Poor end up paying for Laos’ construction wave

By Melinda Boh Source:Global Times Published: 2013-9-26 0:58:01

Illustration: Liu Rui/GT

Illustration: Liu Rui/GT

As the number of real white elephants plummets, metaphorical ones can be found all over Laos, particularly in Vientiane, its riverside capital.

Once an elegant and walkable city, now increasingly congested, Vientiane is becoming dominated by the grandiose architecture of the rich and Chinese investors.

Prior to the Asia-Europe Meeting Summit in November 2012, a market gardening community was removed to make way for a huge hotel. Nine months later, the $100 million hotel and villa complex, built by China CAMC Engineering Co Ltd, remains empty.

But perhaps the most thunderous white elephant is the development of the That Luang Lake Special Economic Zone. Evocative of Australia's vulgar Gold Coast, the development boasts all the white elephant essentials; a luxury shopping mall, convention and entertainment zones, and high-class residences.

All these center around what the developers insist on calling a lake. In reality, they are wetlands that dry up annually, revealing mud flats.

The wetlands provide vital income support to around 30,000 of the city's landless, especially to widows. They catch crabs, harvest lotus for temples and grass for fodder, and catch snails, frogs and eels for consumption.

"We are very angry with the government as there is nothing else for us," the diminutive Mrs Lhia told me. With no pension, she feeds her orphaned grandchildren with an assortment of aquatic foods, and her small garden is fed by wetland water.

According to some media reports, authorities in Laos have issued an order, informing holdout residents that they are not to sell their land as it now belongs to the site's developers.

There seemed no process of free prior and informed consent. "We were just told we have to relocate," Mrs Khamsong, an urban farmer, said.

Such moves appear economically short-sighted. Globally, the conservation of urban wetlands provides economic gains to both urban residents and local government, generating vital goods and services, in Vientiane's case valued in excess of $4.8 million annually.

Essentially the That Luang Marsh helps keep Vientiane's head above water. The capital, built on the Mekong flood plain, has low-lying alluvial soils.

The government would have to spend over $1.5 million annually on technologies required to fulfill the same functions as the wetlands.

Building on wetlands is falling out of favor. As a general rule, if you absolutely have to build on wetland you must "construct" another adjacent wetland to accept the water, which has to go somewhere.

Structural engineers were skeptical. "You need very deep footings," one said. "Depending on the type of rock, the footings and piles would need to be very close. It's feasible but not practical or economic. I cannot imagine the rock under Vientiane being too solid and methane from the rotting organics can cause fire."

The That Luang Lake development leads the white elephant herd. But in Laos, it, like other similar developments, will go ahead, having backing from government elites. One wonders when they fail, who will foot the bill?

The author is a freelance environmental writer currently based in Singapore. opinion@globaltimes.com.cn

Posted in: Counterpoint, Viewpoint

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