Quick facts

  • 6.8 million people
  • 22.7% living on less than USD $1.90 / day
  • 15.3% of women have experienced intimate partner violence

After years of isolation, Laos was once considered one of Southeast Asia’s most untainted environments. Today the country is going through its greatest period of development which has led to significant economic growth — but the development is doing little to improve the lives of 80% of the population living in remote rural areas.

While forests are being cleared for commercial plantations, changing weather patterns are resulting in droughts, flash flooding and low-yielding crops. These factors are affecting the lives of rural Laotians, who are reliant on the land and fisheries for survival.

Oxfam Australia is now assisting communities to cope with natural disasters and the loss of access to natural resources. We’re also seeking to promote gender equality, and recognition of the rights and needs of all Laos’ diverse ethnic and social groups.

Key areas of work

Livelihoods, Gender Justice, Disaster Risk Reduction

One story of change

Sorn is at her chicken raising farm next to the Mekong River tributary
Photo by Savann Oeurm/Oxfam

Many years ago, Sorn (pictured above) and the people of her village could catch large amounts of fish from the Mekong river, especially in April and May. When she was young, she saw her parents catch 1-2 tons of fish per day. She said her family could not eat all of it, they had so many and freed the remaining fish in their rice field not far from the river.

Sorn said her entire life is connected to the river and is essential for growing food, washing, bathing, drinking and fishing. Fishery resources are extremely important to Sorn and villagers living in Khong district, Champasak province. Apart from semi-subsistence farming, fishing is the most important job in her village.

Khamphao, Sorn’s husband and deputy village chief of Don Sahong, said the decline in fish intensely affects the incomes of the whole Don Sahong villagers. They used to earn 10-15 million Kip ($1250-$1875) per year, now it’s less than 5millions KIP ($625) per year, with no alternative source of income to supplement the loss caused by declining fish stocks. He said one of the causes might be from the hydropower project in Don Sahong that is very close to his home, generating 260 megawatts. “The fishing zones we used to fish are closed because of the dam project, this is very challenging,” he said. “Even though the hydropower company has tried to support our community with some alternative livelihood activities, their support cannot compensate us compared to the amount we earned from fishing. It destroyed our way of living and traditional fishing culture. It is hard for my villagers to adapt to the new environment, in particular, the fishers. It is very hard for them to catch fish now.”

Since training sessions, with Oxfam’s local partner, CLICK, Khamphao has noticed the villagers, especially women, are eager and motivated to learn new things and the number of numbers of women in leading community roles have increased. He said in the past, women were very afraid and shy to speak during the village meeting. His wife, Sorn did not dare to speak even a single word but now, she is strong and has even more confidence than some of the men.

“I had a chance to meet with the hydropower company representatives in the monthly meeting. In the meeting, I always expressed my and other villagers’ concerns over the fish decline and proposed the company to provide extra livelihood activities,” said Sorn, “I observed that the company representatives also listened to my concerns. It’s a good opportunity to ask them for a fair compensation and extra support.”

Key projects

Mekong Inclusion

Building on the success of the Inclusion Project, funded by the Australian Government from 2014 to 2019, Inclusion Project Phase 2 started in 2020 and is part of Oxfam’s Mekong Water Governance Program. It is funded by the Australian Government and the Swiss Government, and implemented by Oxfam and International Rivers.

Through this project we continue to support local communities in the Mekong area in Laos, Cambodia, Vietnam, Myanmar and Thailand, to engage in decision making on the water resources they rely on for their livelihood and well-being. In particular, we focus on empowering women to lead, and on policy dialogue that is inclusive of local people and civil society.

Oxfam’s work across the Mekong region with farmer and fisher communities in our Mekong Water Governance Program has consistently shown that when local people are involved in decisions about the use of their land and resources there is more likelihood that development will be equitable and sustainable. Right now, many development processes are not inclusive at all.

For instance, people whose livelihoods are reliant on water resources are generally not included in decisions on water infrastructure – such as hydropower dams. At best people may be included at the last minute when they’re forced to resettle or to adapt to new situations where their land or waters have been taken away, or fundamentally changed. The Inclusion Project Phase 2 aims to achieve more informed, transparent and accountable water resource governance and renewable energy infrastructure decision making in the Mekong region.

The project is divided in three components:

  1. Inclusion and gender equality: to strengthen women leaders’ capacity and promote gender analysis in policies and practices.
  2. Civil society engagement and networking: to connect civil society organisations, help them become more inclusive of women and minorities and strengthen their capacity to engage with national and regional actors.
  3. Government and private sector engagement: to foster opportunities for engagement with civil society on issues related to hydropower and renewable energy