What you need to know:
- There are several cases where EIAs gave the green light to projects that ended up destroying irreplaceable natural habitats.
- The EIA process requires the incorporation of comments from the public and affected communities in the final project proposal.
- To ensure EIAs meet environmental standards, regulatory bodies need to insist on quality data and information, which requires serious investment in the process.
No doubt, environmental impact assessment (EIA) is one of the most frequently used and successful tools in global use.
The question, however, is whether it achieves one of its main objectives: To protect the environment.
Opinion is divided. According to William Lawrence and David Salt, EIAs rarely stop bad projects.
There are several cases where EIAs gave the green light to projects that ended up destroying irreplaceable natural habitats.
Moreover, Lawrence cites several projects which were approved despite inadequate EIAs.
EIAs are often characterised by inadequate investment in terms of time, effort and financial resources to carry out rigorous assessments but perceived as a formality.
Corruption is rife—such as developers hiring staff from the EIA-approving organisation to undertake the assessment; staff being bribed to ensure the approval of substandard EIAs; developers bribing politicians to have projects approved.
That is compounded by governments having a vested interest in development projects as they equate to economic growth and jobs—hence, votes.
After 50 years, EIAs are institutionalised. Some suggest that the process should be left to change incrementally yet others want it overhauled.
Some cite areas that should be strengthened or taken seriously to make EIAs effective and useful.
But public participation is weak or non-existent. In some developing countries, it is seen as a hindrance to EIA approvals.
But in the developed world, it enriches proposed projects and strengthens community ownership.
The EIA process requires the incorporation of comments from the public and affected communities in the final project proposal.
This element is often missing in developing countries and should be considered urgently. The public should be involved in decision-making in any project that affects them.
Data and information
Secondly, it should provide data and information to ensure environmental protection, one of its main objectives.
But the data and information collected or generated in developing countries, including Africa, tend to be weak, useless and not focused on the significant environmental impacts.
Given that proponents or developers do not invest enough money into preparing substantial EIAs, the data and information used are often secondary.
Consequently, the weak data employed in the EIAs neither help to predict the negative impacts of the projects nor assist in the development of sound follow-up EIA management plans.
To ensure EIAs meet environmental standards, regulatory bodies need to insist on quality data and information, which requires serious investment in the process.
Thirdly, for EIAs to be useful, political will and commitment are needed.
EIA is a legal requirement in the developed and most developing countries. Many resources are invested in it.
In particular, developing countries that have adopted EIA legislation should commit to carrying out EIAs according to the law or continue to be ineffective in responding to the challenges of the 21st Century, such as climate change and implementing many of the SDGs.
Despite its shortcomings, the EIA process should be protected from fraudulent reports, staged public participation and unscrupulous permits.
Dr Kakonge (PhD), a development expert, was Kenya’s Ambassador and Permanent Representative to the UN Office and WTO. [email protected]