Mega projects spur economic growth, but ruin environment and livelihoods


The SGR across Mbagathi river in Kitengela. It has been subjected to an environmental impact assessment to minimise social and ecological impacts.

Photo credit: Sila Kiplagat | Nation Media Group

What you need to know:

  • Construction of the SGR has disturbed natural water flows causing unexpected flooding, water pollution and channeling of surface runoffs.
  • This leads to gulley erosions and downstream flooding, affecting small-scale farmers, pastoralists and wildlife whose livelihoods and survival depend on these resources.

There is an unprecedented growth of development projects across the globe. Renewed global strategies such as China’s Belt and Road Initiative and the G7 countries’ Build Back Better World have committed up to US$40 trillion to support infrastructure development in the global south. Suddenly, governments are investing in new roads, railways, pipelines, power lines and other infrastructure projects.

The government has responded to this by proposing the Lamu Port South Sudan and Ethiopia Transport corridor or developed the Standard Gauge Railway (SGR) project to support development. The SGR has been subjected to a comprehensive environmental impact assessment (EIA) to minimise social and ecological impacts. However, these assessments have been criticised for being superficial.

The EIA is an essential environmental and social safeguard. It’s a decision-making tool that systematically evaluates the possible significant impacts that a proposed project may exert on the environment. The result of which should guide action to protect humans, any threatened wildlife species and their habitats and any other resources by halting the project, redesigning it, or mitigate the impacts.

As much as this is the expectation, or at least should be the norm, projects are rarely stopped on the recommendations of the EIAs or mitigation measures properly carried out. There are numerous examples of projects that have been allowed to proceed vide an EIA recommendation regardless of the evidence of their environmental and social impacts.

In 2012, the first phase of the SGR through Tsavo West and East national parks was given the thumbs-up. Fast forward to 2016, another EIA gave the green light to the second phase of the SGR through the Nairobi National Park, Ngong Forest and the fragile areas of Suswa in Narok and Kajiado counties. Potential environmental and social impacts identified were assessed as manageable through the recommendations of the EIA reports.

Public consultation

However, researchers at the Development Corridors Partnership have established that the railway and associated infrastructure have resulted in habitat fragmentation, blocking migratory routes for elephants, loss of threatened wildlife species through road-kills and emergence of invasive plant species.

Furthermore, the construction of the railway has also disturbed natural water flows causing unexpected flooding, water pollution and channeling of surface runoffs. This leads to gulley erosions and downstream flooding, affecting small-scale farmers, pastoralists and wildlife whose livelihoods and survival depend on these resources. Eventually, it creates human-wildlife conflicts.

What is the problem with the EIAs?

In theory, there is no problem with EIA but there is a deficient implementation and, in some cases, a chronic lack of institutional capacity and political goodwill to carry it out properly. The key issue is that positive and negative impacts on nature and people from the proposed developments are not being appropriately assessed.

One key issue is the lack of meaningful public consultation to allow local communities to hear and understand what is proposed and what the implications for their lives might be but more importantly, that they feel they have a choice.

The second key issue is that the whole suite of potential impacts on nature is not considered. On one hand, Kenya has rich wildlife, 65-70 per cent of which thrives out of protected areas, which is part of the nation’s identity and a source of the livelihoods of many people. Second, the benefits that nature provides to people are compromised with bad planning. Both can be impacted by infrastructure development in negative ways.

So, what are the solutions?

Ecologically unsustainable

The fact that a country has an EIA process in place does not mean it will work. First, there needs to be appropriate resources in place to allow comprehensive and meaningful impact assessment. This includes developing the capacity of companies to write good terms of reference (TOR) which are the contracts where the impact assessment work is agreed upon, train consultants to be able to carry out such assessment and have access to appropriate biodiversity data and tools to understand the impacts and design the solutions. At an institutional level, those who review and give (or do not) green light to the proposed developments need to be sufficiently resourced and well trained to do a good job.

More importantly, banks financing these mega-projects need to follow best practices in impact mitigation and not to provide money for projects that are likely to be socially and ecologically unsustainable. We have the standards and frameworks to ensure sustainability, but we need to get the process right. One example of a good practice framework is the so-called mitigation hierarchy. It proposes a very simple four-step process when a project is being planned for. 

First, avoid any important impacts that your project may cause (re-design, re-evaluate); second, when the risk to cause some important impacts still remain, develop plans to mitigate them (well-designed wildlife crosses); third, restore what has been degraded; and finally, compensate for any impacts that remain. These four steps, if well designed and managed, can deliver positive results. But this cannot happen if there are no resources and appropriate capacity.

Finally, the transnational and often trans-regional nature of these projects needs a strategic approach. Kenya and at least 40 other countries have regulations in place to run impact assessment that goes beyond a single project. They take a more strategic approach, looking at the government’s plans, programmes and policies.

These are strategic impact assessments. Their purpose is to carry out a comprehensive and participatory strategic assessment of options that can inform the development of project-level EIAs. By taking the impact assessment process to a strategic level, we can avoid having to fix the flaws of some project level EIAs that perhaps should have never started in the first place.

Dr Nyumba and Mr Bignoli work with Devpt’ Corridors Partnership, UoN. [email protected]; [email protected]


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