Strategic Environmental Assessment Pre-Study of That Luang Marsh : For Sustainable Development in Vientiane Capital, Lao PDR

University essay from KTH/Industriell ekologi


IntroductionLao People Democratic Republic (Lao PDR / Laos) has a population of 5.8 million people and is today one of the least developed countries in Asia. That Luang Marsh (TLM) is the largest remaining urban wetland (2000 hectare) in Vientiane Capital, which historically has supplied wildlife and local people with several eco-services. Some important functions are wastewater treatment, flood control (water storage), and several agricultural and aquacultural services. Due to the flat landscape and the low permeability in soil, the area becomes naturally flooded during the wet season when the water level in the Mekong River is high. All storm water in Vientiane is drained through TLM. There have been several projects in Vientiane aimed to solve the drainage and sanitarian situation. However, the problems have still not been completely solved today.

Aim and objectives This Master of Science thesis aims at providing a prestudy for a Strategic Environmental Assessment (SEA), which may be used for creating a full-scale SEA in the future. The main objectives that will be analyzed are:

  • Wastewater treatment in Vientiane.
  • The environmental impact caused by human activity and how it can be reduced in TLM / Vientiane / Mekong River.
  • Sustainable development in Vientiane.
  • The need of SEA in TLM.
  • Flood control in Vientiane. • Agriculture and aquaculture in Vientiane.
  • The WATER Project and New Town Development Project.
  • Socioeconomic overview of Laos / Vientiane.

Methodology This thesis is a collaboration between the Swedish university KTH and the Thai university AIT. The student (author of this report) was linked to Dr. Shipin, co-advisor at AIT through Dr. Frostell, supervisor at KTH, and Dr. Berg. A field study was made from October 2008 - December 2008 in Vientiane Capital, Laos. The student has collected information from NGOs, institutions, departments, laboratories, libraries, local people, and Internet in the form of hardcopy literature, electronic documents, e-mail contacts, and interviews. During two days the student had the favour to join a team sent out by WWF for collecting water samples around the marsh. The team consisted of representatives from WWF and the three districts that surround That Luang Marsh.

Strategic Environmental Assessment The main purpose of a SEA is to support sustainable decision-making processes in an area. Except from environmental aspects, the SEA also considers socioeconomical aspects. SEAs may differ in terminology and practice between countries and organisations but do usually include stages like preliminary scan, conduction of SEA, preparation of the report, implementation of SEA in PPP (policy, plans, or programmes), and review of the implementation. This report gives a short briefing about how SEAs are produced by CIDA (Canadian International Development Agency) and according to the European Directive. The European Directive is the standard SEA for several European countries. The report does also present the project oriented EIA (Environmental Impact Assessment)

Wetland valuation Wetlands may be valuated in different ways. This report explains one method where the valuation is separated into: DUV (Direct Use Value), IUV (Indirect Use Value), OV (Option Value), and NUV (Non Use Value). These are added to TEV (Total Economical Value).

WATER Project The WATER project is a response to the environmental and socioeconomical problems that have occurred in Vientiane. Several past projects have been less successful, which have resulted in adverse impact on the society and the ecosystem. The WATER project tries to highlight the wetland values and convince authorities to use CWs (Constructed Wetlands) instead of conventional wastewater treatment plants for treating wastewater. This project will first do five pilot studies in Vientiane. Three will be used for treating domestic wastewater and two for industrial. The project is a part of the Wetland Alliance Programme. Main partners during the project are the government of Lao PDR, WWF Laos, WWF Germany, Wild Fowl & Wetland Trust (WWT). Other involved partners are CORIN, AIT, WFC, CIDA, and Sida. It seems that the authorities will allocate 22 hectares for constructing a CW that will purify Vientiane’s most polluted urban water canal Hong Ke. The WATER Project recommends that even Hong Xeng is included which totally requires 61 hectare CW area.

New Town Development Project The New Town Development is a collaboration between the Lao and Chinese government. The plan is to develop the city so it attracts more foreign and domestic investors. 1000 hectares low valued land will be developed for business and 200 hectare will be used for creating an artificial lake aimed for compensating lost wetland area. As a part of the negotiations, the Chinese has already constructed a stadium that was used during the SEA Games 2009. 670 hectare will be developed in TLM, 100 hectare in Dongphosy Forest, and 430 hectare close to the new stadium. The Chinese investors will lease the developed land for 50 years. This may be used for business. When the project period is over, the Lao government have the right to reclaim all developed land without compensation. The Chinese Suzhou City stands as model for the development project in Vientiane. The estimated cost of the project is USD 800-1000 million.

Discussion and conclusions Choosing SEA, CEA (Cumulative Effect Assessment), or another strategic assessment method should not be the main issue. As long as the method contributes to a strategic sustainable development and is internationally accepted it may be used for PPPs. The main issue of SEA is not to create a report, but convincing authorities about the importance of sustainable decision-making processes. Factors that may inhibit a sustainable development in Laos are low education, corruption, and greedy investors that devastate the environment for own profit. The laws are in several cases enough but due to the lack of a judicial organization and economical funding the legislative system becomes inefficient.

It is difficult to valuate wetlands. The greatest challenge is to valuate OVs and NUVs. OVs are difficult because they are just options. NUVs are based on a subjective estimation because these consider cultural and aesthetical values. A problem with the New Town Development Project is that some vulnerable groups that live in TLM will be forced to live in a resettlement area. These people may have difficulties to adapt to the new environment. It is important that the authorities work extra hard with helping project affected people. Wetland degradation is probably a result of i) intense water pollution (wastewater from households and industries), ii) physical destruction (housing, filling, and artificial drainage), iii) overuse of wetland VI resources, iv) invasions or invitations of new species (golden apple snail). In theory, wetlands may be replaced with modern technology for protecting the city against flooding. One way is to build a cement layer in Houay Mak Hiao River for increasing the drainage capacity. However, because the country has very small economical margins and the hydrological situation is not completely investigated, this could be treated as a risk project. Another problem is that the wastewater capacity will reduce and the biodiversity in the river will be lost. The loss of wastewater treatment needs to be compensated with modern technology.

Something needs to be done for increasing the sanitarian situation in Vientiane. This report has compared the benefits of using conventional wastewater treatment plants and CWs. Probably the most reasonable solution is to use a CW for treating the wastewater in Hong Ke while the new centre in TLM uses a conventional wastewater treatment plant. This is an optimal solution because a conventional wastewater treatment plant for treating the water in Hong Ke would require a completely new sewage system, which could become very expensive. Maintaining a conventional wastewater treatment plant is also expensive and requires special trained staff. An easier alternative would be to use CWs for the old part of Vientiane. Because the new centre will be built in a modern style with new infrastructure this part of Vientiane could treat wastewater conventionally. Building a conventional wastewater treatment plant would also save some high-valuated land.

Conventional Wastewater TreatmentAdvancedStandardizedQuick turnover timeRequire small spaceCould be more sanitarianProcesses better evaluated

Constructed WetlandLong lifetimeEffective in warm climatesNo chemical inputEasy to maintainLow sludge productionAestheticalLess need to change infrastructureLow running cost (flat topography)

The author will not decide if Vientiane should develop into a top modern city or remain as a small sized capital as it is today. However, today the situation is unsustainable and something needs to be done. Better organization and planning is necessary for not repeating mistakes that were made during past projects. All decisions have to be based on a non-corruptive process and sustainable thinking. Integrating an environmental and socioeconomical strategy into the future of Vientiane should be of interest for all Laotians. Vientiane is the economical centre of Laos and an increased discharge of polluted water into the Mekong would increase the stress of the important river. A collapse of the biodiversity in the Mekong would strike hard on Laos’ fishing industry and economy. Decisions made today will surely more or less affect people at local, regional, national, and international level in the future.

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