Protecting People’s Water Needs Emerges as Top Concern amid Nationwide Consultations on Water Resources Law
Lao officials and province-based lawmakers have been debating revisions of a water resources law in public consultations held around the country, and their biggest concern is how to protect people’s basic water needs and livelihoods.
The Water Resources Law, which will be tabled at the National Assembly in December, aims to ensure the sustainable development of water, riverine and watershed resources in the Lao People’s Democratic Republic. More than 300 National Assembly representatives and officials from various provincial departments have attended public consultations organized by the Department of Water Resources, with the support of IFC and the World Bank, in nine regions of the country from May to June this year.
“In many areas of Lao PDR, many communities’ livelihoods are closely tied to their river bank cultivation,” said Lilao Bouapao, IFC’s National Integrated Water Resources Management Consultant. “In Luang Namtha province of northern Lao PDR, for example, participants want to see this area of the law expanded upon.”
The current draft of the law mentions protection of banks of waterways including rivers, which may affect cultivation traditions of local communities. Lawmakers recommend the legislation to clearly spell out which activities should be encouraged or prohibited.
At the consultations, lawmakers and officials also discussed the importance of strengthening cooperation among different provinces and countries in managing their shared rivers and the effect this has on their neighbors’ downstream in terms of fisheries, water quality and flow.
“Although agreements exist for transboundary cooperation between countries sharing rivers such as the Mekong, little legal arrangements exist for other main river basins such as the Nam Ma, which flows from Lao PDR to Vietnam,” said one National Assembly representative. “We think legal options need to be explored to ensure cooperation between provinces of neighboring countries. For example, is it possible to extend cooperation at provincial levels for transboundary water-resources management?”
Another contentious point in the draft legislation is the proposal to centralize all permit issuances through the Ministry of National Resources and Environment with the aim of maintaining consistency and good standards. At present, individual ministries are responsible for issuing relevant permits; for example, industrial waste discharge is controlled by the Ministry of Industry and Commerce, while wastewater from hospitals and clinics is overseen by the Ministry of Public Health. Lawmakers believe the new change could create potential conflicts between different sectors.
“This law must ensure that permits for use of water resources and discharge of wastewater do not overlap or conflict with permit processes of other sectors,” said another National Assembly representative.
Possible conflicts could also extend into wetland management. Under the existing system, the Land Law allows for titles to be issued for wetlands, and the current draft of the Water Resources Law does not contain any provision on ownership of water in wetlands. Representatives say the new Water Resources Law should draw clear boundaries between wetlands, lands and bodies of water such as rivers, to avoid problems from arising.
Lawmakers also called on the government to use more precise wording in drafting the water law.
“We need to better understand the implications of a law that uses language such as, ‘shall’ or ‘maybe,’” one lawmaker said. “Legal language must be reliable, leaving no room for misinterpretation.”