Love Laos: Keep it Clean
April 19, 2017
Sitting beside the Mekong River, sipping a cold drink and enjoying the scenery is a welcome break for tourists and locals alike in Laos. You can usually see men out in their boats following the large seine nets that float down the river, and women dipping and then hoisting their large lift nets as they catch fish for their supper. But as one’s gaze is drawn to the shoreline, this idyllic setting is spoiled by another view: plastic bags, drinking water bottles, plastic foam containers, and other rubbish scattered along the banks of the river.
The tourists will move on, but this litter dumped in the fields and along the river banks will not. It can take over 450 years for a plastic water bottle to decompose, and for plastic foam, most likely never.
Traditionally, most people in Laos lived a subsistence lifestyle, and their waste was primarily organic and decayed quickly. However, urbanisation and the shift to consumer lifestyles in rural areas is leading to an increase in imported and manufactured products, which are typically comprised of plastics and other non-biodegradable materials.
There are a limited number of sanitary landfills in the country, with only the capital, Vientiane, and the four secondary towns of Luang Prabang, Thakhek, Savannakhet, and Pakse using them for solid waste disposal. Community dumps have been set up in some rural communities, but these dumps are poorly managed and have in most cases just shifted the environmental problems out of sight. As a result, the majority of people must come up with their own solutions for waste disposal by burning their garbage or dumping it in vacant lots or into rivers.
However, awareness of the negative impacts from improper waste disposal, including environmental issues caused by the leaching of hazardous substances into soils and water, and human health problems due to inhalation of the smoke given off by burning plastics and other hazardous materials, remains low in Laos. According to several surveys on waste management conducted by The Asia Foundation in rural areas of Khammouane province, 90 percent of respondents said they burned their waste, including hazardous waste such as batteries, in close vicinity to their homes. In other parts of the country, this discarded trash ends up clogging canals and polluting the rivers and other waterways.
The accumulation and improper disposal of solid waste is a growing problem in Laos, as it is in many developing countries. In Vientiane, the amount of solid waste has doubled in less than 10 years, but only about 40-50 percent of this waste is collected and sent to the landfill. In a country where the government’s limited financial resources are focused on improving rural roads, schools, and health services in its goal to graduate from Least Developed Country (LDC) status by 2020, waste management is seen as a low priority.
While it will take some time to achieve efficient government waste collection and disposal services throughout the country, communities can still take meaningful steps to improve their own management of waste. Some estimates show that despite there being few sanitary landfills, recycling and composting could reduce the amount of waste being discarded by about half.
In 2016, The Asia Foundation launched a new campaign targeting waste management called “Love Laos: Keep it Clean.” The campaign is coupled with several projects meant to inspire and encourage people to stop littering and to start recycling and composting. In Bolikhamxay, Luang Prabang, and Khammouane provinces, we initiated several school and community waste management projects teaching students and communities about the financial opportunities from selling materials for recycling and the health benefits of composting their organic material and using it as organic fertilizer in their vegetable gardens.
The campaign drew inspiration from the popularity of Facebook as a low-cost tool to reach a large number of people and deliver the message of the importance of improved waste management. In partnership with the Luang Prabang Film Festival (LPFF), we announced a short film competition in September 2016. The competition encouraged Lao national filmmakers to produce a three-minute video and public service announcement looking at the problems with waste, littering, and improper waste disposal in their country to encourage the public to develop more sustainable habits.
We received over 40 entries, and the 10 finalist videos were posted on the LPFF Facebook page to encourage viewers to vote on their favorite video. In total, the competition reached over 600,000 people both inside and outside of the country, and received over 123,000 likes, comments, and shares.
The top three films from the competition, as well as the film that went the most “viral” on Facebook, were shown on the main screen at last year’s Luang Prabang Film Festival in December.
Watch all the winning films here.
Derin Henderson is The Asia Foundation’s environment program advisor in Laos. The views and opinions expressed here are those of the author and not those of The Asia Foundation or its funders.
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