Pumping in new life

Wetlands and their role for climate change adaptation in Lao PDR

Pumping life
Wetlands play a major role for local livelihoods. On the one hand they are an important habitat, on the other a source and regulator of water. Photo: Xavier Bouan

“Hey, man! Get down here with the key, we want to show our guests how the pump works”, Bounyong mouths into his phone. The Village Head of Hang Heng Village in Saravane Province of southern Lao PDR impatiently shoves his phone into the back pocket of his faded jeans. It is evident he is eager to show us the pump that feeds a communal irrigation system, supplying water to his village’s rice paddies. The pump is floating on a raft-like construction, secured with a locked door, close to the shore of what looks like a lake.

Soon after the phone call, we hear a motor revving, and a young man is speeding down the bank on his motorbike to meet us. Khoune chokes the motor down, jumps off his motorbike and rushes to the jetty to open the door. “I am one of four people with a key”, he looks back to us and grins, “Whenever there isn’t enough water, we start the pump, usually once a day in the dry season.” He flicks the switch, the motor starts up, and we hear water gurgling up the bank in a big tube to the beginning of the irrigation canal.

Khoune and Bounyong settle down in the shade under a bamboo shrub. “Rain patterns are not what they were”, says Khoune, “We cannot rely on enough rain during the rice-growing season anymore. This pump is helping us to get enough water onto our paddies in the wet season, but actually, above that, thanks to the pump we can now even plant and harvest another additional time each year.” “This pump is making quite a difference for the 123 families in our village”, Bounyong chimes in, “all in all we have 150 hectares of irrigated rice paddy-lands, and the additional harvest makes quite a difference for us.”

“Can you imagine that this lake and the wetland you see around it all but dried out a few years ago?”, Bounyong suddenly says after a few minutes of contemplative silence. Surprised, we look around. The lake is big, stretching across almost 2 kilometres. It’s hard to imagine the area without it, buffalos grazing on its banks, fishermen casting their nets and a big family of White-winged Ducks quacking their way through the happenings of the day.

Many years ago, the lake was formed when a river dug a shortcut into one of its horseshoe bends, Bounyong explains. The remaining detour became the Beung Sa O wetland. Over the past ten years the water level lowered slowly, but steadily, especially during dry seasons. Sometimes, the wetland dried out completely. During wet seasons, floods became more frequent. The wetland, which absorbed water during heavy rains and stored it for times of drought, had lost its water-regulating capacity.

“We saw the changes, but had no idea why they happened, nor what we could do to adapt to them”, Bounyong says. “The project taught us to help ourselves. We understand that climate change is affecting our village. We built a wall to protect the run-off side of Beung Sa O, and the water levels have risen back to two meters in height.”

The dike has revitalised the wetland, and other interventions like releasing fish into the water have given villagers their livelihoods back. Fishing, rice-farming, small animal husbandry and vegetable gardening are main sources of income in Hang Heng.

The newly emerged wetland has invited wildlife to come back. One of these returnees is the chatty White-winged Duck, who acts as a natural pesticide, eating snails and insects that otherwise present a threat to young rice plants.

“It’s working out so well for us that we have all kinds of plans for the future”, Khoune laughs. “One of them is to expand the irrigated area and learn to plant a bigger variety of crops.”

Which makes a lot of sense. Evidently, success lies in adapting to these new circumstances and learning how to diversify agricultural production and animal husbandry. Hang Heng and its villagers are on the right track. 

 

For further information, please contact:

Dr. Margaret Jones Williams, Environment Unit Manager, UNDP Lao PDR;
E-mail: margaret.jones.williams@undp.org ; Tel: (856 21) 267 710

Ms. Chitlatda Keomuongchanh, Programme Analyst, UNDP Lao PDR;
E-mail: chitlatda.keomuongchanh@undp.org; Tel: (856 21) 267 782

Anders Poulsen, Chief Technical Advisor, UNDP Lao PDR;
E-mail: anders.poulsen@undp.org ; Tel: (856 20) 91951488