Lao PDR is a water rich country, benefitting from the water resources of the Mekong River tributaries and many smaller water bodies. Water resources in the country are used in several sectors including irrigation, hydropower, navigation, fisheries, urban water supply, and rural water supply. Mountain springs and streams, and shallow groundwater are the main sources for rural and small-town water supply. Surface water is the main source for urban water supply.
According to the Lao Social Indicator Survey II 2017, an estimated 84% of Lao PDR’s population was using an improved source of drinking water facility in 2017. However, improved access showed marked regional disparities, with almost a 20% gap between urban and rural populations (97% in urban areas used improved sources of drinking water, compared to 78% in rural areas). In addition, there remain many mountainous and remote provinces with lower coverage, and water sources may be prone to contamination from the increasingly frequent floods.
Inequalities are far greater in sanitation than in water coverage. This may be because having improved sanitation facilities is not a priority amongst the poor, whereas clean water is universally desired. In 2015, sanitation in rural areas was an estimated 38% behind that in urban areas. In addition, among disadvantaged groups, more than half still practice open defecation. However, the rate of open defecation has decreased from 37.9% in 2012 to 23.9% in 2018, but the practice still poses a significant health risk.
Water quality is a concern. The Lao Social Indicator Survey II 2017 tested for E. coli bacteria—an indicator of faecal contamination—in the drinking water of over 3,000 households throughout Laos. As many as 86% of the households had E. coli in their drinking water, and 38% had very high concentrations (>100 E. coli per 100 ml). The prevalence of E. coli was not very different for households using improved versus households using unimproved sources of drinking water.
Arsenic in drinking water from tubewells is also a concern in central and southern Lao PDR, which is derived naturally in the soil especially in the southern part of Laos. However, arsenic-measurement studies are very limited. One available study suggests that as many as 400 thousand people in these provinces may be exposed to arsenic in drinking water exceeding WHO’s guideline of 10 µg/liter. Exposure to arsenic in drinking water has been found to be associated with various health effects. Health effects include skin lesions and various forms of cancer, kidney and liver failure, and ulcer.
Further, water pollution is increasing in both urban and rural areas, and most urban areas have no wastewater treatment facilities, so inadequate sewerage facilities have accelerated the discharge of domestic liquid wastes to water bodies.
While water demand remains low in terms of per-capita public consumption, in recent years, water resources have gained greater prominence due to the increasing role of hydropower and irrigation systems. Damming of the Mekong River is underway and is expected to impact the hydrological profile and biodiversity of the river.
At least 50 dams have been built in the last 15 years on Laos' hundreds of rivers and streams, with at least 14 new dams on the Mekong and its tributaries completed since 2018, according to the U.S.- funded Mekong Infrastructure Tracker. Environmentalists say the dams have damaged the Mekong River Basin's fragile ecosystem. Sudden water releases causing floods and also holding back water that causes shortages downstream has sparked complaints from fishermen and farmers in both Laos and also downstream neighbours including Thailand and Cambodia, where millions of people rely on the Mekong River for their livelihoods.
Climate change, and particularly changes to peak flows, may also have complex implications for water resources management challenges in the region, for example, by altering processes of sediment erosion and deposition. Drought may also increase as a risk as national water resource development continues to be a mix of opportunities and challenges. In this context, the strengthening of an Integrated Water Resource Management (IWRM) framework could be essential to support the broader goals and strategies of inclusive economic development.
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.
Most industrial water pollution in Lao PDR originates from the manufacturing and mining and quarrying sectors. Mining has become a significant part of the Lao PDR economy, with large-scale metal mining creating long-term water pollution problems. This polluted water can become a source of serious health risks. Constructing wetlands to absorb these polluted flows can be an effective and efficient way to reduce these flows of contaminants into Lao PDR’s various waterbodies.
Key policies and governance approach
Lao PDR is a member of the Mekong River Commission (MRC), established in 1995 to strengthen transboundary water governance and promote the application of Integrated Water Resource Management. Compared to other river basin institutions worldwide, the MRC has a mandate and an organizational structure that are well constituted to link regional and national development.
Improved water resource management is seen as critical to the green-growth agenda and is important to ensure sustainable development of the hydropower potential in the country. Recognizing the importance of water management for sustainable development, the Law on Water and Water Resources was updated and approved by the National Assembly in May 2017. The law is expected to influence the monitoring, management and planning of the country’s vast rivers. New provisions have been added on water rights and use, including wastewater discharge permits, wetlands and water-resources protection, ground-water management, and river-basin management. Additionally, the law expands the terms and conditions of large, medium, and small-scale uses and includes articles on environmental flows for hydropower as well as stipulations related to irrigation use. The process benefitted from extensive consultations with a wide range of stakeholders, including the private sector. Responsibility for strategic planning of water resources (at the basin level) lies with the Ministry of Natural Resources and Environment.
In addition, several related laws exist, including among others, the Law on Minerals (Revised) 2017, Law on Water Supply 2009, Fisheries Law 2009, Irrigation Law 2012, Law on Chemical Management 2016, Law on Aquatic Animals and Wildlife 2007, Law on Meteorology and Hydrology 2017 and Law on Disaster Management (Creation) 2019.
Lao PDR has also developed the National Strategic Plan of clean water and Strategic plan of water supply development, as well as the National Water Resources Management Strategic Plan with vision to 2030.
Integrated water resource management (IWRM) has been introduced in 10 priority river basins and the river basin committees have been established in key river basins. In addition, some key water-quality monitoring points have been identified.
SUCCESSES AND REMAINING CHALLENGES
Since its creation, the Mekong River Commission (MRC) has faced a number of challenges, including a disconnect between national and regional priorities and decision making; inability to overcome sectoral fragmentation in water resource management at the national level; limited involvement of China, which has only committed to being a ‘dialogue partner’; limited interaction with other regional development initiatives, such as the Greater Mekong Subregion (GMS) programme, supported by the Asian Development Bank; and limited grass-roots participation. As a result, the MRC has struggled to translate the outcomes of its regional programmes into policy formulation at the national level, and the riparian countries, including Lao PDR, have largely continued to focus on national development plans, regardless of MRC initiatives and potential transboundary effects.
Though several laws, policies, regulations and plans have been approved and endorsed at the national level for the water sector in Lao PDR, a number of challenges remain including: dissemination has been limited and not all stakeholder levels are familiar; participation of relevant stakeholders in the development of policy and related plans is lacking; the implementation of laws and other regulations related to IWRM are not yet strict, especially at the provincial and district levels; the capacity of related government staff at the local levels is limited; cross sector collaboration needs to be strengthened; and finally, financing is one of the greatest challenges for IWRM implementation in Laos, and budget supply is lacking for implementation at both national and other levels, especially for water/wastewater/groundwater monitoring.
Initiatives and Development Plans
The National Green Growth Strategy focuses on promoting the management and use of water and water resources in an efficient, effective, and sustainable manner. The main focus will be on: (i) encouraging and promoting the creation of the coordinating mechanism for the management, allocation and use of water with the participation of many sectors and local administrations to ensure efficiency, effectiveness, and sustainability of the use of water and water resources and to ensure the consensus and supply of water, in sufficient quantity and quality, for public consumption and use, agricultural production, aquatic life conservation, fishery, hydroelectricity production, industrial uses and other uses; (ii) protecting and improving the quality of the water source forests and water sources which are related to the water reservoirs; (iii) protecting, improving and expanding the natural water reservoirs (streams, ponds, canals, marshes, etc.) and man-made water sources to make them more efficient and sustainable to ensure sufficient water storage and supply and to respond to climate change and possible water shortages; (iv) controlling the quality of water; and (v) formulating a plan for efficient, effective and sustainable management, allocation and use of water and water resources.
- Improve the implementation and enforcement of existing laws and regulations.
- Develop strategies and plans for the management and development of water resources in a multi-sectorial manner.
- Continue to setup river basin coordination for better effectiveness - efficiency and sustainability by following government policy.
- Capacity building programs for local government staff, including ministry level.
- Awareness raising programs for the younger generation and direct groups of related stakeholders.
- Involvement of more stakeholders, including vulnerable stakeholders, from the planning stage of relevant plans and projects, not only during the implementation period.
- Encourage collaborative projects with various partners.
- Find the best platform for sharing related water data and information, making it easily accessible.
- Pay more attention to flood/drought and encourage intensive related studies, e.g., modelling for avoiding the risks.
- Have clear regulation on the use and management of groundwater resources.
- Disseminate the revised water and water resource law issued in 2017.
- Allocate national budget/and encourage foreign investment related to sustainable water resource development.
- Encourage local authorities to do fund raising for sustainable water resource development.
- Ensure monitoring and quality checking for all related water development projects at all levels.
- Promote further study/related project development on groundwater and aquifer, so the government can take the advantage of them.
 MONRE (2020). SDG 6 IWRM Support Programme. Stakeholder Consultation Report. SDG 6.5.1, Degree of implementation of IWRM. Lao PDR.
 Matthew McCartney & Jake Brunner (2021) Improved water management is central to solving the water-energy-food trilemma in Lao PDR, International Journal of Water Resources Development, 37:4, 619-639, DOI: 10.1080/07900627.2020.1754175.