Talking to the Experts: Can We Improve the ESIA Process?

Haven Livingston
Tuesday, March 19, 2013

There is broad consensus that the process for analyzing and addressing the environmental and social impacts of big dams is failing to protect ecosystems and communities from the most destructive impacts of large-scale development projects. World Rivers Review asked the following experts three key questions about how to improve this process:

Brian Richter, Director of Global Freshwater Strategies for The Nature Conservancy (TNC), has reviewed many ESIAs to evaluate potential impacts to TNC conservation projects and to alert local communities to potential issues.

Richard Beilfuss, President and CEO of International Crane Foundation, has helped create several ESIAs in southern Africa for dams, barging/dredging, and other river basin developments. He has always worked as an independent sub-contractor to the main consultant.

Ian G. Baird is an Assistant Professor in the Department of Geography at University of Wisconsin-Madison. He has worked as a consultant on a variety of ESIAs in Southeast Asia.

Here is a summary of their responses.  

In your experience, what is the biggest failure of the ESIA process?
Richter and Baird said the main problem is who conducts the research or by what circumstances they are bound. Richter says, “Most ESIAs are commissioned and funded by the entities that are building the project. That predisposes the consultants to give the project a favorable evaluation, and to minimize potential impacts or to overstate the likely effectiveness of remedial actions.” This essentially renders the ESIA document and process incomplete or even false. Richter calls the process “an incestuous web.”

Baird concurs, but gives a different reason. He says, “The consultants hired are frequently unwilling or unable (due to pressure from the companies that hire them) to clearly and fully identify the most serious impacts for fear that doing so might damage their relations with the companies that hire them, or make it difficult for them to gain future employment.”

Baird describes a case in point – the fisheries component of the ESIA for the Don Sahong Dam in Laos: “In this case, the consultant did identify the potential serious impacts of the project, but all those impacts were removed from the report by the company that hired the consultant, after the company was unable to bully the consultant into changing his findings (in most cases, bullying is successful). Thus, the final report submitted to the government had the consultant's name on it, but did not include his actual findings.”

Beilfuss sees two main failings with ESIAs. First, they are not implemented, or are minimally implemented (often they are requested with no serious intention to implement). “Everyone has a million stories about ESIAs that have never been implemented,” he says.

Beilfuss also notes that the scope of ESIAs is usually too narrow to include cumulative impacts that a given project may bring.  Beilfuss says, “Several times I have worked on ESIAs related to the construction or renovation of a large dam on a river that is already dammed, and the scope only extended to the present project, with existing impacts taken as baseline (pre-existing, or ‘natural’) conditions that were not subject to review.  By limiting the scope, there is no opportunity to focus on how new projects could perhaps be redesigned so they may positively ameliorate past impacts, or even avoided if it is determined that they will entrench or worsen existing problems caused by previous developments.”

What are the top three things that should be changed to improve the ESIA process?
All three experts agreed that, as a start, who is doing the ESIA must be addressed, as well as developing systems to avoid political pressures on scientists to come up with favorable reports. Richter stresses, “First and foremost, impact assessments should be conducted by independent, third-party evaluators, who should be trained and licensed by a respectable accreditation entity.” Beilfuss goes further, suggesting that the people conducting ESIAs need to be diversified, “to ensure that an individual organization or two are not retreading the same old guidelines and recommendations again and again for different projects.”

Baird’s number one concern is not only who is doing the ESIA, but also the restrictions they face from the companies that hire them. Says Baird: “The consultants hired to do the reports should be paid for by the companies, but [the consultants] should be accountable to the public for the reports that they prepare. Even if the companies don't like the reports, there should be a process that would allow the consultants to release their reports independently to the public.”

The second common response involves how the ESIA evaluates impacts of a project and the process the government uses to review the ESIA. Beilfuss argues for expanding the scope of the ESIA to include a more holistic view that accounts for cumulative impacts and restoration potential. Likewise, Richter thinks that not only should the scope of ESIAs come under scrutiny, the entire process in which an ESIA is created should be examined. “The evaluation process and criteria for evaluating impacts should be designed by a globally respected, independent group of experts from government, NGOs, academia, and others,” says Richter. “For example, it is time to develop an independent sustainability certification program for dams that would provide a much more objective evaluation of development plans.” Baird says the quality of government review processes must be improved; he calls for more time and sufficient budget to do a better job of reviewing the impacts.

Beilfuss also points out that legally ensuring implementation and accountability of ESIAs is critical to the entire process. This could be contingent on peer-review of ESIA findings or establishing quality control for recommendations, though he admits this is easier said than done.

What are the biggest obstacles to change, and how can they be overcome?
Richter and Beilfuss name complacent governments as the main ball and chain to change. Richter sees no easy way out of the problem of corruption and political coercion. Beilfuss says, “Government ‘lip-service’ to ESIAs is common worldwide.” Both agree that a well-informed public within the country and externally – particularly from countries funding bad projects – is the only hope for creating enough public pressure to influence change in the ESIA system.
Baird identifies the non-transparent structure of the ESIA process as the biggest hurdle. He calls for reports to be made public by consultants instead of being hidden and potentially altered by companies. All agree that an informed public is more likely to take action to make sure their interests and those of their environment are accounted for and addressed.

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