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Old Sunday, May 17, 2015
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Default Whither environmental assessments?

Whither environmental assessments?

Searching the internet for the phrase “environmental assessment of China-Pakistan Economic Corridor” only yields one significantly relevant article from February 2015, stating that the Pakistan Environment Protection Agency (EPA) denied clearance for the construction of the Raikot-Islamabad highway, which is to form part of the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC). As per the article, the EPA found the Environment Impact Assessment (EIA) “unprofessional and lacking information about the costs to environment” failing to address fundamental issues such as land requirements and demarcation, the number of people to be affected and their resettlement plans. In response, the National Highway Authority (NHA) assured that the project, still in planning phase, would disturb the environment only “minimally” — whatever that means.
The topic has not attracted much attention since then. Perhaps, it is too mundane amid all the excitement of the predicted development. Take, for example, the alleged re-route of the CPEC through Lahore and the furore over the resulting losses to smaller provinces: the environmental considerations figure nowhere. Yet, the environmental oversight can cost us dearly. For example, each winter, thick fog in Lahore closes off the motorway except at the brightest hours and prevents flights from landing at the airport. Also, the resulting drop in temperatures fuels energy demands. Despite counter-measures like banning substandard two-stroke engines, Lahore unenviably ranks among the worst 10 cities of the world for smog.

What, then, will the impact be of additional traffic through Lahore? Shall we minimise exhaust emissions? Will the upcoming industry be environmentally friendly? What percentage of the CPEC budget goes to environmental planning and enforcement?

Up north, the Karakoram Highway poses more challenges. In 2010, a mountainside tumbled over and dammed the Hunza River. The resulting Attabad Lake flooded 27 kilometres of the highway, cut off several villages and nearly blocked the transport. This wasn’t an isolated incident: landslides, floods and glacial run-offs are common there. Also, heavy snow in winter blocks the Khunjerab Pass to China. A perceived non-response to these disasters has resulted in protests and blockades by the locals, backed by local jirgas and even by the district governments of Gilgit and Diamer.

The circumstances, thus, demand a comprehensive environmental account with a public buy-in. Legally, the Pakistan Environmental Protection Act (1997) mandates EIAs for projects likely to cause adverse environmental effects. The EIA, among other things, requires public hearings to assess the impact on the affectees of a project. Although, the 18th Amendment makes environment a provincial subject, the provinces have accepted the Federal Act with minor or no amendments. The Act obligates filing an EIA with the relevant agency before commencing construction or operation. However, submitting the EIA on the eve of commencing construction can be very late, notes the Handbook of EIA in Pakistan.

The Handbook is an outcome of the National Impact Assessment Programme (NIAP). The NIAP, concluded in 2014, was a joint programme between the Pakistan government and the International Union for Conservation of Nature. The Handbook points out that despite the promulgation of the 1997 Act, the EIA reports often do not portray the real picture due in part to deliberate sugar-coating, non-professionalism or both. Therefore, it is not a surprise that the EPA found the EIA for the Raikot-Islamabad part of the CPEC non-professional.
Even if prepared earnestly, EIAs specific to parts of a mega project do not cover the full environmental impact. In fact, the EIA legislation in Pakistan is silent on assessing cumulative effects of clustered growth. The modern response then is governing mechanisms such as Strategic Environmental Assessment (SEA) that directs individual EIAs. An SEA is a structured process which fully integrates environmental considerations into the preparation and adoption of policies, plans and programmes; it thus covers more in time, space and subject than an EIA, and feeds into individual EIAs in a cross-sectoral fashion. Clearly, the CPEC can benefit from such an integrated assessment.

Assessing the wider impact of our individual or collective actions is not our forte; however, we cannot leave our biggest breakthrough yet to chance. Strategic environmental planning is central to sustained growth. Transparency, thus, will breed the requisite rigour that will further act as the right template for future growth.

Published in The Express Tribune, May 16th, 2015.

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