Strategic Environmental Assessment (SEA) gives govt an answer on dams and mega projects


Source: The Myanmar Times

Date: 2 March 2018

"Some developers seek to apply the law by doing projects to international standards, while others cut corners and try to do as little as possible." A Strategic Environmental Assessment (SEA) gives the Myanmar government an answer to Myitsone and other controversial projects.

Failings in transparency or environmental non-compliance are not unique to China-led projects, some infrastructure in Myanmar which involve India, Thailand, Japan and South Korea share the same problems. While the responsibility predominantly lies with the Myanmar government, developers should not take advantage of weak government capacity to cut corners. Project proponents should be proactive in early engagement and adhere to international standards than wait to be regulated, according to experts.

WWF published a report recently on how BRI-led road projects in Myanmar would bring risks to almost half of the national population. Hanna Helsingen from WWF-Myanmar stressed that all actors involved, including the governments and investors, have a responsibility to ensure that infrastructure development avoids impact on communities and the environment and mitigates remaining negative impacts.

The risks which these mega projects carry do not mean the country should stay away from development - rather, these projects must be done in a responsible and sustainable way to ensure that people and nature are protected.

"There is a lot of good and bad experience on infrastructure development in the region and beyond - Myanmar can learn from this and develop infrastructure in a more sustainable way - ensuring that it can bring benefits to the country's economic development, while improving human well-being and protecting Myanmar's unique natural wealth," Ms Helsingen said. The solution, for WWF, is early engagement.

"Lessons on infrastructure development around the world show that getting the planning and design right from the beginning not only saves money in the long-term but also avoids costly impacts on people and environment," she said. Avoidance of impacts on people and biodiversity is "always the cheapest solution".

Transparency needed

Vicky Bowman, director of Myanmar Centre for Responsible Business, said transparency in the entire process, from initial planning to impact assessment, is absolutely essential.

"The concern is that there needs to be a transparent process from the first days of conceptual discussion which ensures that projects are designed with the best location or alignment and to maximise the positive economic impacts, and minimise the environmental and social impacts, particular impacts on biodiversity and requirements for land acquisition and resettlement," she said.

In theory, the Myanmar legal requirements introduced by the 2015 EIA Procedure should demand that the design, construction and operation of infrastructure must take into account the environment and communities. But in practice, EIAs conducted to date in the country have lacked transparency.

"Assessments have rarely been published, and the Myanmar government has not run the disclosure and consultation processes required by law. Those EIAs which have been undertaken either before or after 2015 and which are accessible generally do not meet international standards.

They have significant gaps concerning all aspects of environmental and social impact," she commented.

What could possibly be a solution? The ongoing Strategic Environment Assessment on hydropower is a good example of how this can work. The Sustainable Development Framework with its High, Medium and Low-risk zoning approach ensures that projects can be screened at the conceptual stage, and then a decision taken on "go" or "no-go", or "adjustments made", followed by a project-specific EIA.

Capacity issues

Despite the gap in laws, Myanmar's challenge is predominantly one of government enforcement, and by extension, developer attitude, according to Ms Bowman. The lack of institutional capacity to enforce those laws allows developers to get away from non-compliance. Some developers seek to apply the law by doing projects to international standards, while others cut corners and try to do as little as possible, unless they are called to account by governments or others.

Hence, despite the fact that the main responsibility lies with the Myanmar government, investors should not take advantage of weak government capacity to cut corners.

"All those involved in these projects should be proactive in applying international standards, and being transparent, rather than waiting to be regulated. The Myanmar government also needs effective assistance to help them manage projects of this nature in a transparent manner for the long-term benefit of the country," she stated.

Currently there is a lack of environmental governance in Myanmar, mainly attributable to weak government capacity. This situation, according to Ms Bowman, doesn't seem likely to change in the near future.

This is particularly problematic where there is also no proactive interest in transparency and genuine "greening" on the part of the project developers. There is also a lack of awareness on the part of communities and other stakeholders, and a general lack of data about biodiversity and ecosystems services.

Not unique to Belt and Road

While the WWF report focused on China-led road projects, the MCRB director is keen to stress that failings in transparency and adhering to international standards are not unique to Chinese projects - there is a similar lack of transparency with infrastructure projects in Myanmar sponsored by India, Thailand, Japan and Korea. 

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