Environmental impact assessment (EIA) is the process that is used to determine the environmental consequences of any program or project that is intended to be implemented1. It is a process of predicting the effects of the program or project even before the program or the project is implemented. The environmental impact of a project can either be a positive or a negative one. Usually, more attention is given to the projects that are likely to cause negative consequences. The process proposes different approaches that can be adopted to mitigate adverse effects of a project or bring them to an acceptable level. The solution to a project that is likely to cause adverse environment effect could be to do away with the project completely or to modify it such that it does not lead to adverse effects.
Generally speaking, environmental impact assessment has helped to protect environment while people are carrying out their development activities. Its sole purpose is to ensure that decision makers take into consideration environmental impact when they are considering implementation of any project. People may be tempted to carry out activities that benefit themselves at the expense of the environment. Without rules and regulation, the world would be completely destroyed by such selfish individuals. However, with adequate regulation, the environment is preserved for the sake of the present and the future generations. In a nutshell, environmental impact assessment is prerequisite when setting out to establish any project. It identifies and helps prevent the occurrence of the adverse effects to the environment.
During a development project, environmental change is inevitable. Whereas the objectives of any project undertaken are usually meant to be beneficial, negative environment impact may occur. Initially, before the creation of environmental impact assessment procedure, people carried out development projects as long as the projects promoted their well-being while paying little to no attention to the environmental impact. When people learned that the environment gets into danger following development projects, they decided that there was a need to sensitize people of the impact of their activities to the environment. The environment al impact assessment came into place in 1970s. The main driving idea behind its creation was to ensure that while people carried out projects that promote their well-being, the environment was used sustainably for the future generations. The assessment is used to measure potential adverse effects of the development plan and find ways of reducing them to augment the positive effects.
Early methods of assessing the impact of projects to the environment were crude. They often used technical feasibility studies as well as the cost benefit analysis to understand the impact of the project. The cost benefit analysis is a method of assessing the importance of a project where all impacts are expressed in monetary terms. The cost benefit analysis technique was used in 1960s during the implementation of the major projects such as the Aswan High Dam and the third airport in London. However, flaws of the cost benefit analysis technique came to the surface and the public was not happy.
Consequently, a new and comprehensive technique was sought. That is how the environmental impact assessment technique came into existence. Not only does it deal with environmental considerations, it also deals with the economic and technical aspects of the projects during the decision-making process. Prior to its creation, many development projects led to many unforeseen harmful impact which often reduced the anticipated benefits. For instance, in the creation of the Aswan High Dam, the planners had not foreseen its effects such as loss of agricultural productivity and diminishing of the Mediterranean fishing industry.
Objectives of the Environmental Impact Assessment
The creation of the environmental impact assessment technique was guided by several objectives. The first objective was to do with the natural resources. The requirement was that any project undertaken had to ensure that there was sustainable use of the natural resources3. Earlier, people used natural resources to fulfill their basic needs without considering that natural resources are finite. Lack of proper policies to regulate how people used natural resources led to depletion of some of them completely. For instance, uncontrolled agricultural practices have led to desertification in the past because of the encroachment of the forests. The second objective was to harmonize how different nations regulated the access of natural resources by the citizens. Initially, there was no uniformity in terms of how different nations regulated use of natural resources. Consequently, some nations had their natural resources overexploited. The effects of such overexploitation sometimes were experienced by the neighboring nations.
Moreover, the environmental impact assessment technique was to promote the social benefits of development projects. In other words, the society had to reap maximum benefits from any development project and experience the least of the negative effects. Prior to the creation of the environmental impact assessment tool, beneficiaries of the project were so selfish and did not consider the well-being of the society at large. For instance, when the Aswan High Dam was created, the people who lived downstream were affected for the lack of water. The other objective of the environmental impact assessment tool worth mentioning is that there was need to determine the economic value prior to implementation of any project. Although that objective was covered by the earlier tools for assessing the benefit of development projects, the environmental impact assessment tool became very essential in the analysis of projects for it provided better projections. Therefore, environmental impact assessment tool has become indispensable tool in the planning of development projects.
Functions of the Environmental Impact Assessment
The EIA has three principle functions. The first function is to predict problems. This is the most important of the EIA because it sets the ball rolling. Basically, the EIA procedure is meant to reveal potential negative consequences of a project even before it is implemented. The foundation of the procedure is its ability to assists in the determination of the probable problems. When it is able to bring to the surface any potential problems, then it is said to be successful in its objectives. Once potential problems have been predicted, the planners are able to give their opinions on the next move of action.
There are two possibilities in the attempt of determining the potential effects of a project. One possibility is that the project poses higher levels of negative impact than acceptable. As such, the project generates more attention. The second possibility is that the project may have negative impact within the acceptable levels. The project of this kind only attracts a go ahead for its implementation.
The second function of the EIA is to find ways to avoid identified problems in the course of implementation of the project. Identifying problems is not enough. There must be a way of solving the predicted problems. One of the ways of solving the problems is to avoid them. Usually, the EA gives the procedure of analyzing the problem and the different ways that one can use to circumvent the problem. Finding the way out of the problem is the most successful aspects of the EIA. This is because the solution to the problem always adds to the benefits of the project. For instance, suppose the problem predicted in the project was increasing waste in the environment as is always the case with manufacturing industries. A possible solution could be to set up a damping site far from the inhabited area.
That way, the local people would not be affected by the waste as the case would be if it were damped in the vicinity.
The third and the most outstanding function of the EIA are to enhance positive effects of development project. The function is exceptionally important because it provides an opportunity to demonstrate different ways in which the environment should be improved in the course of the implementation of a project. Whenever negative effects of a project are mitigated, positive effects are enhanced. This function is the ultimate function for the EIA. It positive effects are not enhanced for a given project, and then all other functions become useless. This is because the reason for predicting potential problems and coming up with solutions to those problems is to ultimately come up with a project with enhanced positive effects.
The EIA predicts potential conflicts and constraints that may arise between the proposed project and the environment. It then provides an opportunity to eliminate the conflicts by putting in place proper mitigation measures. In this case, monitoring programs become crucial. These monitoring programs are used to assess the future impacts of the project. The data obtained can be used by the project managers to make informed decisions to prevent any potential environment damage. It is worth noting that already established projects can pose future threats to the environment even when they are assessed well at the preliminary stage. It is, therefore, pertinent to have monitoring programs in place to assess such threats. The EIA is very beneficial if well integrated into the project. It keeps the planners on alert in as far as the relationship between the project operations and the environment is concerned.
The stages of Environmental Impact Assessment
There several stages through which a project is taken through during the assessment. These stages are described below in details.
The screening stage
At this stage, the project is assessed to determine whether it falls within the limits specified by the regulations. Projects are screened so that those that do not fall within the regulation are discarded at the early stage. Those that qualify in terms of the regulations set out are subjected to further assessments in the subsequent stages. From the outset, the likely impact of the project to the environment can be predicted. Screening entails determining whether the project is within the Schedule 1 or Schedule 2 of the regulations. If the project is in Schedule 1, further assessment is required. If the project is in schedule 2, the planners determine whether it is likely to cause major environmental impact. For projects in Schedule 2, further screening is done to determine whether it exceeds the set threshold. If so, it becomes a subject for further assessment. Qualifying projects are taken further to the scooping stage.
Some of the projects that fall within Schedule 1 are those that deal with crude oil refineries, thermal power stations, nuclear power stations, irradiated nuclear fuel, smelting of cast-iron and steel, extraction and processing of asbestos, industrial production of organic chemicals, industrial production of inorganic chemicals, industrial production of fertilizer, production of the pharmaceutical products, production of explosives, construction of long-distance railways and large airports, construction of express roads, construction of waterways, construction of trading ports, waste disposal installations for incineration and chemical treatment, groundwater abstraction, construction of dams, construction of pipelines for gas, oil or chemical transport and intensive farming establishment for poultry pigs. Other projects include establishment of quarries and open-cast mining. These projects classified under Schedule 1 are catastrophic to the environment if adequate assessment is not done to try and mitigate their negative effects before implementation 5.
Some of the projects classified under Schedule 2 are projects that involve the use of uncultivated land or semi-natural areas for intensive agricultural purposes, projects that involve water management for agriculture such as irrigation, projects that involve intensive livestock installation, projects involving intensive fish farming and reclamation of land from the sea. Other projects include those that deal with underground mining, dip drilling, surface industrial extraction of coal, petroleum, natural gas and bitumen.
Other projects covered under Schedule 2 are those that deal with production and processing of metals, the mineral industry and chemical industries not covered in Schedule 1. Food industry is also covered in this Schedule. Other industries are those dealing with the textile, leather, wood and paper industries. Infrastructure projects such as construction of roads, railways, harbors, and oil and gas pipelines among others. Tourism projects are also included such as establishment of theme parks, establishment of campsites, and establishment of golf courses among others.
The scooping stage
The purpose of this stage is to focus the EIA on the issues that regard the environment and the possible effects which may call for the most attention. Also, those issues that do not need further attention are identified. A discussion is held by the planners in order to try and agree on what do the most pertinent issues need more attention. A report is prepared showing the identified possible negative environmental effects. The report also provides the areas that are filled with a lot of uncertainties. This stage is important because it sets the project in motion when the potential problems are identified.
Stage of baseline studies
These studies are done to examine the aspects of the environment that are likely to be affected by the project. The contribution of the already existing development projects are reviewed with respect to the impact on the environment. The relevant natural and man-made processes that may also contribute in the effects of the project to the environment are identified. The nature of the effects is analyzed and the potential mitigating measure sought.
Stage of predicting and assessing the effects
In this stage, all possible interactions between the project and the environment are considered. In addition, the possible future interaction between projects and the environment is also analyzed. The nature of the effects is determined. Some effects may be negative or positive; some others may be temporary while others are permanent.
These effects are predicted and assessed. Their effects, both singly and in combination are assessed. In addition, possible cumulative effects are assessed.
Stage of mitigation
After effects have been predicted and assessed, ways of mitigating them is sought. This is more important with regard to the effects that are negative and also those that are permanent as well. Different methods and ways are devised to try to come up with solutions to the identified problems. Among the solutions is how to avoid the problem while implementing the project. Whenever the problem seems unavoidable, it may call for a complete rejection of the project by the planners. Not all problems can be mitigated without compromising the core of the project itself. When a project is completely rejected based on the problems identified, conflicts arise between the project owners and the planners. However, where rules are strict, the project owners have no choice but to comply with the EIA provisions.
Stage of making environmental statement
When the project is given a go ahead after the solutions to the predicted problems are obtained, a statement is prepared. The statement is referred to as the Environmental impact Statement (EIS). The EIS describes design of the project, its size and the site. It also gives a detailed description of the measures that have been put in place to try to avoid, reduce and, where it is possible, remedy of the significant environmental effects. In other words, all the mitigation measures are described. Moreover, the statement details all the alternatives discussed on the project and the reasons for the ultimate choice made. Finally, the statement gives a summary in a non-technical manner.
The Impact of the EIA around the world
The EIA has established roots in different nations in the world. Its importance has been of great value and more and more countries are incorporating it in their legislation. Several countries have already implemented it and reaping its benefits. Some of these countries are Australia, Canada, China, Egypt, European Union, Netherlands, Hong Kong, India, Nepal, Malaysia, New Zealand, Russian Federation, Sri Lanka and the United States. In all these nations, a project cannot be implemented without passing through all the stages of the EIA. For a project to qualify for implementation, its benefits, must be on a higher scale while its negative effects should be as low as possible. In addition, these countries have incorporated the EIA into the state laws so that they are implemented by their legal systems. In these countries, the EIA has assisted in the preservation of the environment as well as sustainable use of the natural resources9.
The Achievements of the EIA
One achievement of the EIA is with regard to environmental management. EIA has provided guidelines that are crucial in the conservation of the environment10. In this regard, there has been sustainable use of the natural resources. Where necessary, the EIA has promoted to creation of conservation sites for the natural resources.
Conservation is one way of ensuring that the future generations get an opportunity to use the same resources that are available now. The EIA is a planning tool. In this sense, it has helped planners in their planning activities with regard to economic sector. Most of the projects that are carried out have an economic value bearing. Planners are charged with the responsibility of assessing all the aspects of the projects with regard to their economic impact, social impact and environmental impact. Furthermore, the government too uses the EIA tool to manage the land use as well as to regulate the access to the natural resources. It uses the tool to determine which projects are suitable where whether they have any benefit.
Moreover, the EIA tool is very important because it has promoted the awareness of the environmental concerns from a practical point of view. Initially, people did not care about how their activities affected the environment. However, nowadays, people have become increasingly sensitive to the effects of their actions to the environment. In as much as there is still a lot of work remaining to make EIA a binding law in the whole world, wherever it is recognized it has led to sustainable economic development projects.
The EIA is a tool that has great impact in the world n matters that regard environmental protection. It is a tool used to predict potential environmental effects of a project or program that is intended for development and finding ways of mitigating such problems. Therefore, the key functions of the EIA are to identify the problems, to find solutions to the problems and to maximize the benefits of the proposed project. The overall objective of EIA is to ensure sustainable use of the environment in the process of implementing a project or program of economic value. The process of the EIA runs through several stages that include screening of the project, scooping of the project, doing the preliminary studies, coming up with the mitigation measures and preparing the environmental impact statement. A project that goes through the stages successfully qualifies for implementation.
However, a monitoring program is necessary for assessing any potential future effects of the project to the environment. Many countries in the world have already included the EIA in the legal systems. That has promoted the objectives of the EIA procedure. Through the use of the EIA, there has been massive conservation of the environment. In addition, there has been amplified sustainable use of natural resources. Planners have used the tool to make sound economic decisions. Therefore, EIA has made a significant contribution in the quality of the environment in general.
- Ali, Mohammad. Sustainability Assessment: Context of Resource and Environmental Policy. Burlington: Elsevier Science, 2012.
- Bastmeijer, C J, and Timo Koivurova. Theory and Practice of Transboundary Environmental Impact Assessment. Leiden: Martinus Nijhoff Publishers, 2008.
- Canter, Larry W. Environmental Impact Assessment. New York: McGraw-Hill, 1977.
Colombo, A G. Environmental Impact Assessment. Dordrecht: Kluwer Academic, 1992.