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Reconciling environment and development

Environment and development are taken as something, which cannot go together. This is contrary to global understanding

Reconciling environment and development

Nepal is aspiring for a stable government and prosperous developmental initiation and progress. When we start the confab about development, environment appears simultaneously. However, more often than not, environment and development are mistaken as two sides of the same coin, which cannot come together. This is contrary to the global understanding.

Global development discourse, through a series of adaptive learning, has reached the general consensus that the achievements made on the development arena cannot be sustainable without proper integration of environmental aspects. The same has been the central idea behind Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), which is the blueprint for peace and prosperity across the globe. Nepal must make some serious efforts to join hands on this global development discourse. The question is not about written commitments, as Nepal is party to a majority of multilateral environmental agreement, it is about implementation.

Environment and development

Environment Protection Act and Environmental Protection Rules (EPR) of Nepal mandate the proponent of development activities to conduct an Environmental Assessment (EA) before initiating development works. The proposals (policies, programs or projects) can have both positive and negative impacts on the physical, social or economic environment. EA was originally initiated to minimize or avoid negative consequences of development projects and their alternatives while amplifying the positive impacts. However, some of the factors have undermined the potentiality of EA in meeting stipulated objectives in the case of our country. 

First, development activists take the investment in environmental sectors as unnecessary liabilities. However, we need to take that investment to be analogous to insurance. Investing three to five percent of the total budget of the project in environmental issues can assure that your investment will provide a sustainable benefit. This means the cost-benefit ratio of investment in the environmental sector can be greater than 20. 

Godawari marble factory (Godavari, Lalitpur) and Himal cement factory (Chobhar, Kathmandu), among others, were terminated because of their failure to acknowledge environmental impact. 

The situation could have been different with identification of environmental aspects and adoption of mitigation measures from the first phase itself.

Secondly, EAs in Nepal are generally ill-timed. In case of Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA), the study is initiated after preparation and approval of the Detailed Project Report (DPR). The scenario is worse in the case of Initial Environmental Examination (IEE). A majority of IEEs are carried out after the start of project works, restricting the ability of environmental assessment studies to properly explore the alternatives, which is very crucial for EA, to assist in the decision-making process. 

Third, EA requires an interdisciplinary approach. So, after initiating EA in Nepal to fulfill the commitment made on the global agenda, especially at the Rio convention (Earth Summit 1992), the government introduced Environmental Science at the Tribhuvan University (TU). The main motive was to produce skillful human capital for conducting EAs. The subject was designed focusing on the need of EA as it requires an interdisciplinary approach. Absurdly, even when there are sufficient environmental science graduates, untrained persons with backgrounds other than environmental science are getting the opportunity to conduct EAs in most of the cases. This makes the EA study liability instead of insurance. 

Fourth, even the students of environmental science lack adequate training. Most of the environmental graduates in Nepal are from TU. The Department of Environmental Science of constituent colleges of TU itself does not have adequate academic resources. The facilities are not adequate. The situation is even worse for other universities. 

The government has to make investments for raising the capacity of human resources. Furthermore, training the human resources through real field experiences in monitoring and evaluation work as a third-party monitoring body could provide the students with the real field experience of EA.  

Fifth, a majority of decision-making bodies lack the human resources with understanding of EIA. Most of the comments made to experts during the defense of the assessment report are either related to social aspects of the proposal or are related to the forest. Other aspects are often overlooked as support staff with administrative backgrounds and a scant understanding of technical issues often get to comment on EIAs prepared by subject experts. In the past, when the report was prepared in English, they used to make comments only on the executive summary section. As the reports are drafted in Nepali these days, a majority of comments are on grammatical errors, often at the expense of other critical issues. 

Sixth, the report cannot ensure sustainable development on its own. Environmental monitoring and auditing is the heart of an effective EA. If proper monitoring is done while undertaking development projects as stipulated in the assessment report, we can customize and address the issues that are often overlooked during the report preparation phase. In fact, the responsibility of monitoring has not been adequately assigned in the existing laws. Government has hired some Environmental Graduates as Environmental Inspectors. However, most of them have been posted in the Environment Division. Relevant ministries tasked with approving IEE reports lack human resources capable of understanding the interdisciplinary nature of the subject. 

Seventh, the Department of Environment (DoEnv) is often bypassed during the EA approval process. Though some of the officers get involved in the process, the department itself is bypassed. The Biodiversity Section approves the EIA while MoFE shows reluctance to pass on the authority to DoEnv, which is hard to understand. 

Finally, policy documents related to EA in Nepal focus only on project level assessment. Other tools such as cumulative impact assessment, sectoral impact assessment and strategic impact assessment need to be introduced to expand the horizon of impact assessment beyond the project level. Among other things, strategic environmental assessment is the utmost urgent need for Nepal. 

What next?

Government should prioritize the environmental sector, as they are crucial for national prosperity. Strengthening environmental issues by creating a platform for environmental science graduates at each level of the government will be a tactful decision. Those graduates can assist local bodies in devising and executing the plan based on local contexts. This will also enable local bodies to properly monitor environmental impact of developmental activities carried out within their jurisdiction. Currently, some local and provincial authorities have the authority to evaluate and approve IEE and brief environmental study (BES) reports. However, as they do not have qualified human resources, the government should think about appointing at least one environment expert for each local body. At the central level, strengthening the Department of Environment and allocating authorities related to environmental assessment should be a priority action. We also need to start discussing and implementing cumulative impact assessment, sectoral environmental assessment and strategic environmental impact assessment. 

Beside these, restructuring the course of Environmental Science at the Bachelor level as a stand-alone subject (BSc CSIT model), establishment of well-functioning governing bodies (Equivalent to that of Medical Council/Engineering Council) to take examination and issue licenses for EA and compulsion of license for passing assessment reports are also equally vital. 

The author is an assistant professor at the Department of Environmental Science, Padma Kanya Multiple Campus