Laos runs on water. Literally. The self-proclaimed “Battery of Southeast Asia” will soon host 72 dams throughout its one thousand rivers. While this energy export might benefit the Lao economy, the electricity from these dams rarely reaches the Lao people because it is sent to China, Thailand and Vietnam. This leaves the Lao people, who depend on the rivers to eat, clean and prosper, left in the wake of construction teams. But a new program in Laos offering women and girls scholarships to study environmental engineering will hopefully bring new leadership that will greatly benefit the local population.
Hydroelectric development comes at a very high price for Lao people. First, entire villages are displaced due to dam construction. In my travels throughout Luang Prabang Province I have seen the roadside beginnings of homes and storefronts only to look down the nearest valley and see dam construction surrounded by an abandoned village. Villages naturally form around water sources because the rivers serve as sources of food, hygiene and transportation. But when a dam location is decided, entire villages need to seek higher ground and completely reestablish a way of life.
Dam construction will also severely interrupt fish migration patterns on the Mekong River. Recently the Mekong River Commission met to discuss how the potential Don Sahong dam in Southern Laos will disrupt migratory fish patterns and threaten food security in the region. The Mekong River begins in China and runs through Myanmar, Laos, Thailand, Cambodia and Vietnam, therefore millions of people could be impacted by these decisions.
But soon there will be new individuals involved in making environmental decisions because the Asian Development Bank has created a scholarship program for Lao women to study civil and environmental engineering. The program finances a 4-year undergraduate degree at the National University of Laos and the Vocational Institution of Technology in Vientiane, provides a mentor for ongoing support and runs a capacity building program to promote gender equality in the workplace. Twenty-six scholarships were awarded this year in the pilot program and all 26 women passed their examination to move on to the second year of study.
This success is not a surprise because women are already the water engineers of their villages. Collecting water for cooking and cleaning is deemed “women’s work.” Often when I visit schools I see women and girls walking, quite a ways from the actual village, with a bamboo branch over the back of their shoulders and two heavy buckets of water hanging from either end. To keep their families healthy they have determined the best locations to get water and make the trip multiple times a day to that source.
Additionally, Laos has a vast network of rivers but nowhere in the country can anyone drink the tap water. In cities such as Luang Prabang, trucks drive around daily with 5 gallon (19L) bottles for sale to homes and businesses. But these trucks are rare in villages and it is left up to the women to prepare the water in order to prevent disease transmission while cooking and cleaning. However organizations such as the People to People Project are working to ease the burden off the women in rural villages. The People to People Project works with the villagers to find a clean water source, pipe the water and build a reservoir.
But in the near future, thanks to the ADB’s scholarship program, women water engineers will be more prevalent at construction sites and in villages. These female engineers understand the burdens Lao women face when relocating and finding water for their families. Therefore women leaders will make decisions with both the Lao economy and citizens in mind. Hopefully support for this program will continue to flow and Lao women will recharge the “Battery of Southeast Asia” with justice, health and equality.