Globally accepted as a proven tool for environmental management and ensuring sustainable development, environmental impact assessment (EIA) is widely used for all types of environment-sensitive initiatives to address physical, biological and socio-economic and cultural concerns. Nepal has used EIA in analysing and mitigating environmental impacts of development projects since 1980s as requirements of the bilateral and multilateral agencies. Higher dependency on aid packages further enhanced the guided use of this tool for environmental and social safeguards.
An environmental assessment – a predictive tool – is used to identify, predict and evaluate the environmental impacts of any initiative (policy, strategy, plan, programme, project or activity) and augment the beneficial impacts and avoid, mitigate or compensate adverse significant impacts. It means this tool is deeply rooted in development planning and has been an integral part of economic and infrastructure development to make it sustainable and beneficial to human beings, places, livelihoods and ecosystems. Developing countries are promoting and using EIA to make the development projects sustainable while developed countries have moved towards strategic environmental assessment (SEA) to assess impacts of policies, plans and programmes on the environment to implement benefits augmentation and adverse impacts mitigation measures timely.
Realising the urgency for making development sustainable, Nepal promoted the use of EIA in early 1990s. National EIA Guidelines were issued in 1993. Nepal made initial environmental examination (IEE) or EIA (project-level impact assessment) mandatory to the 'prescribed projects' through the enforcement of Environment Protection Act (EPA, 1996) and its Rules (EPR, 1997). The EPR lists projects requiring IEE or EIA with clear approval procedures, including formats for terms of reference and detailed final report. Nepal has moved a step forward from previous practices of complying with the requirements of the multilateral funding agencies to the issuance of environmental clearance for project implementation by approving the IEE or EIA report through a national system. The Government of Nepal has also issued EIA guidelines, guides and manuals to help the project developers to prepare quality EIA report and submit for necessary approval.
Proponents engaged in generating hydroelectricity have repeatedly advocated EIA as a process to delay project implementation. Seven years back, politicians and decision-makers were convinced and relaxed the level of assessment from EIA to IEE for up to 50 MW project. This did not work. If EIA was a barrier, this relaxation would have contributed Nepal to generate more electricity and be power exporter. Hence, blaming a tool does not solve the problem. It is necessary to identify the 'root cause'.
Using Nepal's legal regime on environment, EIA report has been prepared and approved in about 4 months or 4 years. The Ministry Population of Environment has approved EIA report even on the 31st day of its receipt, including time for making the EIA report public for 30 days. It means fast-track decision making might contribute to approve good quality report within a short time period. Decisions could be issued within one and a half month of the receipt of the EIA report by complying with the legal provisions.
Based on two decades of my experience with EIA, and related lessons learned, gaps and needs, EIA report should be prepared as per its principle and by avoiding 'cut and paste' (a perennial problem in Nepal) and making the EIA report site-specific to realise its benefits. Based on review of about 150 EIA reports, cost for mitigation measures estimated is below 4 percent of the total project cost. This includes cost for compensation which is related to site clearance. Hence, it is our choice whether to spend less than paisa out of 1 rupee for environmental improvement and sustainability, and meet national and international commitments or otherwise.
Let us assume that Nepal exempts all projects from IEE and EIA requirements. As a Party to the Biodiversity Convention and based on Nepal Treaty Act, existing species conservation policies and laws (such as Forest Act, National Parks and Wildlife Conservation Act) and their rules, the Ministry of Forests and Soil Conservation is empowered to ask for a report that ensures no significant adverse environmental impacts on forests and biodiversity to provide forest area for project implementation. Article 14 of the Biodiversity Convention obliges the Parties to issue environmental clearance. Section 68 of the Forest Act empowers the government to provide forest areas by meeting three conditions: (i) national priority project (which is determined by the National Planning Commission; (ii) if there is no alternative other than forest area to implement the project; and (iii) if project does not adversely impact on the forest environment significantly. Environmental assessment is conducted to meet the second and third conditions. Furthermore, EIA should also be carried out based on requirements of the donors and multilateral agencies.
In general, environmental assessment should be carried out for 'prescribed' projects. Choice is with us whether we want to improve national system or follow other's system. Based on 2 decades of experience in using EIA tool as per the environmental law, Nepal may wish to adopt fast-track decision-making process, reorient/train the proponents/consultants to prepare site-specific and EA principle-based good quality report, and comply with the legal provisions. As a proven tool, EIA makes the investment environment-friendly and sustainable. Present need is to implement EIA recommendations, and promote environmental monitoring and auditing in order to know the 'effectiveness' of the benefits augmentation and adverse impacts mitigation measures. This can be done, this should be done and this 'must be' done. Then proponents and decision-makers would realise that EIA helps to avoid costly mistakes.