By Chanseng Phongpachith

Background

The Lao People's Democratic Republic (PDR) is a landlocked country that is highly exposed and vulnerable to climate-related disasters, namely floods, droughts and storms. For example, a temperature anomaly occured on 25-27 January 2017 causing the northeast of the country to be hit by an extreme cold snap with temperatures as low as -2ºC, which resulted in the death of livestock. Since 1960, rainfall intensity has increased during the rainy season, followed by extended dry periods, more frequent flash-floods and a series of typhoons from the South Pacific. Floods and droughts occurr almost every year, sometimes twice a year, in the south and central parts of the country. The flood-prone areas are located along the Mekong River and its main tributaries, while the drought-prone areas are the upland northern areas and a few areas in southern provinces.

Climate-related disasters due to climate change have damaged public infrastructure, property, crops, productive agricultural land and other agricultural assets. Furthermore, they undermine farming systems, which increases farming household food insecurity as both floods and droughts severely damage rice, the main staple crop. In 1998 and 2003, drought events destroyed 29,202 ha and 23,770 ha of rice fields respectively, while in 2005, floods destroyed 54,640 ha of rain-fed rice fields and killed 14,941 livestock. Floods also damage agricultural infrastructure, such as irrigation systems or channels, roads and electricity infrastructure.

Agriculture innovation and technology development

There are two main farming systems in Lao PDR: lowland and upland farming. They have high regional disparities. There are six agroecological zones based on the interdependence of the natural environment, agricultural production potential and rural poverty. About 80 per cent of livelihood is small-scale agriculture in the rural area. There is low adaptive capacity, exacerbating vulnerability to climate change.

Technological development priorities to enhance the resilience of agriculture to natural disaster and climate change include: (1) improving the climate change knowledge base; (2) strengthening agriculture and rural development policies; (3) developing institutional capacities for executing the climate change adaptation plan; (4) implementing appropriate and adaptive agricultural practices; (5) introducing alternative livelihoods for rural communities; and (6) building the capacity of farmers to support the government's green growth policy.

The following sections describe some important technology for enhancing agricultural resilience to natural disasters and climate change in Lao PDR.

Rice seed development: New rice varieties that are resistant to environmental stresses, namely TDK, VTE450 and Homsavan, have been produced. TDK is drought and flood resistant, VTE450 is specifically for lowland cultivation and Homsavan is a wet season, rain-fed lowland variety. In the last two decades, Lao has established several rice research centres, including a Rice Laboratory under Naphok Rice Research Center and Thasano's rice research centres under the National Agriculture and Forestry Research Institute.

Water-use technology for agriculture: The use of water from ponds and small reservoirs by using gravity canals allows rain-fed lowland ricebased farmers to capture rainfall and use it as a water supply for a short-term irrigation, conserving water from other sources.

Lowland farms often pump water from nearby tributaries or wetlands. The water level of these sources changes significantly between the wet and dry seasons, as backwater flows up from tributaries and some places along the Mekong. A floating pump or ‘pontoon’ method is used to cope with these changes. Some farmers also used drip irrigation systems.

Pumping the water into rice paddies from tributaries of the Mekong River

Agricultural mechanization: Agricultural machines help to improve agricultural productivity and yield quality, and make land preparation, growth, harvest and post-harvest handling more time efficient.

Greenhouses: Greenhouse vegetables are now popular in Lao PDR, as greenhouse technology controls environment stresses, temperature and pest control.

In addition, they allow a more precise estimation of the effects, degree and timescale of climate change impact on agriculture. This information can then be used as the basis for climate change adaptation measures in agriculture; for example, crop modification.

Solar energy: In some rural areas, solar energy is being used for pumping water, light and to supply drinking water. However, the focus is on domestic needs. In the future, solar energy could be used to support farming practices, primarily by offering an alternative energy supply during the dry season.

Integrated farming systems: In the last century, the rural farmers in upland areas were encouraged to improve agriculture production by introducing new crops, growing horticulture crops instead of rice, diversifying crops and changing cropping systems; for example, changing from upland rice to maize, upland rice to Job's Tears plants, rubber trees, tea and coffee.

Currently, farmers are encouraged to use an integrated farming system, with cattle as livestock, as this is economically efficient. It has been estimated that 10,000 cattle and buffaloes were exported from Lao to Viet Nam in 2004, increasing to 40,000 animals in 2010 with an additional 20,000 cattle exported to China. However, issues in marketing, breeding programmes, artificial insemination, animal health, feed shortages, standard veterinary care and low fertility need to be addressed.

National initiative and partnership

Several international organizations have worked in the agriculture sector with the Ministry of Agriculture, Forestry and Rural Development (MAF) and the Lao Government more generally. They include UNDP, ADB, WB, ACIAR, FAO, IFAD, CIAT, IRRI, JIRCAS, TABI, KOPIA, Care International and HEVITAS.

Concluding remarks and ways forward

Recent climate change has already affected crops and animal production in Lao PDR. The core agriculture sector problems are low agricultural productivity, devastating natural disaster, and the unrealized potential of global market. The result is high rural poverty and low economic productivity.

As most of the country is still very much locked into the production of glutinous rice for subsistence purposes, there are opportunities to supply market-demand with products that are significantly different from those of larger regional competitors. Furthermore, Lao PDR is at the centre of a market, and many more consumers are increasingly demanding high-value and safe products, especially livestock products. In addition, the green growth policy will enforce environmentally friendly and sustainable farming practices to achieve fiscal stability while moving towards green growth.

The Planning of Agriculture Development Strategy to the year 2025 (ADS 2025) defines objectives and goals in developing the sector and agricultural production up to 2025. It will focus on the development of agricultural technology. The vision of the agriculture sector to the year 2030 is “ensuring food security, producing comparative and competitive potential agricultural commodities, developing clean, safe and sustainable agriculture and shift[ing] gradually to the modernization of a resilient and productive agriculture economy, linking with rural development contributing to the national economic basis”.