The natural environment is the foundation of the world economy and our social well-being. Past developments have severely degraded the natural environment and wasted/depleted scarce resources. This has attracted interest globally.
Consequently, planning authorities and governments developed approaches to permitting and executing these developments where their possible environmental consequences were to be evaluated and acted upon. This is done through the EIA process.
In this article, we discuss the 6 key principles of the EIA process and how they contribute to sustainable development.
What is EIA?
EIA is an acronym for Environmental Impact Assessment. It is a systematic analysis of projects, policies, plans or programmes to determine their potential environmental and social impacts, the significance of such impacts, and propose measures to mitigate the negative ones.
Also, it can be described as a tool that facilitates informed decision-making on sustainable development. The underlying key principle of the EIA process is that every person is entitled to a clean and healthy environment and every person must enhance and safeguard the environment.
Principles of the EIA Process
The EIA process is anchored on sustainable environmental management practices. These include productive use of fertile soils, preservation of native plant and animal species, maintaining habitats and natural ecosystems, and groundwater extraction within sustainable yields, among others.
The process is guided by six key principles which help control developments and ensure these sustainable environmental management practices are followed. These 6 key principles are as discussed below:
1. Environmental Concerns Must be Accounted for in all Development Plans
One of the objectives of the EIA is to identify the potential environmental impacts of the proposed project, assess their significance and propose mitigation measures for the significant negative impacts of the project on the environment.
Further, it must address the environmental concerns of the proposed development plans while providing a way of implementing the proposed mitigation measures.
Since all developments happen in the natural environment, the sustainability of the development can only be first communicated through the environmental impact assessment report for decisions to be made about it.
2. Public Participation
As a decision-making process, the EIA provides a means for all stakeholders in a project to be heard and to participate in the process of selection of alternatives and mitigation of adverse effects.
Therefore, it is recommended that the process should give appropriate opportunities to inform and involve the interested parties and affected public. Also, their inputs and concerns should be addressed explicitly in the documentation and other decision-making processes.
Including the views of the affected and interested parties helps ensure the decision-making process is equitable and fair. In addition, it leads to more informed choices and better environmental outcomes.
Public participation and involvement serve the following purposes:
- It helps in informing the stakeholders about the proposed project and its likely effects.
- Collects the inputs, views and concerns of the affected and interested parties.
- Takes into account the information and views of the public in the EIA and decision-making.
By allowing the public to participate in the EIA process, the objective is to achieve the following:
- To obtain local and traditional knowledge that may be useful for decision-making.
- To facilitate the consideration of alternatives, mitigation measures and trade-offs.
- To reduce conflict through the early identification of issues that are under contention.
- To provide an opportunity for the public to influence the project design positively, with the effect of instilling a sense of ownership of the proposed project.
As identified above, the benefits of involving the public, the interested and affected parties in the decision-making process are numerous. For the project to gain acceptability and gain confidence with the public, it is always advised that the views of the public are collected, closely studied and considered when coming up with any project.
3. Recognition of Social and Cultural Principles Traditionally Used in the Management of the Natural Environment
Traditionally, the community affected by the project/development plan has always interacted with the environment around them. There a cultural and social practices that they have always employed to take care of and sustainably manage the natural environment.
For example, some forested areas may be declared sacred places of worship in some communities where trees were not supposed to be cut. This is a cultural and religious way of protecting the forested area.
This principle says that these social and cultural principles that have been traditionally tested and proved to have worked in the sustainable management of the environment should be recognised and adopted by the proposed project.
Consequently, the project will fit well within the cultural and social establishment of the affected and interested communities. The acceptability of the project will be higher.
It helps to ensure that there is a peaceful coexistence of the project and the community.
4. International Cooperation in the Use and Wise Management of Shared Resources
Where a proposed project, plan or programme affects natural resources shared among different nations, the principle is that these two nations should cooperate in the management of these resources.
The state in which the activity with potential impacts on the two countries is being planned should to the extent possible do the following:
- Notify the potentially affected state of the proposed activity.
- Transmit to the potentially affected state any relevant information from the EIA.
- Enter into timely consultations as it may be agreed between the two nations.
An example of a shared natural resource is a river, a lake or a mountain. If the river source is in one country, interfering with the source will affect the flow of water downstream. A country downstream that depended on water from the river for irrigation will be affected negatively as their irrigation project will be strained.
Therefore, the involved nations should cooperate in devising plans and guidelines on how water from the river may be used. This will help avoid conflicts and streamline the management of the shared resource.
5. The “Polluter Pays” Principle
This principle is interpreted to mean that the polluter, who has directly or indirectly damaged the environment or created conditions that led to environmental damage, should bear the cost of carrying out measures to ensure the environment is reinstated after the pollution incident.
As a core principle of sustainable development, the aim is to provide for the would-be polluters to bear the full expenses of undertaking potentially polluting activities.
The EIA process should allow for the allocation of adequate costs of pollution prevention and control for more environmentally sensitive processes, beyond their private production costs.
For example, where a construction project leads to deforestation, the developer should allocate some budget to reafforestation efforts to minimise and deal with the negative effects of their construction project on the forest cover.
In Kenya, the Environmental Management and Coordination Act of 2015 accommodates the polluter pays principles by the following provision:
“The cost of cleaning up any element of the environment damaged by pollution, compensating victims of pollution, cost of beneficial uses lost as a result of an act of pollution and other costs that are connected with or incidental to the foregoing, and is to be paid or borne by the person convicted of the pollution.”
6. The Precautionary Principle
The precautionary principle is based on the idea that prevention is better than remediation. It is more cost-effective to take early action to ensure that environmental damage does not occur. In the face of uncertainty, this principle calls for early measures to avoid and mitigate environmental damage and health hazards.
Principle 15 of the 1992 Rio Declaration gives weight to this precautionary principle. It states, “where there are threats of serious or irreversible damage, lack of full scientific certainty shall not be used as a reason for postponing cost-effective measures to prevent environmental degradation.”
Further, the precautionary principle rejects the claim that uncertainty justifies inaction. Its main aim is to empower policymakers to take anticipatory action even under scientific uncertainty.
Preventing environmental harm is cheaper, easier and has less environmentally dangerous effects than reacting to environmental harm that has already taken place.
When preparing an environmental impact assessment report and subsequently the environmental management plan, it is required that the negative impacts that the project may have on the environment are predicted before any works start. This is followed by developing an action plan on how to mitigate or avoid those negative effects even before they have occurred.
We have seen the EIA process as a tool introduced by the governments for promoting sustainable development and sustainable management of the natural environment.
Sustainable environmental management is key as it helps in protecting scarce natural resources from depletion or wastage.
The process has to ensure that all environmental concerns in the project are addressed. Equally, measures to reduce, minimise or eradicate the negative impacts of the proposed project have to be well considered and documented to aid in the project-based decision-making process.
In addition, where cultural and religious practices have been used by the affected community to sustainably manage the environment, the proposed project should recognise those practices. They must be well documented and incorporated into the environmental management plan of the proposed project.
Also, where the proposed project’s environmental impacts span between two countries, these nations should cooperate in the management of the environment.
Notwithstanding, the project initiators should allocate enough funds in their budget to deal with the negative environmental impacts of their project. It is not the government or the public who pay for these, but the polluters themselves.
In conclusion, it is worth appreciating that preventing environmental harm is cheaper than dealing with the negative impacts of harm that has already occurred. Therefore, early measures should be taken to identify the potential negative impacts of the proposed project and mitigate them before they happen.
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