Paper approval of the Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA) report does not produce desired results in lack of implementation of its environmental management plan (EMP) and environmental monitoring both at construction and operational stages. Monitoring provides useful information on state of implementation of mitigation and enhancement measures and updates on which measure worked and which did not.
Over two and half-decades of legal clearance to implement projects, requiring approval of Initial Environment Examination (IEE) or EIA informs complexities created in Nepal from this widely used tool to make the development sustainable and environment-friendly. EIA is a pre-project (pre-construction stage) study worldwide. In Nepal, EIA is carried out at project operational stage as well to comply simply with legal provisions, which indicates departure from its basic principle and global practice.
On 7 April 2023, the 16-floors under construction Summit Hotel and Residency affected about a dozen of residential houses close by it. Newspapers inform its construction without legal clearance on environmental matters (without approval of EIA report). The proposed 5-star hotel will have 130 rooms and 160 luxury apartments in 7 structures (https://epaper.ekantipur.com/kantipur/2023-04-10/). This has questioned the stage of EIA report preparation and approval. The Environment Protection Act (2019) empowers the government to fine the proponent up to NRs. 50 lakhs for non-compliance of legal provisions (if proposal is executed without approval of EIA report or if proposal is executed in a manner inconsistent with the approved report). However, EIA is a predictive tool and is prepared using available scientific evidences, practices, and learnings from monitoring and auditing results of similar projects.
Enforcement of environmental law in 1997 institutionalised the legal approval of projects requiring IEE or EIA level of study. New environmental law was enforced in 2020. A number of EIA reports have been approved during the last 26 years. Review of EIA reports clearly indicates inclusion of key elements of impact assessment from policy and legal review and baseline information to impacts identification and prediction (evaluation of significant impacts is not included in many reports) with mitigation and enhancement measures, monitoring and auditing provisions along with the environmental management plan. Alternative 'with and without' project, and 'within' project is poorly analysed in the reviewed EIA reports. This leads to make difficult the development proposal environment-friendly.
In 2006, one of the transmission line projects complained high budget estimate required for implementing project-induced adverse impacts mitigation measures. Taking note of understanding, experience and learnings in institutionalising the EIA process in Nepal and principles and practices of EIA process, proponents were asked to include in the EIA report the percentage of total project cost required for environmental measures. Cost required for implementation of enhancement and mitigation measures, environmental monitoring and auditing was considered as the environmental cost. During 2006 and 2008, most of the EIA reports submitted for approval included the percentage of estimated environmental cost which was sufficiently below 3 percent of the total project cost, meaning that project spending NRs. 100/ may require to spend lower than NRs. 3/ for maintenance and/or restoration of environmental quality to be degraded or damaged by the project activities. Inclusion of estimated environmental cost has been internalised. In figures, environmental cost may reach millions or billions for environment-sensitive projects to offset project-induced environmental damages.
Review of six projects on environmental cost for the environmental management plan (EMP) informs: (i) 0.67 percent for Upper Madi Hydro-Electricity Project (HEP); (ii) 1.58 percent without land price for Chujung Khole HEP; (iii) 2.49 percent without land price for Tatopani Khola HEP; (iv) 2.16 percent for Ghunsa Khola HEP; (v) 0.49 percent for Hongu Khola HEP; and (vi) 14.53 percent for Kankai Multipurpose Project (hydro-electricity generation, flood control, re-regulating reservoir, water navigation, fishery, tourism and irrigation components) of the total project cost. This multipurpose project is labelled as the 'game changer project'.
Question arises, what do we understand by environmental cost? What should be included in it? Is it related to offset or mitigate or enhance project-induced impacts? Who justifies that budget estimated for mitigation and enhancement measures or environmental monitoring and auditing is appropriate? Most of the approved EIA reports include cost for one time monitoring and undermine regular and/or intermittent monitoring considering its parameters and indicators. Proponents have started including social support cost on an average of 0.75 to 0.80 percent of the total project. The social support cost is normally proposed for construction and/or maintenance of school, village road, health post, and drinking water facilities. This informs small amount of budget required for the implementation of the adverse impacts mitigation measures and benefits augmentation.
Province Secretary in Karnali raised an issue related to the use of forest area for transmission line. It is difficult to find examples of socio-economic and infrastructure projects blocked by EIA process. If mitigation and enhancement measures are costly, proponent may withdraw implementation of environment-sensitive projects. EIA provides multiple opportunities to ensure 'development without destruction'.
Forest being a 'public resource' and considered a 'free gift of nature', proponents exercised to prove 'no alternative' to implement projects outside the forest areas. It encouraged to develop a 'compensatory mechanism' in 2003 to conserve forests and biodiversity taking into consideration the provisions of the Convention on Biological Diversity. Initially proponents were asked to plant trees at the rate of 1:5 (plant 5 saplings for each felled tree for project implementation and manage for 5 years). After reviewing budget allocated in the EIA reports, forest conservation needs in Terai and hills, and additional pressure on forests, a compensatory plantation @ 1:25 was introduced as an 'win-win' approach. This approach positively provided forest area to the needy projects, restore degraded areas and/or compensate the 'lost resources' through plantation and caring for 5 years. Proponents continued to influence the decision-making process to lower down this plantation provision. Government decided to apply 1:2 for hydropower projects. Recently, government has introduced 1:10 ratio. If proponent is unable for compensatory plantation, economic valuation of ecological goods and services provided or to be provided by the 'lost' forests can be estimated and equivalent amount can be paid to the owner of the forest resources before site clearance.
In Nepal, 'poor' understanding about the benefits and importance of EIA has has undermined its use. Review of cost estimation for EMP, as mentioned above, urge proponents to triple-think to move towards environment-friendly development by conducting EIA of 'professional level'. Technical and nature-based solutions exist.