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CGIAR Research Program
CGIAR Research Program on Water, Land and Ecosystems (WLE)
Partners
International Water Management Institute (IWMI)
Australian Center for International Agricultural Research (ACIAR)
Institute for Global Environmental Strategies (IGES)
Khon Kaen University (KKU)
Ministry of Agriculture and Forestry, Laos (MAF)
Ministry of Natural Resources and Environment, Laos
National University of Laos
Geographic scope
Laos
Contact person
Paul Pavelic, IWMI

 

Research and capacity-building efforts by the CGIAR Research Program on Water, Land and Ecosystems (WLE) have supported sustainable groundwater development and management in Laos, influencing national policies and implementation programs.  

As Laos looks to build its irrigation capacity and cope with climate change impacts, a new National Groundwater Action Plan is guiding the country toward sustainable groundwater access.

The Action Plan was supported through four years of work by WLE and the International Water Management Institute (IWMI). Although the country has more freshwater per person than any other in Southeast Asia, most water for irrigation in Laos comes from rivers and lakes. Of the 80% of people who rely on agriculture for their livelihoods, only 20% have access to this resource. The rest struggle to grow crops during the country’s eight-month dry spell, and, as climate change progresses, the impacts of drought are increasing for everyone.  

Mrs Lai can draw just enough water for the year from a pond in Nongkhon village, Laos. Photo by J. Holmes/IWMI

Of the 80% of people who rely on agriculture for their livelihoods in Laos, only 20% have access to water for irrigation.

Building on the Lao government’s emerging interest in groundwater development, the project aimed to enhance policies and understanding of the potential for sustainable groundwater management. The researchers took a two-pronged approach. First, they focused on assessing existing groundwater resources and considered how these might best be managed. Specific activities ranged from well drilling and testing to preparing new hydrogeological maps and models, understanding community perceptions of groundwater use, and supporting local interns and Masters and PhD students. Second, they investigated the feasibility of groundwater irrigation, including appropriate technologies and practices. The project’s groundwater irrigation trials conducted with farmers showed that growing dry-season cash crops could be made profitable using groundwater. These ultimately contributed to Laos’ new National Groundwater Action Plan.  

Long beans are a cash crop that can be easily traded at the local market in Phonthan village, Laos. Photo by J. Holmes/IWMI

The project, supported by the Australian Centre for International Agricultural Research (ACIAR), was the first ever community-managed groundwater trial in Laos, at Ekxang village. Researchers, working with farmers and local authorities, installed two 30-meter tube wells and pumps to bring groundwater to adjoining fields. The researchers calculated that if a similar six-hectare scheme was fully adopted by farmers, the initial investment would cost USD 2,000 per hectare and the internal rate of return would be as high as 45%.  

Tube wells and pumps carry groundwater to adjoining fields for irrigation. Photo by J. Holmes/IWMI

Researchers, working with farmers and local authorities, installed two 30-meter tube wells and pumps to bring groundwater to adjoining fields.

Outcomes achieved by the project can be attributed to a number of factors:  

  1. Close engagement with next and end users, including government institutions, over extended periods, often as research partners;
  2. Alignment of project goals with the development priorities of the government; and  
  3. Prioritized support for enhancing the skills of Lao nationals through postgraduate studies, internships and training courses. 

      Based on the project’s success and the implementation of the action plan, a follow-up initiative is now underway. The project will investigate the potential for sustainably expanding groundwater use in the drought-prone lowlands of Southern Laos. 

      Groundwater is proving to be a promising source for irrigation in the Lower Mekong. Photo by J. Holmes/IWMI

      If a similar six-hectare scheme was fully adopted by farmers, the internal rate of return would be as high as 45%.

      Header photo: Mrs. Vannaphone waters corn with water from Nam Ngum, Vientiane Province, Lao. Photo by J. Holmes/IWMI