Impact assessment


In the Mekong region, as elsewhere, environmental impact assessment (EIA) has gained importance as part of development decision-making. EIA is a planning and decision-making tool for a development project aiming to avoid, reduce and/or mitigate anticipated social and environmental impacts of development projects. A common understanding is that EIA should seek to identify, predict, evaluate, and mitigate the environmental, social, and other relevant impacts of proposed projects prior to major decisions and commitments being made. A key principle of EIA is to encourage public participation at different stages of the EIA process, to take account of public input and suggestions for re-consideration, project modification, and/or adaptive management. Furthermore, growing recognition of the limited scope of project-based EIAs has led to the establishment and application of higher-level planning and assessment tools in the Mekong region, such as cumulative impact assessment (CIA) and strategic environmental assessment (SEA). CIA assesses the multiplier or cumulative impacts of more than one project or action across a geographic area or in the same area over time, while SEA is a long-term strategic planning tool applied to policies, plans and programmes, and it includes assessment of alternative development scenarios. Environmental assessments in their various forms are often presented as technical procedures that allow cost-benefit analysis and rational planning. In practice, however, they involve political decisions that ultimately determine what is assessed, who participates and how, and who decides, making environmental assessments particularly contested arenas in water resource development planning and governance.

Key reform issues:

  • Ensuring impact assessments comprehensively assess and manage environmental and social impacts and risks, including transboundary and cumulative impacts
  • Ensuring meaningful participation of communities and project affected peoples during all stages of impact assessment processes, particularly the earliest stage of projects (e.g. scoping/screening)
  • Accounting for diversity within communities in assessing project impacts, and tailoring livelihood mitigation programs to the differential needs and vulnerabilities of different segments of the community
  • Strengthening state agencies to monitor and regulate the implementation of EIA procedures, plans and recommendations throughout the entire project cycle
  • Independent monitoring and review of compliance of EIA plans and recommendations
  • Developing accountability/ grievance mechanisms for communities to seek remedial action for project-induced social and environmental impacts, including for existing projects

Current critique and debate:

Environmental assessments of one form or another are formally required in all Mekong countries and have become a standard component of development policy and practice. Nevertheless, critical questions remain with regards to the quality of EIAs, public participation, disclosure of information, and the ability of project-impacted communities to meaningfully inform decision-making, including the operation and management of projects once they are built. A key issue is that the implementation of EIA processes often starts too late, when the major project decisions (including site, design, and construction preparation) have already have been made, thus reducing EIA reviews and approval processes to a mere formality or rubber-stamp procedure. EIAs are sometimes of poor quality and conducted by consultants who in the employ of governmental and private sector development interests. Even if assessments are comprehensively undertaken, EIA approval is not necessarily linked to the potential size of impacts or their remediation. Moreover, experience to date in the region highlights how the responsible authority (primarily Ministry of Natural Resources and Environment) have been unable to comprehensively review, monitor and enforce EIA reports and subsequent management and monitoring plans. Finally, there are various gaps and weaknesses in public participation in the EIA process in the Mekong region. For example, public participation is encouraged but not mandatory in existing laws and regulations, and provisions are general, thus in practice public participation is determined by the project proponent. To help address these weaknesses, various efforts have been made to produce public participation guidelines in the EIA process.

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