Unique Challenge in Vientiane, Laos

Hello from Vientiane, Laos! The past several days has been amazing as I visited cultural sites, temples, public facilities and parks while socializing with the locals in this vibrant city. Believe or not, I am working while in Laos by meeting with many professional engineers and administrators in the capital city to discuss environmentally sustainability issues such as wastewater, solid waste, urban runoff and water management.  During the meetings I learned the Laos Government received $100 million loan from the country of Hungary to construct Laos first wastewater system that includes pipeline network and a treatment plant that will treat over five million gallons of wastewater per day for approximately 256,000 people.  Vientiane is a city of 683,000 people, so it’s obvious the new treatment plant will not handle the entire flow of the city, but it’s a good start. 

Currently, the city dumps its wastewater in a constructed wetland, because right now, the entire city runs on a sceptic system where the wastewater must be pumped out of storage tanks and then discharged somewhere. How do wetlands work for discharging wastewater, you may ask?  Well, a constructed wetland is an engineered sequence of water bodies designed to filter and treat waterborne pollutants found in wastewater.  Vegetation in a wetland allow microorganisms to grow and breakdown organic materials, which can breakdown approximately 90 percent of pollutants and act as a carbon source for the microbes when they decay. Constructed wetlands are one example of nature-based solutions that can remove contaminants from water.  However, the constructed wetland I visited in Vientiane can receive only 5.2 million gallons of wastewater per day and officials acknowledged to me that some of the wastewater is probably getting discharged in water canals and rice patties.

As I mentioned earlier, I met with many dedicated professionals in Vientiane that are working on the wastewater treatment plant. I first met with the general manager and deputy general manager of Water and Environment Engineering State Enterprise (WEE).  WEE signed an agreement with the Vientiane Capital Cabinet to be the operator of the new treatment plant, so they wanted to learn how treatment plants operate in the U.S. After sharing information about the Orange County Sanitation District, where the Costa Mesa Sanitary District transmit its wastewater for treatment, they wanted to know how the treatment plant is funded for maintenance and operations.

Next, I met with the Director General of the Vientiane Urban Development Administration Authority who was responsible for solid waste removal and urban runoff. After I gave a presentation about managing solid waste and urban runoff, the Director General wanted to know how to encourage or entice everyone to participate in the solid waste collection program.  Apparently, not everyone Vientiane wants to pay for the service, so they burn their trash, which is strongly discouraged in the city.  Then, I met with the Deputy Head of Water Supply and Environmental Unit Housing-Urban Planning and Environmental Division for the Department of Public Works and Transport (DPWT). While WEE is responsible for operating the treatment plant, DPWT will be responsible for maintaining the plant, so after my presentation the Deputy and her colleague wanted to receive more information about controlling odors, standard maintenance procedures for wastewater treatment plants and “no-dig” technology for replacing infrastructure. Finally, I met with the Assistant of Deputy General Manager in Charge of Technical Production for water supply and distribution in Vientiane.  After our meeting I got to see firsthand how they treat water before its distributed to the population.

At all the meetings I attended there was one common question everyone asked me. “How do we make our residents pay for wastewater, solid waste and water services?”  In Vientiane, residents have been living without a wastewater treatment plant and they’ve been burning trash for generations, so why should they pay for something they believe is not necessary? To them, everything is working just fine.  I informed my new friends that in California we have no alternative but to pay for the service because state and local regulations require payment to ensure the health and safety of its citizenry. Non payments can result in interest and late penalty fees and/or the services being discontinued until payment is made in full.  So, I suggested something similar in Vientiane where adopted regulations would require residents to participate and pay for the services.  However, that’s easier said than done because I learned the federal government, not local government, in Laos is responsible for adopting new regulations and if you believe the wheel turns slowly in our government system you have no idea how slow it is in Laos.  In fact, the Assistant of Deputy General Manager shared with me that he made a request to increase water supply charges at the treatment plant because of rapid growth within the city, but he has yet to receive a response from his federal government. Keep in mind he made the request five years ago!

The local professionals in Vientiane have a unique challenge of getting public support for the wastewater treatment plant because such support is dependent on receiving the loan from Hungary.  Hungary is making an investment in Laos, so they want some assurances that Laos will not default on the loan.  Making citizens pay for the plant will give Hungary the assurance it needs, but as I mentioned earlier, Vientiane will most likely need help from their federal government.  I wish them the best of luck.

Still, everyone working on this project should be commended for trying to improve the quality of life in their community and when I get back home, I will be gathering and disseminating requested information to my new friends.

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