Urbanisation is placing an enormous burden in many secondary towns in the Mekong Region, which will become even more onerous as we move towards the MDG target year of 2015. Urban areas are growing at rates of 4.3 per cent in Cambodia, 4.9 per cent in Lao PDR and 3.6 per cent in Vietnam. These rates which are around 2.5 times the national population growth averages are projected to increase the urban population of the Mekong Region by 50 per cent by the year 2015. The vast majority of the new urban citizens are the poor, newly arrived rural migrants. They pay higher prices for their water, use safe water, as well as endure unsanitary conditions.
Although urbanization drives economic growth, it brings with it serious challenges. Without policy and institutional reform, there is a real risk of urban services becoming unsustainable, leading to environmental degradation and serious health problems. These outcomes ultimately undermine the competitiveness of towns and cities, making them less livable.
Although relatively high economic growth rates are making inroads into reducing poverty, the statistics indicate that there are still major causes for concern. The percentage of people living below the poverty line(less than one dollar a day) is still as high as 29 per cent in Vietnam and 36 per cent in Cambodia. In addition poverty has a further dimension that of access to basic services, such as water supply and sanitation.
Secondary towns’ coverage rates are invariably much lower than the national averages. The poor not only have low incomes, but they have little or no access to safe water and basic sanitation, which adversely impacts on their health and productivity, and perpertuates poverty. The opportunity to rise out of this poverty trap is constrained by the limited capacity of local governments and authorities to sustain or expand access to safe water and basic sanitation.
As urban cities and towns in the Mekong Region have grown over the past decades, so has the level of pollution that these settlements discharge into the local waterways. Governments, both local and central as well as service providers have not been able to adequately manage wastewater discharge from urban centers, especially secondary towns. Low levels of revenue generation that barely support operation and maintenance undermine the institutional and human resource capacities necessary to sustain the delivery of services, whilst protecting local environments. Gross Domestic Product (GDP) growth in the Mekong Region is now heavily biased towards industry and services, reflecting the urbanization trend. Without adequate consideration of the potential adverse impacts of inadequate sanitation, local waterways may become unusable as raw water sources.