Luang Prabang, situated where the Mekong and Nam Khan rivers join, is highly dependent on these rivers for their livelihood. The city thrives on tourists visiting waterfalls and river cruises all year long. However, come monsoon the rivers move to engulf large parts of the city.

The UNESCO World Heritage Site submerges as floods wreak havoc on agriculture, tourism and industry. Nevertheless, this ancient city is fighting to stay afloat with several initiatives to tackle flooding, increase tourism and engage citizens.

Soukan Bounnhong, Mayor of Luang Prabang, chats with GovInsider about the city’s achievements and his plans to transform Luang Prabang into a smart city.

Coping with flooding

The city is surrounded by an intricate mesh of ponds and marshland designed for fish farming and agriculture. In the rainy season, the wetlands that make up most of Luang Prabang overflow and flood the entire area, even the city centre.

The Mayor is looking to construct urban storm drains that both protect the natural wetlands and avoid flooding in the city. This system will also improve ponds and create a dual function where some ponds can function as a natural wastewater treatment, allowing the city to improve water quality.

“We don’t have high technology,” notes Bounnhong. But, improving the environment around the city can improve the living conditions and the lives of Luang Prabang’s residents, he acknowledges.

The problem of flooding is not new to the region – large parts of Asia suffer from dramatic floods and each city employs creative ways to tackle increasing floods. In Tokyo, large underground tunnels direct water away from flood prone regions. In Bangkok, officials fight flooding by cleaning the drainage system and using several millions of sandbags in at risk areas. Singapore raises road levels to reduce the recurrence of floods.

Leapfrogging into the 21st Century

Luang Prabang is looking into data collection on a large scale as part of the ASEAN Smart City Network.

This will start with the wetland improvement project with extensive data collection on the specifics of the marshland in the region and the condition and routes of footpaths around the city, for example. This can help track progress of development across Luang Prabang, and allow public officials and residents to be better informed.

The mayor also has ideas to improve security for residents and tourists in the city. He notes the complex nature of safety and security as times change. “In the past in Luang Prabang we didn’t think it was necessary, but in the near future we should pay attention to this issue.” The Mayor’s office is considering implementing CCTV cameras in alleyways and some main roads to usher them to a new era of security.

Tourists Galore

The city welcomes more than half a million tourists yearly and as a UNESCO World Heritage site is the centre of Laos’ tourism campaign. Developing the city goes hand in hand with improving tourist experiences, and the visitors are often key to the socioeconomic development of the city.

There is a substantial drive to improve infrastructure around the city. Aside from the main roads, local roads and alleyways are not made of cement which makes it difficult to access. The Mayor is looking to cement over all roads in Luang Prabang over with asphalt or cement.

Electric street lights are also in the works as the city lacks public lighting which leaves residents and tourists to roam the world heritage site in the dark at night. In the past, the electrical system wasn’t big enough to support streetlights on local roads and alleyways but this is changing in the city.

Community that develops together, stays together

The Mayor insists that Luang Prabang can only become a smart city if all residents and public officials alike are aware of what that means. He acknowledges that a lot of people are unlikely to be aware of the concept and more needs to be done to raise public awareness in the city.

“There is a part for everyone to play and all actors should understand what the city is trying to achieve,” states Bounnhong. Community engagement and public private partnerships are big in the city, and is how most development projects are carried out.

Last week, public officials planted trees alongside roads with residents in a green environment initiative. The Mayor’s office is also looking to engage the public on waste disposal and collection. A couple of weeks ago the Association of Hotel and Restaurants alongside public officials aided garbage collection in the city. Public engagement through campaigns and initiatives will go a long way to improving waste management in the city.

This ancient city has no plans to be left behind and is employing innovative ways to improve infrastructure and increase development throughout the city.