The continuing support across the world for the environmental impact assessment (EIA) process demonstrates that it is still relevant and useful. More work is needed, however, to enhance the support which the process deserves, and especially to deepen its understanding by all key stakeholders.
Several studies indicate that there are some elements of the EIA process which are either taken for granted or ignored. Moreover, some of these elements continue to be mentioned repeatedly. Considering that EIA and other related techniques are used globally, there is a need for practical reflection so that their value may be better appreciated. In this connection, the present brief paper focuses on some of the more problematic elements of the EIA process that are critical but have not been given due attention, namely, public participation, EIA follow-up activities, inadequate environmental data and lack of appreciation by a number of countries from all the geographical regions of the world.
A great deal has been written about the involvement of the public in the environmental impact assessment process and yet it remains a challenging area. While the problem appears to be global in extent, it is more serious in the developing world. Among the reasons why there is so little public participation, in particular in Africa, is the failure to make EIA reports easily available to the public for comment, partly because they are considered to be confidential documents. Second, the reports are voluminous and the public is given on average between 30 and 60 days in which to comment. In some cases, the target communities may not have the requisite skills and expertise to interpret and comment on the reports.
In developed countries, various groups, in particular non-governmental organizations (NGOs) and amenity groups, use their funds or expertise to analyse or interpret the reports for the affected communities: this is unfortunately not the case in many developing countries. Paul Fisher (2013) points out that, in Laos and Ethiopia, for example, the political situation is coercive and prevents people from speaking out if they have any environmental concerns. As a result, the communities that will be affected by a project are left out of key decisions that affect them. Third, EIA reports, such as those for the construction of the Murumand Bakun dams in Sarawak (Malaysia), which were kept secret because they were controlled by corrupt and overly powerful politicians (Sarawak Report, 2014), may not be readily available to the general public.
Experiences from other countries, such as Azerbaijan (Caucasus Environmental NGO Network (CENN), 2004), confirm that the law on environmental protection may not actually provide for public participation in decision-making. Moreover, the available EIA handbook in Azerbaijan does not indicate how developers should take into account public opinion expressed during the EIA process. There are also no existing mechanisms to consider public opinion by the developers and the decision makers in Azerbaijan. In Australia, Jeremy Tager (2013) argues that the Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Act, 1999, public influence is limited and its impact is diminishing. Tager adds that much goes into EIA processes that is not subject to public scrutiny.
Looking still further afield, the World Wildlife Fund (WWF/UK, 2005), in its review of the Royal Dutch Shell Sakhalin-2 project at Sakhalin Island in the Sea of Okhotsk, concluded that Shell had handled public consultations badly, because they did not take into consideration the livelihoods and lifestyles of the island communities. Similarly, Li (2008) noted that public participation in China was inadequate or non-existent despite the laws passed in 2004 and 2006 replacing the one of 2002 regarding public participation. The situation is even worse in Thailand, where public involvement is tightly controlled by the government. Li concluded that the reason for why the public is not involved is because the EIA reports are voluminous, poorly organized, descriptive and overly technical. Clearly, as Andrew Macintosh of the Australian National University states, “public participation sounds nice in theory and a lot of people support it in theory, but in practice it isn’t working” (Norgrady, 2013). Regardless, to make it work and to move forward, there is no doubt that public involvement is a fundamental principle of the EIA process, and its absence is unfortunate and a mockery of the process given that the public are in many cases beneficiaries of the projects.
Alternatives in the EIA process
The other element of EIA which is important but regarded as an “orphan” in the EIA process is that of alternatives. There are several reasons for this state of affairs: First, consideration of alternatives is not taken seriously and they are neglected in practice. Second, the alternatives are seen as extras or additions to the cost of the projects. Third, there are very few seasoned experts who have handled alternatives in an EIA effectively. Fourth, the regulatory agencies do not request this element during the scoping section before the EIA is conducted.
For example, in several African countries some buildings in the major cities are rushed or poorly constructed and therefore unsafe for occupancy. In May 2016 a building in one of the slum areas in Nairobi (Kenya) collapsed and killed over 50 people and left hundreds more injured. One of the reasons adduced for the collapse is that the building was located in a wetland or on riparian land and did not have approval from the National Environment Management Authority (NEMA). For reasons of corruption, however, the developer went ahead with the construction regardless. Had the EIA process been taken seriously it would have identified an alternative site for the building.
In another instance, Duvail et al. (2012) confirm that EIAs for the Tana River Project in Kenya were approved without addressing critical issues, namely the cost-benefit analysis of the alternatives for the project. This was partly because the consultants hired did not have experience in conducting EIAs.
The South Africa Department of Environmental Affairs and Tourism (2004) asserted that alternatives are essential to the EIA process and they should be handled properly and should not be omitted or rejected from the EIA process if they are proposed by NGOs and the civil society. Clearly, the aspect of alternatives in EIA enriches the transparency of the EIA process and enables developers or sponsors to confirm that the options they have taken are ideal, helpful in disaster avoidance and are cost effective. In any event, Noble (2010) acknowledges that the consideration of alternatives is a central element to EIA good practice; and such contemplation is reaffirmed by the United States Council of Environmental Quality as the heart of the EIA process.
EIA follow-up activities
The environmental impact assessment process has several follow-up actions or steps to be taken once projects are approved. This is to ensure that whatever recommendations covering environmental concerns agreed during the approval process are implemented. In Africa, this has been a challenge because of many factors. From the word go, developers or proprietors are very reluctant to use their money to hire consultants to prepare the EIA report to seek approval of permits. Once the EIA reports are approved, the recommendations indicated in the EIA follow-up management plans are frequently not implemented. In some cases, such as in the housing sector, buildings are put up without EIA approval, a lamentable situation. This was the case with the aforementioned collapse of a building in Nairobi. When asked why the developer of the building had been allowed to continue with the construction without EIA approval, one of the NEMA officials explained that this was because of corruption and political interference. As a result, the construction continues, regardless. Added to which, even where there are approved management plans, further injections of money are required from both sides to carry out monitoring, evaluation and other related activities.
The problem of implementing the EIA follow-up activities cuts across many African countries and developing regions of the world. For example, the WWF/UK report of 2005 on Shell’s Sakhalin-2 (Russia) project noted that Shell’s follow-up mitigation plan was concerned more with how much it was going to cost than with ensuring that the environmental issues were properly taken care of. A number of key impacts were ignored, if not overlooked.
In many African countries, this is a sector that is completely ignored for a range of excuses, including lack of qualified personnel and funds. Examples from Nigeria, cited by Morrison-Saunders et al (2003), indicate that only 30 per cent of EIA-approved projects were monitored by the regulatory agency. In some cases, whenever EIA follow-up activities are carried out, it is because public pressure has been put on the government by NGOs and civil society. This was the case with the Lesotho Highlands Water Project in the 1990s, where NGOs and civil society put pressure on the Government of Lesotho and the World Bank to address the problems related to resettlements and other environmental concerns.
It is unfortunate that EIA follow-up activities are seen in many African countries as an add-on or a detached section of the overall EIA process. Ironically, given that the EIA is a multi-disciplinary process, the follow-up activities should be part of the overall project or programme implementation. This will ensure that there are no additional costs apart from those funds allocated for project implementation (including supervision, monitoring, etc.), since environmental issues form part of the project.
Lack of environmental data
Across the world, there has been a great deal of work on the environmental impact assessment; it still suffers, however, from a lack of integrity and poor governance, especially in the developing world. As it stands today there are hardly any examples of good EIA processes from the developing world, Africa included, from which lessons may be learned. This is partly because of the lack of environmental data. The EIA reports done in support of the approval of specific development projects are of questionable quality and many are presented as reports or academic theses that are not easy to monitor or evaluate. In many cases, the objective of reports is simply to demonstrate that the developers or proprietors have prepared EIAs to support their proposals for approval.
Thus, Zubair (2001) in his study on Sri Lanka argues that environmental data needed to prepare EIA reports are not available or accessible and this has led to the fabrication of environmental data. Moreover, he adds that the pretext of inadequacy of environmental data sometimes is used by the project proponent to short-circuit the EIA process. Li (2008) concludes that available environmental data, especially among the Mekong river basin countries, were not shared among member countries. For example, Viet Nam did not share the relevant information with Cambodia on the increased vulnerability and floods; these went on to destroy downstream villages in Cambodia.
A further concern is voiced by Tager (2013), quoting the Ecological Society of Australia, over the standards of science during the EIA process. He recommends, consequently, that EIAs should be subject to peer review. Unfortunately, Tager’s views on peer review of EIA reports will be difficult to implement in developing countries in Africa and elsewhere given the quality of the reports and delays in the process itself. Furthermore, the Environment Institute of Australia and New Zealand have criticized the quality of EIAs due to a lack of professional standards in the consulting industry and governments. For example, no one knows whether predictions in EIAs of impacts are accurate because so little work has been done to assess their accuracy.
Information about much of Australia’s biodiversity is lacking but the EIA process rarely requires new scientific studies to be conducted. Consequently, despite the insistence of several studies that environmental data are critical, these data remain deficient because of inadequate investment. This is because the available environmental data is unhelpful or irrelevant for decision-making and overly technical. In short, reliability and availability of data will not only enlighten the proponents and target communities but will also enhance a coercive dialogue with decision makers. Besides, the availability of quality environmental data would not only strengthen public participation but also deepen the understanding of the EIA process.
Lack of interest in and appreciation of EIA
Currently, every developing country carries out an environmental impact assessment in one form or the other. In addition, most – if not all – developing countries have the legal framework in place to carry out the EIA process. Yet, across the board there are elements that are lacking or are missing from the process. This raises the question of whether EIA is useful or appreciated, in particular in Africa. Second, developing countries have all accepted that it is an important planning tool and it must be supported or fully internalized. Indeed, if it is important there is no reason for why developing countries should allow developers or proponents to cut corners when it comes to major development projects which have serious environmental implications.
Furthermore, as may be seen from the available literature, in developing countries there is a lack of capacity, especially of experienced consultants, to add value to the EIA process. Added to which, there are hardly any good examples of EIAs to share widely in order to help the public to learn from and appreciate the pros and cons of the process. For example, King and O’Beirne (2006) observe that EIAs in South Africa are discredited because of the protracted development process resulting from delayed decision-making and serious questions about the quality of the EIA practice. Similarly, Lindgren and Dunn (2010) report that the environmental assessment programme in Ontario (Canada) remains highly unsatisfactory to many stakeholders and the status quo is unlikely to secure long-term sustainability.
Obviously, there is need to revisit the EIA process and see whether, after more than 40 years since its inception in USA, developing countries, in particular in Africa, should enhance their use and appreciation of the process. With our rivers polluted and our lakes littered with wastes and chemicals, the usefulness of EIAs and other related tools will continue to be questioned. Developing countries, together with regulators, developers and proponents of development projects, should therefore embrace the use of environmental impact assessment.
The environmental impact assessment process as it stands in developing countries, Africa included, leaves a great deal to be desired. Ironically, both developed and developing countries have been active participants in all the international environmental conferences and related meetings and are also signatories to relevant environmental conventions. Yet, when it comes to implementation of EIAs and follow-up activities the process continues to be disappointing. The elements discussed earlier – namely, public participation, alternatives in the EIA process, EIA follow-up activities and a lack of environmental data – are linked and are key to any sound and transparent EIA process. Hence, the government agencies should ensure that these elements are fully covered in any EIA reports before approval. This is because, without a deliberate effort to incorporate these elements in EIA, the process is likely to be quite costly, in terms of money and time. Furthermore, the public should participate during EIA for all major and sensitive development projects as equals with the government authorities and the proponents. Continued disregard for these elements and others in practice will result in costly and risky work. The case of Shell Company and the oil spillage and pollution in the Niger Delta in Nigeria is instructive and should be avoided, especially for emerging oil and gas-producing countries from the developing world. Moreover, the entire public consultation process should be free, fair and transparent, so that the public and other stakeholders should not only have confidence in the EIA process but also share in its ownership and in acceptance of the project.
Consequently, and as discussed earlier, the EIA process should be protected from fraudulent reports, staged public participation and unscrupulous approval permits. In addition, all the key elements of the EIA process should be fully integrated into the national development agendas of the developing countries and they should be widely publicized and enforced.
* Ambassador Dr. John O. Kakonge is a consultant in Sustainable Development.
1. Caucasus Environmental NGO Network (CENN) (2004): Assessment of effectiveness of Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA) system in Azerbaijan. http://www.unece.org/fileadmin/DAM/env/eia/documents/CENN_EIA_reviews/Azerbaijan_English_FINAL.pdf. (Accessed 6 June 2016).
2. Duvail, S.,Médard, C.,Hamerlynck, O., and Nyingi, D.W. (2012): Land and water grabbing in East African Coastal Wetland: The case of Tana Delta. Water Alternatives 5 (22) 322–343.
3. Department of Environmental affairs and Tourism (DEAT) (2004): Criteria to determining Alternatives in EIA, integrated Environmental Management, Information Series11, DEAT,Pretoria. https://www.environment.gov.za/sites/default/files/docs/iem_alternativesineia.pdf.( Accessed 10 June 2016)
4. Fisher, P. (2013): Why environmental impact assessment fail to protect rivers. World Rivers Review. Https://www.internationalrivers.org/resources/why-environmental-impact-assessments-fail-to-protect-rivers-7885. (Accessed 5 June 2016).
5. King,N., and O’Beirne,S. (2006): Improving the contribution of EIA to achieving sustainable development in South Africa- the case for formalized independence renew within the EIA process. sesolutions.co.za/wp-content/uploads/2014/.../IR-in-EIA-King-and-OBeirne-Final1.do…. Accessed 14 June 2016).
6. Li, J. C. (2008): Environmental Impact Assessments in Developing Countries: An opportunity for greater environmental security? Working Paper no. 4 USAID/FESS. Http://www.fess-global.org/workingpapers/eia.pdf. (Accessed 5 June 2016).
7. Lindgren, R. D., and Dunn, B. (2010): Environmental Assessment in Ontario (Canada): Rhetoric vs Reality. http://www.cela.ca/sites/cela.ca/files/766.LindgrenDunnFinal.pdf . (Accessed 9 June 2016).
8. Morrison-Saunders, A, Baker, J and Arts, J (2003) Lessons from practice: towards successful follow-up, Impact Assessment and Project Appraisal, 21:1, 43-56.
9. Noble, B. (2010): Introduction to Environmental Impact Assessment, Oxford University Press, Don Mills, Ontario 2nd edition.
10. Norgrady, B. (2013): Do environmental assessments protect the environment?Australia, ABC environment.http://www.abc.net.au/environment/articles/2013/03/06/3703819.htm.(Accessed 7 June 2016)
11. Sarawak Report (2014):“Cascading failure”_ catastrophic warning on Murum Dam Was Kept Hidden!Http://www.sarawakreport.org/2014/08/cascading-failure-catastrophic-warning-on-murum-dam-was-kept-hidden-major-exclusive/. (Accessed 8 June 2016)
12. Tager, J. (2013): Digging into EIA – Failures in Impact Assessment. Wildlife Australia vol. 50 issue 3, page 37.
13. WWF –UK (2005): Risky business– the new Shell: Shell’s failure to apply its environmental impact assessment guidelines to Sakhalin II. http://www.wwf.org.uk/filelibrary/pdf/bu_riskybusiness.pdf. (Accessed 8 June 2016).
14. Zubair, L. (2001): Challenges for environmental impact assessment in Sri Lanka. Environmental Impact Assessment Review, Vol. 21, pp. 469–478.
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