitation baseline assessment in preparation for the construction of wastewater treatment facilities.
Goals and Ambitions
The 9th NSEDP includes the following ambitions: (i) monitoring of environment quality especially water and air quality; (ii) building a database on pollutant emission, toxic chemicals, and hazardous waste; (iii) promotion and increased awareness on management and recycling of waste; (iv) solving the air quality problem; (v) understanding of plastic problems at every level; (vi) establish registration on chemical residuals especially pesticides in agriculture sector; and (vii) prevent and reduce forest fires and smoke across the country.
According to the World Bank's Country Environmental Analysis for The Lao People’s Democratic Republic, key recommendations to bolster environmental institutions in Lao PDR include the following:
- Establishing a formal mechanism to define environmental priorities, align environmental expenditures with priorities, and continuously assess progress in achieving environmental goals.
- Strengthening the monitoring of priority sites related to environmental quality and using collected data to design evidence-based interventions to reduce pollution and to publicly disseminate information that can help strengthen environmental constituencies.
- Establishing systematic procedures to evaluate progress in responding to environmental priorities, incorporate lessons learned, and identify opportunities for continuous improvement.
- Strengthening interagency coordination to address environmental priorities through the adoption of goals that are based on environmental-performance indicators and through public dissemination of information that presents and discusses progress in achieving such goals.
- Improving public information and promoting transparency, accountability, and awareness through the publication of data, wider use of public forums, and a more detailed review and discussion on environmental-management tools.
- Ensuring adequate funding and using result-based agreements to improve effectiveness and efficiency in the use of public resources in all sectors, including the environment.
- Strengthening the capacity of environmental agencies to fulfill their mandate, including systematic monitoring and enforcement of environmental regulations, as well as creating specialized technical units to address priority challenges.
- Continuing to develop the regulatory and policy framework using a comprehensive set of instruments such as (i) as command-and-control measures; (ii) economic and market-based instruments; and (iii) other means, including public disclosure, legal actions, and formal negotiation.
The implementation of the following measures is recommended to improve solid-waste management:
- Ban on open burning waste.
- To protect the country from unsustainable waste trade, GoL might consider issuing a ban on imports of all waste (including e-wastes, plastics, paper, aluminum, and glass).
- Improving the institutional and regulatory framework for solid-waste management. A solid waste regulatory framework at the national level, which includes specific laws and regulations for solid-waste management and considers all shareholders, should be developed. Efforts to enforce laws, including the implementation of fees and other penalties, should be deployed. At the municipal level, local regulations that cover specific aspects of waste management— such as source separation, household fees, and disposal sites—should be enacted.
- Strengthening planning, information systems, and citizen engagement. The eventual development of a National Solid-waste management Strategy and Investment Plan—laying out targets, required activities, selection of priority low-cost investments, budget, and actor responsibilities—would help to streamline solid-waste management activities in Lao PDR.
- Promotion of a circular economy to improve resource use efficiency.
- Legal requirements for hazardous and medical waste management.
- Establishment of standards for landfills in urban areas. Development of common standards will establish minimum requirements to mitigate risks to the environment and public health, including (i) restriction on landfill locations, (ii) use of bottom liners, (iii) operation of leachate collection systems, (iv) monitoring of groundwater quality, and (v) installation of composting platforms and landfill gas capture systems to reduce methane production.
 Ministry of Finance (2015). Natural Resources and Environment Sector Vision towards 2030 and Ten-Year Strategy (2016– 2025). Vientiane: MoNRE.
 Government of the Lao People’s Democratic Republic. National Strategy on Socio-Economic Development 2016-2025.
 [Online]. Available: https://enviliance.com/regions/southeast-asia/la/report_3974.