Wetlands and the paradox of urban development

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Vientiane, 2 February 2018 

At times, the quest for rapid growth and developmental success in our cities can undermine their very foundations. Take the case of Vientiane, a city seemingly on the up. You can see this at street level: flash new coffee shops opening every week, building sites for condominiums promise a revolution in luxurious urban living standards. 

Such examples of ‘progress’ now stretch out of the historic centre, engaging the emergence of a new middle class with disposable income. There are some signs of the negatives of spatial growth already, with sprawl, traffic jams, and rapid deforestation. Yet Vientiane is not the dense megalopolis as seen in other neighbouring capitals such as Bangkok and Hanoi. Theoretically, there is still much scope for planning to coordinate a vision of a modern, well-functioning city, where all inhabitants can expect an array of basic services and a share in the spoils of concentrated economic growth. Or maybe Vientiane will proceed under its own momentum, a chaos of individual marquee infrastructural projects that bring in foreign investment. Indeed, there is a danger that planning is becoming reactive rather than proactive, constantly having to redress spatial designs and regulatory frameworks as urban development speeds forward regardless of any managed approach. How will Vientiane move forward? What does it want to be in the future?

There are many demands to the growing city that are perhaps less visible to its inhabitants. Dealing with water is one of the most significant challenges that Vientiane faces. How do we cater to the growing demands of an increasing population or new factories that can bring economic growth to the capital? Even more pressing, what to do with the waste water? At present, there is neither separate sewerage piping or a public wastewater treatment facility, with much water running into natural waterways through drainage systems. Tests suggest that the level of pollution in any run-off is not high, but can we assume that this will remain the case as high growth is maintained? The natural hydrological system of Vientiane does help in purifying waste water, with precious wetlands around the Mekong River managing the outputs of human activity. Here we reach the paradox of urban development. Just as we most need these natural functions to temper human impacts, these mechanisms themselves are under threat. As Vientiane grows, the wetlands upon which it is built are being filled in with concrete, seemingly quicker than the ability to assess the consequences. Most prominent is the case of That Luang marsh, located on the edge of Vientiane. This 2000-hectare (4,940-acre) marsh has long been a buffer against flooding and a provider of livelihoods for local fisherman, as well as a source of rice and vegetables. Despite research pointing towards the high value of its natural services, both to local communities and the city as a whole, a Special Economic Zone has been established on the marsh. Through Chinese investment, commercial, residential, and hospitality infrastructure facilities are being constructed. Where will water drain during the rainy seasons of the future? Without a waste water system, what will happen to drain water? As we search further for the urban dream and the economic success it can bring, dare we turn our back on the very systems that can help us manage the resulting negative outputs? The case of Vientiane wetlands would suggest not.

Article written by Daniel Hayward

World Wetlands Day is celebrated on 2 February. This year, the theme is “Wetlands for a sustainable urban future”. The Ministry of Natural Resources and Environment (MONRE) of Lao PDR has been implementing a climate change adaptation project in two wetland areas since 2016, with the technical support of the United Nation’s Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) and the financial support of the Global Environment Facility.  Although this project is located in rural areas – Xe Champhone district in Savannakhet Province and Beung Kiat Ngong in Champasak Province – some of the lessons learned could help MONRE to reach its goal of managing wetlands more efficiently and sustainably nationwide. 

To honour this year’s theme, we asked Daniel Hayward, an urban devolvement expert, to describe the situation and challenges in wetland conservation in Vientiane. 

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