Notes from the Field

Water Monitoring in Vang Vieng, Laos

March 18, 2009

Only a few hours’ drive from Laos’s capital of Vientiane, Vang Vieng is a small but growing town, and one of the country’s most popular ecotourism destinations. Here, the Nam Song River is the center of life. People from around the globe travel to Vang Vieng to enjoy kayaking, tubing, fishing, caving, and trekking along the river and its surrounding limestone cliffs. While local tourism and agriculture businesses thrive off the pristine waters of the Nam Song, villagers rely on the river for their main sources of protein: fish and aquatic insects. Local communities’ livelihoods and the success of the ecotourism industry in Vang Vieng are inextricably linked to the river’s health and surrounding ecosystems.

Laos’s river systems provide the foundation of the country’s burgeoning export economy, which largely consists of hydropower, mining, commercial agriculture, and forestry. Yet these industries – and even some tourism operations – are threatening once-pristine watersheds. Local communities and ecotourism entrepreneurs are increasingly concerned about uncontrolled development, poorly enforced environmental regulations, and their impact on precious water resources. Villagers who are intimately connected to the environment tell many anecdotes of environmental change, but they lack the means to scientifically monitor degrading water systems or effectively advocate for improved environmental protection.

Currently, there is very little if any baseline data on the health of river systems in Laos, and there are limited resources for monitoring water quality. Without this information, it is impossible to measure environmental changes over time or to formulate effective plans to address degrading water resources. In order to preserve Laos’s water supply, reliable, accurate information about its water supply quality is vital; such data can contribute to an informed policy dialogue on environmental health issues and to solutions for how to protect and maintain healthy water systems. Water data is particularly valuable to the ecotourism industry, which is a top priority of the national government and a promising field for sustainable economic development.

The Asia Foundation is spearheading a community-based monitoring approach in Vang Vieng. During a recent visit, Laos Program Officer Achariya Kohtbantau spent several days along the Nam Song River overseeing the Foundation’s first water quality field survey in Laos. The survey method features biological monitoring that uses benthic macroinvertebrates, which are small aquatic insects that are sensitive to pollution and physical disturbances in the river and therefore serve as good indicators of water quality. The project is inspired by the Foundation’s “Securing Our Future” water monitoring program in Mongolia, which, in two years, has sampled more than 125 rivers and trained more than 300 students, teachers, and community leaders in biological monitoring. As in Mongolia, our Lao partners also view this project as an educational vehicle to pass along traditional local wisdom on ecology and environmental stewardship across regions and generations.

Armed with kicknets and microscopes, the Foundation’s research partners at the National University of Laos Faculty of Science surveyed seven sites along the Nam Song River. Villagers and local officials observed the field research team with great interest and curiosity, and some eventually joined the effort, collecting the water bugs with their hands and giving researchers local names for each species. This approach seems to be a natural fit for the people of Vang Vieng, most of whom already have strong knowledge of water insects, since these aquatic creatures are an important part of their diet.

Over the next nine months, the Foundation will work with the Faculty of Science to develop Lao-specific training materials (such as a benthic macroinvertebrate field guide, water monitoring manuals, and river system maps) and to provide training for local communities and citizen groups (such as the Lao Youth Union and the Lao National Front for Reconstruction) so that they can conduct their own water monitoring. Data generated through this pilot project will be linked with a national environmental monitoring database, and an analysis of the data will be shared with the broader community in Vang Vieng. Eventually, the Foundation aims to connect and replicate the project in other areas of Laos that are more severely impacted by industrial and agricultural pollution.

In these ways, the water quality information produced through this project will provide direct benefits to Lao communities and local businesses, while contributing to the broader policy dialogue on sustainability and economic development.

Brooke Shull is The Asia Foundation’s Environment Program Officer. She can be reached at bshull@asiafound.org.

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