Water in the eyes (and hearts) of the rural indigenous youth in Laos

27 Sep 2013                       

I spent some time in a Farmers Field School in Vietnam in June this year. This Farmers Field School is called the Human Ecology Practice Area (or ‘Hepa’ for short), and is also ‘boarding school’ to several indigenous young people from the rural parts of Laos. On my last day at Hepa, I chatted with three of them about what they felt about water with the help of Vin, my Vietnamese translator. I hope to share their stories as accurately as possible.

One young lady, by the name of Inta, shared that her village has 5 water tanks, supporting 60 households. Her village was situated in a valley cutting a plateau. On one half of the plateau was sparse forest growing on rocky soil. The other half of the plateau was a large cultivation area for dry rice[1], which uses pesticides extensively.

The valley is forested, and a stream flows from under a big rock not too far from the top, but below some forest. This becomes a river further downslope. The source of water is likely to be groundwater or underground water. In around 2001, the government dammed up the river partway downstream. This supplies water to the village’s five tanks for its increasing population.

At the bottom of the valley, there is another river running perpendicular the river which originated from the big rock. The forest on the side of the river closer to the valley has been converted for wet rice cultivation. Nonetheless, villagers still used the river for washing and swimming. However, this was until a cement factory was constructed upstream, about 6-8 years ago. The cement factory is located here because of the rocks that can be exploited from this geography. The discharge pollutes the river.

Inta recalls that her village used to have wells. However, they no longer function, and are now more like ‘ponds’ instead of ‘wells’. Could this be due to a depleting water table? I am not sure. While the village’s increasing population is driving water demand up, could other developments around her village be depleting water supply?

The other two youth were Pha Ly, a Hmong ethnic minority, and Anong, a Khmu ethnic minority. Although they now live in the same area, the Hmong people moved in quite some time ago, whereas the Khmu people are more ‘indigenous’ to the place. The government had instructed the Hmong people, who traditionally have always lived in the highlands, to settle in the valley with the Khmu people. This had caused some unhappiness between the two communities.

They live in a rocky, mountainous environment. This geography attracts a rock-mining company, which extracts rocks (ironically, to build the runway of the Luang Prabang airport!), changing the landscape of the area. The main river which supplies their village with water now only runs from October to February, which is the rainy season. Like the river in Inta’s village, this river originates from under a rock. Tanks have to be built to store diverted water from a river farther away.

Population increase leads to a pressure on water resources. The village only had 30 families in around 1998. Now, it currently has 100 families. To meet increasing demand, the government built a water tank. However, there is still insufficient water, as people cut down the forests rampantly for dry rice cultivation.

Living in nature means trusting nature, and praying that nature will protect and nurture, not destroy.[2] These youth are from the rural parts of Laos, and their cultures respect nature tremendously. That said, there are interesting differences between the Hmong and the Khmu cultures with respect to how they relate to nature. The Khmu people worship water specifically. On the other hand, the Hmong people worship spiritual representations of water, for example, the ‘dragon spirit’.

The Hmong people’s traditional source would be a natural reservoir in the highlands. The whole community would gather around the reservoir and call upon the dragon spirit to protect the reservoir. About two days after the prayers, there would be heavy rain to fill up the reservoir with much-needed water. There are rules that govern behaviour around the reservoir: one must not kill animals, cultivate crops, use a firearm, or cut down trees near the reservoir. Doing so would incur the wrath of the dragon spirit, which would then abandon the reservoir, leaving it dry or damaged. However, it is permissible to raise and catch fish in the reservoir.

The Khmu people worship the natural elements directly – water, rock, etc. The Khmu people in this village offer the natural elements a sacrifice periodically. Similarly, Inta’s village offers one buffalo every three years as part of the worship.

When the Pha Ly’s community moved to their new village, the elders identified an underground stream, which is seen through a rocky schism, as the place where the dragon spirit resides. This is where they worship the dragon spirit too. Interestingly, while the Hmong and Khmu cultures do not mix, the Khmu people have begun to ‘ride on’ the ceremonies of the Hmong to conduct their own worship! I felt this was an interesting example of gradually removing barriers between two cultures.

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As the conversation drew to a close, all three Laotian youth and Vin felt that more could be done to protect water resources. For example, swales can be built at the forest edge, to prevent run-off and store water in the forest.

What are the reflections for Singapore, from a place so far away and so different from urban Singapore? First, the culture of respecting nature is something that we urbanites could perhaps try to revive. This is not to say that we need to subscribe to pagan beliefs, nor do we need to do it through religion. But spirituality can coexist with modernity. In my year in Oxford, I was pleasantly surprised to see how the Oxonians have preserved the culture of celebrating the first of May as the coming of spring – something that had pagan origins. Moreover, a city, despite its seemingly smooth-functioning appearances, does rely a lot on nature – resources, energy, waste assimilation, etc. Although we live in an urban environment, we should still be grateful to nature.

Second, water is not as easily-obtained as turning on a tap in Singapore. Anong also shared that when the pipe to the water tank broke, they would be left without water. And they would have to walk kilometres through forest to find and repair the leak. We don’t have that problem in Singapore. We also don’t have to worry about rivers that do not flow in the dry months.

Third, uncontrolled development poses a threat to water resources. Deforestation for cultivable land leads to water stresses – there is a need for better forest and environmental governance. The cement factory near Inta’s village polluted the river. In Singapore, we were lucky that our early leaders imposed strict effluent standards to the industries before too many of them polluted our waterways. (Of course, we had the clean-up of the Singapore River, a massive exercise to revitalise an open sewer.) Ironically, however, some types of development do not benefit the communities living there directly. In the case of the rock-mining company, the rock was used to build the airport in the city. Living in a city-state, are we as Singaporeans aware of the indirect environmental and social impacts of the choices we make?

Whenever I visit Hepa and hear from the students stories from some of the remotest parts of Laos, I feel greatly humbled. Singapore has indeed been very blessed.


[1] Dry rice is rice that is grown on soil; wet rice is grown in paddies. Unlike wet rice production, dry rice production requires more space but is less labour intensive.

[2] I first really empathised with this feeling when I attended a bioengineering workshop at Kallang River @ Bishan-Ang Mo Kio Park, because the stability of slopes was ‘entrusted’ to the growth and penetration of plant roots into the soil!

By Yingshan

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  1. Reblogged this on 2 Sides 2 Stories and commented:
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