As Laos looks to build their irrigation capacity and cope with climate change impacts, a new National Groundwater Action Plan is guiding the country toward sustainable groundwater access. The Plan is the culmination of four years of work by the CGIAR Research Program for Water, Land and Ecosystems (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 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.
Building on the Lao Government's emerging interest in groundwater development the project aimed to enhance policies and understanding of potential. The researchers took a two-pronged approach. First, they focused on assessing existing groundwater resources and considering how they might best be managed. The project's groundwater irrigation trials conducted with farmers showed that growing dry-season cash crops could be made profitable using groundwater.
Second, they investigated the potential for groundwater irrigation, including appropriate technologies and practices. Specific activities ranged from well drilling and testing, to supporting PhD students and understanding community perceptions of groundwater use, to supporting the development of new hydrogeological maps and models. These ultimately contributed to the national Plan.
The project, supported by the Australian Centre for International Agricultural Research (ACIAR), established the first ever community-managed groundwater trial in Laos at Ekxang village. Researchers, working with farmers and local authorities, installed two 30-metre tubewells 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 LAK 18 million / hectare (USD $2000) and the Internal Rate of Return would be as high as 45%.
Based on the project's success and the implementation of the new Plan, a follow-up initiative is now under way. The project will investigate the potential for sustainably expanding groundwater in the drought-prone lowlands of Laos.