The Lao People’s Democratic Republic (Lao PDR or Laos) is a land-locked, multi-ethnic, socialist state in Southeast Asia. It enjoys social stability, and there are no serious external threats to its political or economic existence. These conditions have allowed the ruling Lao People’s Revolutionary Party to focus on reducing poverty via development and economic expansion. Since economic liberalization began in the 1980s, the economy has grown at greater than 6% annually,1 and poverty rates have fallen from 46% in 1993 to 18% in 2019. Still, more than 1 million Laotians live in poverty,2 and there is a high probability that many will slide back into poverty due to economic damage caused by the COVID-19 pandemic.
The reach of infrastructure in Laos continues to expand as government and partners construct transport, energy, communications, health, and education networks. Transport and energy investments are largely bilateral with Chinese, Thai, and Vietnamese entities backing projects in Lao, including dams, solar installations, roads, and bridges.3 By contrast, health and education systems are the focus of international programs. The Lao Ministry of Health partners with various NGOs and agencies to improve training for medical practitioners, provide equipment, and strengthen disease surveillance.4
Laos is exposed to floods, drought, tropical storms, landslides, earthquakes, and epidemics, and the country remains vulnerable to agricultural shocks linked to climatic and geologic threats. While flooding is an annual and necessary phenomenon to which traditional Laotian livelihoods are adapted, the intensity and frequency of natural disasters are rising due to Mekong River development and climate change.5 The annual flood of the Mekong and its tributaries delivers necessary sediments and water across the River Basin, to include Lao PDR where agriculture accounts for 20% of GDP and employs 73% of the labor force.6 However, damming of the river systems within Laos and upstream, particularly in China, have changed the rhythm and reliability of river flows in two ways: 1) impounding of monsoon rains behind dams results in man-made drought that disrupts the annual flood and undermines down-river ecosystems; and 2) unannounced or accidental releases of dammed water send unseasonal volumes of water downstream and wash away homes and crops.7
The Government of Laos has incorporated disaster risk reduction in strategic planning. Since 1999, the National Disaster Management Committee has been tasked with coordinating early warning, preparedness, emergency response, and recovery activities under the overall leadership of the Ministry of Labor and Social Welfare (MLSW) and with focal points at provincial and district levels.8 Disaster Risk Management (DRM) functions are also located within MLSW,9 but the DRM coordination network remains relatively new with provincial, district, and village committees all involved.10 The Provincial Disaster Management Committee (PDMC) is the pivotal point for implementation of disaster management resources, and PDMCs include stakeholders from the police and armed forces, the public sector, civil society, and the Lao Red Cross.11 The UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) Regional Office for Asia and the Pacific (ROAP) supports response and preparedness activities in Laos.12
The U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) is active in Lao PDR in support of the government, civil society, and the private sector. The USAID Bureau for Humanitarian Assistance (BHA) has responded to disasters in the country. Since 2018, BHA has supported international partner agencies’ programs that promote development of Community-Based Disaster Risk Management (CBDRM) and other community capacitybuilding projects.13