Discovering the value of wetlands in Lao PDR

22 July 2009 | News story

Many communities in Lao PDR have limited access to water, health clinics and education. Fishery resources are decreasing, land for riverbank agriculture is scarcer and unsafe chemical fertilizers are being introduced.  

What’s the problem?

The Upper Mekong of Lao PDR is an area undergoing rapid changes – the opening of river navigation to commercial vessels, the development of roads and the construction of hydropower dams. Rural communities whose livelihoods remain largely based on agriculture and the use of natural resources are the ones most affected by development.


The IUCN Water and Nature Initiative (WANI) project site in Lao covers three low-lying districts of Attapeu: Samakhixai, Xaysetha and Sanamxai. Until recently Attapeu was just a remote province with poor communications – the main road into the provincial capital was only completed in 2005.

Attapeu province is rich in natural resources including fisheries and forests, and has a rich ethnic diversity. In addition to the lowlands and rice fields there are a wide variety of wetland types, including lava fields and the Sekong and Sepian rivers. While poverty rates are high, agricultural productivity is still very low. Rates of health, nutrition and education are poor, and state support services are limited. As communications improve, pressures are growing on natural resources.


How is food security threatened?

Inability to achieve food security was due to decrease in fish stock and less water in the river. During the implementation of the project it became clear that despite the villagers’ wish to increase rice production, government support was crucial in developing irrigation systems and credits to buy livestock.

The women said that they used to be able to meet their consumption needs in terms of sufficient nutrition intake, but the need for cash income to buy medicines and equipments forced them to sell the high nutritional products, such as fish and livestock.


What’s the solution?

WANI and its partners worked with local villagers to determine the nutritional value locked in their wetland, to better conserve and harness it.

The fisheries of the Mekong wetlands are the single most important source of animal protein for the people in this region. The health of the people, their food security, culture and economies are closely connected to wetland fisheries.

Although government agencies largely define food security in terms of rice security, the people place equal importance on the harvest from their fisheries. Food security is the main indicator for identifying poor and vulnerable households in Laos. Promotion of increased rice production – through expanding the area of land under cultivation, extension of improved cultivation techniques and irrigation – dominates agricultural policy.

Nutrition Study Findings

Rice fields are perhaps the most widespread and economically productive type of wetland in the Mekong. While agricultural development focuses on increasing rice productivity, the wild aquatic resources in these floodplains and rice fields are often overlooked. Assessment of the nutritional role of aquatic resources in Attapeu revealed that:

• Aquatic resources are the main source of animal protein in protein-poor diets;
• Aquatic resources are of particular importance for poorer households, and for women;
• Harvesting aquatic resources is one of the main coping strategies for periods of rice shortage;
• There are no coping strategies for periods of aquatic resource shortage.

Given their importance to local livelihoods, any degradation of wild water resources is likely to have significant impact. The potential for reducing poverty and promoting sustainable livelihoods through management of wild aquatic resources has yet to be realized.