Making EIAs More Effective
By Q Isa Daudpota
Islamabad


Our leaders and their planning aides invariably suffer from the same mental aberration. It manifests itself in the irresistible desire to promote large projects that ostensibly bring 'glory' to the 'nation'. Of course such mega-projects often become a way to siphon off significant sums into the pockets of power brokers and puppeteers who control the state.
With Gulf money now under stringent watch in the western capitals, petro-dollars have flowed east, with Pakistan a keen beneficiary. A former banker of Arab leaders being the head of government in Pakistan has boosted confidence in investments here.
Funds are funneled mainly into the service and construction sectors. Banks, overflowing with liquidity, pay paltry interest to small depositors and make huge profits that translate into bonuses for their upwardly mobile managers and into high-interest, short-term loans for expensive consumer items such as cars.
Instead of investing in public transport and affordable housing that would benefit the masses, funds are diverted to build new highways, carved into dwindling green areas, and into construction of luxury hotels for the affluent. While public hospitals make do without good doctors and poor health care, private hospitals are padded-up for national and foreign VIPs.
In all this new 'development' the rich and powerful get their financial wizards to reassure the masses that 'prosperity' for the well-to-do will soon enough trickle down to the lower sections. However, sixty years of cajoling and fudging the figures can't dupe the masses any more. Despite their awareness, the public and the NGOs have failed to persist and squash or trim down such imprudent plans. Had our courts been proactive and sided with sustainable development these foolhardy ventures would not have received the green signal. The recent stand of the lawyers and the Supreme Court chief justice has, however, encouraged the hope that the law can be used to modify or scrap such misguided plans.
In 1989 the World Bank adopted the Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA) for all major development projects. EIAs are now mandatory in Pakistan and their implementation is overseen by the Pakistan Environmental Protection Agency (PEPA, 1977). All development projects that can potentially disturb the environment are required by the PEPA to undergo a vigorous EIA.
EIA compares the various alternatives for the project and seeks to identify the one which represents the best combination of economic and environmental costs and benefits. It proposes measures to mitigate immediate and projected adverse environmental effects of projects. By considering the environmental effects early in the project planning cycle there is an optimal use of resources and saving of time and cost. Moreover, properly conducted EIA lessens conflicts through promoting community participation.
In an 80-page World Bank report, titled "Pakistan Strategic Country Environmental Assessment", of Aug 2006, available on the Internet, the current state of the environmental oversight has been assessed and recommendations have been provided for improvement. The World Bank report focuses on the concerns in the context of growth and urbanization. The measured tone of the report does not hide the very serious environmental problems that the country faces. The most devastating statistics is that environmental degradation is equivalent to 6 per cent of GDP, or about Rs365 billion per year. Given that GDP growth per capita in 2005 was 5.2 per cent, this is wiped out by the environmental damage we are causing ourselves.
Despite legislation such as the National Environment Policy (2005) and the conservation strategies of the 1990s, the poorly designed bodies of the government - PEPA and the ministry of environment and municipalities - have failed to ensure proper EIA implementation. The PEPA informed the World Bank that the number of EIAs filed in 2000 was 37, which rose to 87 in 2004. This is pitifully low compared with Bangladesh, with a smaller economy but roughly the same industrialization, which had more than 1300 EIAs in 2001.
The key problem with EIAs is that they are grossly inadequate, and this is not limited to Pakistan. In the Brazilian Amazon, environmental impact assessments have allowed the biggest expansion of highways through the heart of the rainforest increasing the threat of illegal logging, mining and land colonization. How did that happen? The EIAs for these highways only evaluated direct effect of the narrow strip of land cleared for each road. None of the alarming indirect impacts that commonly follow road construction were covered.
Examples abound of laughably superficial EIAs merely done to fulfill a paper requirement so that the developer can get on with the business of construction as soon as possible. The proponent of the project, who pushes for securing approval with minimum cost, pays the EIA firm for its service. In such a flawed system, environmental firms that get projects accepted with just a few mitigation measures are in high demand, while those with reputation for a more rigorous method are avoided. In Pakistan there is no clear certification by a national body that also oversees the performance of EIA companies.
PEPA and other agencies such as the Capital Development Authority (CDA) often fail to apply their own rules. The process is also diverted due to corruption as project proponents have deep pockets and large financial interests to protect. One can only hope that EIAs with glaring faults are not approved presently. It is rare for a project to be halted on environmental grounds because the burden of proof falls on those who oppose it, and not on the proponent. Fighting development projects takes considerable time, money and expertise, and this makes it difficult for citizens and public interest groups who are opposed to risky developments.
Two personal experiences highlight the sorry state of environmental oversight in Islamabad. One expects the problems to be far worse away from the capital. At a large public hearing to discuss the Kuri Landfill project on the outskirts of Islamabad, it was unanimously decided, with agreement from the CDA high officials, that a committee of experts and citizens would be appointed to find another location for this project. (This was in Aug 2006 with 250 experts and concerned residents attending.)
The site selected had earlier been rejected by UNDP and JICA (Japanese aid agency), as this area is the recharge zone for the aquifer catering for more than 50 per cent of Rawalpindi's and the capital's drinking water. No committee has been instituted to date.
Work on a massive building project, Centaurus, which includes a seven-star hotel, luxury apartments, office block and a shopping mall on 6.5 acres at the busiest junction in Islamabad has started in 2006. This work has begun under the very noses of PEPA and CDA. They ought to have stopped the work, as it has started without a proper EIA and, equally seriously, without a public hearing.
The website of Centaurus proudly displays a picture of the skyscrapers printed on the cover of the Economic Survey of Pakistan 2006-7, a respectable government publication, with the caption "Identity of the economic strength of the country". Quite apart from the extravagance of this project in a country marred by poverty, its very inception has been illegal. Its EIA has yet to be made public, although work started way back in 2006. Why have both the CDA and PEPA overlooked such a gross violation of the law in the center of the capital?
Given that this luxury project will change the very nature of Islamabad, it is important that the Supreme Court, only a short distance away from this site, take suo motu action against its illegal construction, and investigate the oversight of the public and private bodies involved.
(The author is a physicist with an interest in environmental issues)

 


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