Luang Prabang establishes first DEWATS-linked Public Toilet
Since being conferred World Heritage Site status in 1995, Luang Prabang’s tourism sector has grown rapidly over 20 years as the third most popular tourist destination in Lao PDR (behind Vientiane and Champasak). The number of tourist arrivals in Luang Prabang has grown nearly 1000% from around 60,000 in 1996 to approximately 620,000 in 2016. Natural scenery and cultural heritage are main tourist attractions in Luang Prabang and Lao PDR.
According to the government, in 2016 Luang Prabang had 49 hotels and 249 guest houses representing a total of 4,844 rooms and 6,900 beds. Hotels alone had a capacity of 3,474 beds in 2,340 rooms. Luang Prabang has the country’s largest hotel capacity and hotel occupancy rate, after Vientiane.
Unlike other Lao towns, over half (approximately 60%) of Luang Prabang’s tourists are international visitors, hailing mainly from China, Thailand, South Korea, Viet Nam and Europe. According to the Ministry of Tourism Luang Prabang’s tourist arrival growth rate has consistently breached 10% every year since 201. However in 2017 growth slowed down for the first time to around 5%. Worryingly, Lao PDR’s tourist arrivals dropped by a remarkable 10%, prompting government to designate 2018 as national Year of Tourism in a bid to arrest the downwards trend.
Although Luang Prabang’s economic prosperity is tied to nature-based tourism, the importance of its natural assets are unfortunately unmatched by the government’s capacity to preserve and enhance tourism and natural assets with a long term sustainable development strategy. In the last decade, Luang Prabang’s environment experienced rampant degradation, with solid waste, public litter and wastewater management as the most serious challenges.
Unplanned and uncontrolled construction has caused rapid degradation to the natural environment, especially to natural water bodies and along the river banks. Although JICA’s assistance under the JICA-LPPE project (2011 – 2015) had significantly upgraded the solid waste collection fleet, equipment and landfill facility, the city is still struggling with the increasing number of garbage and litter. Many lakes and wetland areas – which functioned as natural wastewater treatment bodies in the past – have been filled up illegally, contributing to worsening water quality in the rivers and lakes. Very disturbingly, illegal businesses are steadily encroaching and claimed riverside public space for private profits.
With the support of ASEAN ESC Model Cities Year 3, Luang Prabang city constructed the the town’s, as well as the country’s, first ever public toilet with a decentralised wastewater treatment system (DEWATS) at the night market in the area of Pakkham village/district. It has a total of 8 cubicles (4 cubicles each for men and woman, and 4 urinals at the back). With DEWATS, the toilet does not discharge purely untreated wastewater directly into the environment and reduces water pollution as long as it is properly maintained and not overloaded.
The toilet began operating in May 2016 with an average of 100 fee-paying users per day during the non-peak travelling season. It is located in the prime business area at the junction of the post office, where the west side of the night market begins. Visitors are charged 2,000kips (roughly USD0.25) per entry, while Pakkham villagers and market vendors get unlimited use with a monthly flat fee of 1,000kips per month.
The DEWATS public toilet was developed according to the ASEAN Public Toilet Standard with an innovative public-private management model. Responsibilities are shared between the Pakkham village committee and the Luang Prabang Urban Development Administration Agency (UDAA). The UDAA provides training, technical support and regular budget for the normal maintenance works of the toilet, while the village committee is responsible for daily operations, landscaping and collecting entrance fees. UDAA conducts ad-hoc spot checks to ensure that the toilet is properly cleaned and continues to provide training to upgrade the villager’s management skills. BORDA will provide free technical support to test the quality of treated discharge within 6 months and 2 years after construction.
Photo: Village headman of Pakkham Village showed guests around the vicinity of the newly constructed DEWATS-linked public toilet.
Assessment of results
Half a year on, the toilet is still in good condition. The only unexpected and frequent problem is almost daily occurrence of pipe blockage caused by improper user behaviour in the women’s toilets. The drawback of DEWATS toilet is that the flush system cannot accommodate tissue papers very well. Overall, many locals and villagers are still not accustomed to using modern toilets. To address this, UDAA will need to continuously implement a long term behaviour change and education campaign.
Photo: Panoramic view of the public toilet. The toilet’s main beneficiaries are the market vendors next to the public toilet, tourists and villagers. The plot of empty land will be upgraded into a public garden and a town square with a stage. There is a severe lack of gardening/landscaping expertise and budget within the government. There is no earmarked regular budget for landscaping supplies and no dedicated personnel for public landscaping. Due to this systemic incapacity, most public areas in Luang Prabang are leased to the private sector for management and upgrading. Most public spaces that are not close to business areas are neglected and abandoned.
Photo: View behind the public toilet. A slope with abandoned land, which can be transformed into a beautiful and productive public garden with the proper know-how and vision.
Overall, the public toilet project is assessed by UDAA as exceeding initial expectations. Cost-wise, it was extremely cost effective (almost half as expensive at USD30k), when benchmarked against another new USD50k public toilet at the base of Mount Phousi, which was constructed with the support of another ADB under a project by the Department of Tourism. Part of the costs reductions were achieved due to the contribution of labour by villagers during the construction phase. Furthermore, the community-led management model, although more tedious and challenging to initiate, has proven superior and more sustainable for ensuring proper maintenance and operations. The UDAA is assisting ADB team to replicate the community-management model to the other So far, the operations has been satisfactory except for the poor
The Pakkham villagers are very appreciative of the public toilet as the toilet cannot be afforded within the village annual development budget of roughly USD70k. Not only has the toilet enhanced the public health and sanitation situation and brought more convenience to villagers, it has also generated 2 – 3 new jobs (fee collector, cleaners etc). Importantly, the public toilet has helped radically transformed the formerly unsued land, which was previously unsightly, abandoned and almost functioning like an illegal dump site. UDAA and the villagers plan to upgrade the empty land next to and behind the public toilet into a public garden in the next phase of the project, and the Governor is interested to re-develop the site into a modern public town square with a festival stage, if budget is available. A few months after the toilet was constructed, the villagers were so pleased with the visual enhancement to their community land that they pooled their own funds and labour to build an additional brick wall next to the public toilet.
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