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LAOS: high urbanization rate of 4-5 percent per annum

Laos is fast tracking development. More and more towns have increasing population and becoming "urbanized."  Will the government able to cope? Are the local people be able to compete with new migrants in terms of finding sources of income?

LAOS: Small towns buckling under strain of migration

Photo: Kees Metselaar/UNDP Poverty is driving people from rural areas to townsSmall towns in Laos are experiencing an influx of migrants in search of better living conditions, increasing the strain on infrastructure and services such as water and sanitation, the UN and government officials say.

Laos is experiencing a high urbanization rate of 4-5 percent per annum, adding to pressure on local authorities to provide basic infrastructure, according to the UN Human Settlements Programme (UN-HABITAT).

There are an estimated 139 small towns in Laos, and many of those along economic corridors – bordering Cambodia, China, Thailand and Vietnam – are seeing influxes from rural areas.  

“Many of these small towns experience high population growth, and increased pressure on the local environment. Small towns are now becoming increasingly polluted because of a lack of adequate infrastructure,” said Buahom Sengkhamyong, chief technical adviser for UN-HABITAT in Laos.

As part of its regional Mekong water and sanitation programme, the agency is providing improved services in small towns, especially along the economic corridors.

The lure of basic services

Water and sanitation has been identified as a development priority by the Lao government, which has floated an urban water sector investment plan estimated at US$266 million from 2005 to 2020.

But as the government improves services in small towns, they are proving a draw to migrants and creating unmanageable population growth in certain areas, including southern Savannakhet Province, according to UN-HABITAT and the government's Nam Papa State-Owned Water Supply Enterprise.

Three times a day, I travel to the well to collect water for my family to drink. It’s a laborious and time-consuming chore“In Savannakhet Province, water and sanitation services are a serious issue for many districts,” Phandola Khouanemeuangchane, director of Nam Papa Savannakhet, told IRIN.

“Yet, we have a more complicated problem: the districts with improved water and sanitation services are flooded with ‘resource migrants’. In the end, our services often do not meet the demands of these growing small towns,” he said.

For Kung, a 95-year-old woman from a village outside of Sounvouli District in Savannakhet Province, migration for her family to a small town is a dream.

“Of course I would like to be able to move my family to a small town for better services,” said Kung.

“Three times a day, I travel to the well to collect water for my family to drink. It’s a laborious and time-consuming chore. In April and May, our village well dries up and then we compete with our neighbours to reach the well first. There’s simply not enough water to go around,” she said.

Planning challenges

In Laos, insufficient data on small-town population growth means development programmes are planned according to the national population growth rate of 2.8 percent, rather than the local rate, which is unknown.

According to Nam Papa, the number of small towns, and the percentage of the country’s population of some 5.86 million living in small towns by 2015, will exceed the government’s own estimates.

“Our investments in the sector disregard the true impact of resource migrants. Funding will not be adequate and will not meet the demands of our small towns along the economic corridors of Savannakhet Province,” said Phandola.

Photo: Tiffany Hacker/IRIN magnify.gif
Many people in rural Laos dream of migrating to small towns for better services
The Lao government, in its 2004 National Growth and Poverty Eradication Strategy (NGPES), aims to improve services for an additional 1.95 million urban population.

But with rapid small-town growth, the NGPES will not be able to meet the demands for all the inhabitants needing improved water and sanitation services, officials say.

Meanwhile, small-town populations face the problem of the high cost of water, especially where local authorities lack the ability to supply it.

In the mountainous small town of Houn in Oudom Xai Province in northern Laos, one cubic meter of water is sold by private vendors for the equivalent of $3 - 26 times more than the average cost charged by Nam Papa.

“Unless improved services are provided, the people in small towns will get into the vicious cycle of poverty which they were trying to get away from in the first place,” said UN-HABITAT’s Sengkhamyong.

“Lack of water and sanitation infrastructure has a direct adverse impact on the quality of life of the communities, especially the poor,” he said.

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