The term infrastructure has been popularized throughout Lao PDR in recent years as the country strives diligently to overcome obstacles & leave the United Nation’s (UN) Least Developed Country (LDC) list by 2020/2021.
What is it? Infrastructure is defined by Merriam-Webster dictionary as:
“the basic equipment (such as roads & bridges) that is needed for a country, region or organization to function properly”
The growth of the nation, its development & ability to provide & sustain for its future population – expected to reach 8.8 million1 by 2030 – will directly correlate with its ability to allow for the free movement of people & products. This can only happen by way of modern & adequate transportation systems, which require efficient roads, highways, bridges, rail lines & airports. As tourism to Lao PDR is also experiencing healthy growth – Pacific Area Travel Association (PATA) projects 7.3 million visitors annually by 2021 – it only adds to the realization that a massive upgrading & implementation of new functioning intersections, road surfaces & pedestrian walkways is urgently needed, as current traffic conditions in Vientiane Capital already highlight.
Many developed nations are currently suffering from infrastructure which is unsafe, unsound – or at the very least – in need of attention, due to aging, irregular or inadequate maintenance. But this is not the issue in Lao PDR. Our issue is the smart, intelligent & prudent consultation & planning (& subsequent construction) of infrastructure. Mekong Consultants, Ltd. (MKC) is well-positioned as a dynamic, forward-thinking company that has considerable experience in the consultation of surveying, construction, repair & resurfacing of roads, bridges, buildings & pedestrian walkways. MKC has completed 32 projects since 2011, & is currently engaged in the completion of 10 more.
Lao infrastructure – as the infrastructure in any country – can be classified as belonging to either urban (relating to cities & people who live there) or rural (relating to the country & the people who live there). The needs of the two different regions vary slightly.
Let’s talk about urban Lao Infrastructure first. Citizens & commuters should expect – & receive – smooth & efficient transportation that is also safe, along urban corridors & networks. These systems should help & not hinder the public’s access to places, buildings & facilities; they should function well individually to augment the larger transportation network objective of integrating each system with other systems by synchronizing departure & arrival times & common collection points2 (a bus station that is also a tram or train station). These could be built above/below each other to extract maximum value from available real estate. Commercial businesses & stores could be brought into the venture to increase the terminals’ attractiveness for commuters & passers-by, & to offset the cost.
Electric buses are already a reality3. Electric tram systems are very popular in European cities4. A purpose-driven, coordinated effort to introduce systems employing newer & cleaner technologies to minimize congestion, pollution & noise in built-up neighborhoods is what is sorely needed in Vientiane. As cities everywhere look to advance sustainably & make themselves more livable we should assign higher priority to modern, energy-efficient mass transit systems & people-friendly transportation modes like cycling & walking5.
Malls (streets without vehicular traffic) should be incentivized in the downtown areas of Vientiane, Savannakhet, Pakse & Luang Prabang (our largest cities) to encourage foot traffic. Adequate parking spaces need to be allotted for each new construction project, considering the projected median number of occupants & visitors to each facility on a regular, recurring basis. Walkways & sidewalks that foster & encourage safe transit for pedestrians, pets & disabled people should be factored in as being key to any & all current & future construction projects. Several aerial bridges are sorely in need of erection in the central area of the city around the Morning Market & Talat Sao area.
Many main roads & intersections in Vientiane are overburdened with too much feeder traffic & they don’t function as they should. Traffic lights are not sequenced for rush hour traffic, & they could easily be, to allow for the easier flow of traffic into & out of the city each work day. Traffic circles (roundabouts) only seem to function – as they were intended to – as self-regulating traffic mechanisms during non-busy periods; they are more of an impediment than a help as traffic becomes heavier during peak times.
Larger load-bearing delivery vehicles are often over-laden, far exceeding their weight limits. These over-weight vehicles place an extra burden on bitumen & pavement surfaces. Many road surfaces need to be repaired or completely rebuilt. Materials used need to be of high quality & workmanship needs to be first-class. Failure to observe these guidelines results in a patchwork network of sub-standard, pot-holed surfaces. Many smaller roads & lanes haven’t been sealed at all, increasing the dust, mud & general discomfort to us all. Parking spaces are difficult to find.
Strict traffic & parking enforcement is something that needs to be implemented in conjunction with these improvements.
Solutions need to be sought now, not when the gridlock becomes unbearable.
Now let’s discuss rural Lao infrastructure. Due to the unique nature of the three main rural Lao landscapes (mountains, plateaus & plains), & the relatively small numbers of residents, there is almost no existing infrastructure in the 15 provinces removed from the central Vientiane province. This presents unique opportunities for exceptional forethought; planning & implementation of the systems being built with the benefit of hindsight & experience from all the developed regions of the earth. Mistakes which have resulted in environmental disasters or social failures elsewhere need not be repeated. New technologies & environmentally friendly, sustainable energy harnessing & distribution are drastically reducing budgets & recurring long-term costs as well as easing the burden on our picturesque landscape & natural environment. We have never been in a better situation than now to capitalize on land & material management & also the wise & effective use of resources. While the costs associated with rural Lao infrastructure development are harsh, we think the costs of not investing – without having an eye toward the longer-term – are much more undesirable.
In addition to main roads, there are lanes & access roads, bridges, irrigation ditches, easements, water containment areas, dams, power generating facilities, power sub-stations, power lines, telecommunication towers, points & relay stations, water filtration facilities, clean drinking water supply lines linking each house in each village & sewer lines connecting each house to sewerage treatment farms, that need to be considered.
Nowadays we also need to focus on internet connectivity; its coverage, cost, capacity & speed. It is considered by many to be indispensable & a sure indicator of a society’s relative development. Remember the 1980’s? No caller ID, no cellphones, no computers. This is the everyday reality today for most of Lao PDR’s population: its rural population. As neighboring Malaysia & Singapore transition toward Fifth Generation (5G) digital implementation (expected to begin in 2020), i.e. the Internet of Things & the Cloud, some leaders6 in IT have suggested that rural areas should be the priority in mobile broadband development. Why not?
It’s one thing to be in touch. But quite another to be able to access emergency services. Emergency medical, fire & police services are few & far between. The country covers 236,800 square kilometers7 in size & is crisscrossed by many rivers & streams (very few of which have functioning bridges for medium or heavy vehicles). The Mekong itself is 1,835 km from the Chinese border to the Cambodian border, & spawns 39 main tributaries into what is known as the Mekong River Basin. (There are 2 more main rivers which are located outside the Mekong River Basin.) Should a victim of injury or life-threatening medical condition be fortunate enough to have transportation, a medical facility is often too difficult to get to, or too far away.
There are too few primary & secondary care hospitals; they are typically over-burdened & understaffed with too few physicians, nurses & technicians. The essential medical supplies & drugs are frequently not on hand. A clean, safe, sterile environment for treatment, surgery and/or rehabilitation is not commonly available for patients. There aren’t any trauma centers in the 15 rural provinces to provide emergency care to accident victims.
That means an air evacuation to Mittaphab Hospital (Hospital 150) in Vientiane might be the patient’s only hope for survival. But there is no air rescue/air ambulance helicopter (capable of landing anywhere) yet operating. With a matrix of extremely poor roads coupled with other dangerous factors & conditions, the number of road traffic accident victims country-wide is exceptionally high (approx. 1,000 annually in fatalities alone) – & continues to rise – year after year. This is even more glaring a discrepancy when considering the small population of approx. 7 million people. Those that survive traffic accidents too often end up disabled for life because they are not diagnosed &/or treated in a timely or professional manner.
Unexploded Ordnance (UXO) is unfortunately still a fact of life for many rural residents, particularly in Xieng Kuang province. Lao PDR has the dubious distinction of being the most heavily bombed country (per capita) on earth. Many of the bombs have remained in an unexploded status since falling to the earth from US airplanes during the 1970’s. Some adults, but mainly children, still pick up the ‘bombies’ (residents’ local term) as they play in their yards & fields. Many of these unexploded baseball-sized bombs have been buried – still live – since being dropped, remain hidden & have only recently been found. As can be expected, the burden of death & injury to the victims’ families is heavy. The physical, medical & psychological long-term care & support for the surviving victims just isn’t there.
The educational structure in rural areas of Lao PDR suffers from issues ranging from sub-standard, poorly equipped & uncomfortable classrooms, crowded classes, curricula lacking appropriate numeracy & literacy skills, outdated methodologies, teachers lacking enthusiasm (& living salaries), as well as nutritionally poor lunches & snacks. The schools often lack plumbing for sanitary bathroom facilities & clean drinking water. As for the students’ homes, they, their parents & their families are not often able to synergistically provide a creative or encouraging learning environment for homework & projects after school hours, due in large part to a cultural under-appreciation for learning in general.
Many rural children, sadly, don’t even make it to school. Child labor, i.e. forced labor, is commonplace in rural Lao PDR. We’re not talking about a few kids doing chores on the family farm in the afternoon after school. We’re talking about 10-15 year-olds (sometimes younger) doing regular & repetitive work that is sometimes hazardous to their health, as well as preventing them from attending school because of the hours involved & the nature of the jobs. The families these young children are raised in are unaware of the larger issue of their children’s future intellectual & social growth being dependent in large part on their education & social interaction during their formative years, which they are not being entitled to participate in. Most workday routines involve agriculture, as rural Lao PDR is a quintessential agrarian society. This includes not just farming, but also fishing, forestry & livestock. Laws prohibiting child labor are an important first step, but alone they are not enough.
These are all important issues, taken individually. But we see them all as related & symptomatic of a greater lack of development. Certainly, Lao PDR is an undeveloped nation, according to the UN’s technical definition. We would of course, like our nation to develop as rapidly as possible so that our fellow citizens can rise to enjoy healthy, prosperous, long lives in a growing & abundant 21st-century environment.
We can’t, however, build better schools, hospitals or libraries without an adequate transportation network, that must be built on properly surveyed foundations of structurally sound roads, rails & runways. We won’t be able to enjoy clean drinking water or sanitary bathroom facilities in each home & building unless the materials & resources needed to build them are delivered safely & reliably by trucks, trains & airplanes. The utilities that will generate our ever-growing demand for energy can’t be constructed without experienced professional consultation & carefully executed master planning for the construction of the most basic infrastructure of roads, intersections, bridges & pedestrian walkways.
Mekong Consultants is heavily invested in rural, as well as urban, Lao PDR. We look forward to a future where our nation strengthens & becomes healthier. We believe in a future of strong national independence, while energetically cooperating with our ASEAN neighbors. MKC is committed to building Lao infrastructure & we know our vision, people & professionalism place us at the forefront of development in our country’s very bright future.
1 Asian Development Bank (ADB)
2 Edgecliff Bus/Train Interchange, Sydney, NSW, Australia
3UTA (Utah Transit Authority) Salt Lake City, Utah, USA
4 BVG (Berliner Verkehrsbetriebe) Berlin Transit Authority, Berlin, Germany
7Asia Pacific Parliamentary Forum, 17th Annual Meeting, Vientiane, Lao PDR January 11-15, 2009