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Environmental Assessment as a Project Management Tool

One of the main strengths of environmental assessment (EA) is its flexibility. All projects have a planning process in which EA can be integrated. Given its sensitivity to the social and economic as well as environmental impacts of projects, the EA process can be used in a project to accomplish many different objectives.

EA can be effectively employed by project managers to compensate for shortcomings in the project planning process. For example, a project which failed to adequately consult the community at the outset can take advantage of the EA to involve the community in a necessary exchange of ideas and views. The EA can help establish and strengthen decision-making and communication mechanisms within a project. It can also pave the way for introducing innovations.

An EA may reveal sound environmental, social or economic reasons for shifting a project's direction. In view of the primacy accorded the opinions and aspirations of local people, the EA process may also function as a project control mechanism. While the EA should not be expected to correct all the weaknesses of a flawed planning process, when properly designed and executed, it can be a valuable tool for project implementation.

When the role of the EA is more restricted, the situation can work in reverse. Other project planning activities can be used to gather necessary information for the EA and to create support for the EA process. Each project manager must decide how much importance to accord each planning activity.

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The Benefits of Environmental Assessment

Most governments and donor agencies acknowledge the contribution of EA to improved project design. The weakness of EA in the past has been largely due to poor techniques and the failure to pay attention to findings at the implementation stage (ESSA Technologies 1994). A review of current environmental practices found the major benefits of the EA process for project sponsors to be (ESSA Technologies 1994: 16):

  • Reduced cost and time of project implementation.
  • Cost-saving modifications in project design.
  • Increased project acceptance.
  • Avoided impacts and violations of laws and regulations.
  • Improved project performance.
  • Avoided treatment/clean up costs.

The benefits to local communities from taking part in environmental assessments include:

  • A healthier local environment (forests, water sources, agricultural potential, recreational potential, aesthetic values, and clean living in urban areas).
  • Improved human health.
  • Maintenance of biodiversity.
  • Decreased resource use.
  • Fewer conflicts over natural resource use.
  • Increased community skills, knowledge and pride.

This is a general overview of the many benefits offered by effective EA.

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The Cost of Environmental Assessment

Given the dearth of research in the field, it is not surprising that there is little information on the cost of carrying out EAs on community development projects. However, we can look to the experience with large projects for some indication of the costs involved. According to the World Bank (1991a:20), the cost of an EA rarely exceeds one percent of the total project cost. Mitigation measures usually account for three to five percent of total project cost (World Bank 1991a:20). These figures do not include the cost of environmental damage caused by a project which has not undergone an EA.

In large projects, the availability of related data and studies can help lower the cost of EA as a proportion of total cost (ESSA Technologies 1994). However, this is not as applicable to small community development projects, since so little data exists in this area. Also, it is much easier to keep environmental assessment costs down to one percent on a project whose total budget is $20,000,000 then on one whose budget is $20,000.

Given the modest budgets of most community development projects, it is imperative to find ways to limit costs. Over time, many believe that the costs of assessing small projects will eventually become proportionate to those of larger ones.

Here are some ideas for cutting costs:

  • Incorporate the EA into other project planning activities such as feasibility studies.
  • Seek the technical and financial assistance of government departments and other partners.
  • Avoid the high costs associated with hiring technical specialists and building material by promoting community involvement.
  • Costs usually diminish with experience and with the appropriate EA support mechanisms.

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The Timing of the Environmental Assessment

If there is a golden rule for EA it is this: carry out the assessment at the earliest possible stage in a project's development and in relation and proportion to other project planning activities. The ultimate goal is to ensure that the relationship between a project and its physical, economic and social environment is clearly understood at the outset.

It is much easier to resolve a problem that threatens a project's objectives early on in a project. Try to avoid a situation in which social and economic factors have to be re-examined toward the end of a project because an environmental analysis undertaken too late in the game uncovered new interpretations and impacts (World Bank 1991a).

An early and timely EA is fostered by an open and continuous exchange of information between the EA team, the project management team and the local community. Additional EA activity may be required later on in the project.

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The Duration of the Environmental Assessment

An EA done at the start of a project should take no longer to complete than the project design phase. In fact, unless the EA proves to be highly complicated, this is probably more time than necessary. However, this does not include the time required to implement and monitor the mitigation measures proposed by the EA. The length of time needed to complete an EA will also hinge on:

  • The size and complexity of the proposed project.
  • The extent of co-operation received from the project sponsor and third parties such as local government.
  • The level of interest and support demonstrated by the community.
  • The ability of the project team to sustain interest in the EA.
  • The skills of the EA team.
  • The EA techniques employed.

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Defining an Acceptable Level of Environmental Impact

At the heart of EA, and indeed the entire debate over sustainable development, is the question of how much environmental impact should be tolerated. This is a difficult issue even for seasoned planners and environmental specialists. While the overall environmental objective of a project is clearly "sustainability" or "sustainable use," the operational definition of these terms is situational dependant on the type of project being assessed and possibly any number of social, economic and environmental factors.

In an effort to help project managers develop appropriate definitions, the World Bank has issued "Project Level Guides for Environmental Sustainability." Every ecosystem has a threshold for absorbing deterioration and a certain capacity for self-regeneration. These thresholds are defined by the World Bank (1991a: 51) as follows:

  • Waste emissions from a project should be within the assimilative capacity of the local environment to absorb without unacceptable degradation of its future waste absorptive capacity or other important services.
  • Harvest rates of renewable resource inputs should be within the regenerative capacity of the natural system that generates them; depletion rates of nonrenewable inputs should be equal to the rate at which renewable substitutes are developed by human invention and investment.

The aim of this model is to curb overconsumption and unacceptable environmental degradation. But lacking in a scientific basis, this definition provides only general guidelines for determining the sustainable use of inputs and outputs. The World Bank therefore recommends adopting a "prudent rule of thumb" to serve as a check against overconsumption rather than a "theoretically unique scientifically precise number" (World Bank 1991a: 52).

However, sustainability must also be understood from the perspective of economic and social wellbeing. The price of economic success could entail high levels of environmental depletion. Community members with divergent interests may have conflicting perceptions of sustainability. Changes in patterns of resource consumption affect people in different ways. An impact that is viewed as equitable and sustainable by one group may not be by another. For example, dam and irrigation projects which benefit some by boosting food production may hurt others by flooding valued natural resources. The dissension arising from such differences can threaten a project's success (UNRISD 1992).

As IUCN points out (95:1), assessing sustainability can entail "setting common goals, identifying conflicting interests, devising and applying strategies and ways of measuring. It is a learning process involving reflection, argument, negotiation, strategizing, measurement, action and continuous reassessment."

The Threshold of environmental impact can become more flexible if appropiate mitigation measure can be implemented to eliminate, reduce or control the adverse environmental effects of a project. A tree planting project may compensate for the loss of forest coverage. The air and water pollution caused by a food processing operation may be controled by using more efficient technologies, and finding a more suitable location. Once the environmental impacts of a project are properly understood, learn about what mitigation measures are appropriate.

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The Role of Science

Science versus art. Science versus intuition, emotion and traditional knowledge. Science versus values. In Canada, EA practitioners have looked for a middle ground between decision making based on scientifically verifiable information and decision making based on values, customs and common knowledge.

While many argue that scientific standards are unimportant, others contend that scientific facts do lend a measure of credibility to environmental assessment (Beanlands and Dunker 1983). Actually, successful environmental assessment depends on an appropriate blend of information derived from science and from other sources of information. As Beanlands and Dunker (1983: 2) point out: "it must be recognised that decisions resulting from environmental assessments may be based as much on subjective judgements involving values, feelings and beliefs, as on the results of scientific studies."

Is it necessary for the administrator of a small community development project to find the perfect balance between science and human values and knowledge in an environmental assessment? Probably not. It is unrealistic to expect project managers to routinely engage applied scientists in lengthy studies. Furthermore, it is doubtful that such scientific support is even necessary for more than a small minority of community development projects.

In any case, certain steps can be taken to lessen the need for scientific support. Employing technology that is environmentally sound and socially acceptable can go a long way towards minimising the environmental damage caused by community development projects. Over the last ten years, considerable research and experimentation has been done in agroforestry, renewable energy, appropriate technology and soil conservation techniques. Traditional sustainable agriculture and forestry practices found in Africa, Asia and the Americas have been a major focus of this research. These technologies and techniques are often more efficient and less harmful to the environment.

Project planners should be aware of the full range of technical and material options available in order to make the most environmentally sound choice for a project. For example, many different styles of latrines and well construction are promoted for use in water sanitation projects but their environmental protection potential and social acceptability varies widely. Policies can be formulated to specify acceptable project technology, thus ruling out projects involving polluting technologies and other environmental hazards right at the outset. The mitigating potential of the "ideal" technology can be enhanced through proper maintenance and proper use. Taking steps such as this will diminish environmental risks.

Tapping the knowledge base of the target community is another way to reduce the need for scientific verification. Development practitioners greatly underestimate the range and depth of information possessed by local communities. The role of the community in providing information and assisting in the development of environmental guidelines will be examined in more depth later on in the manual.

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The Importance of Trial and Error

The assessment of community development projects is new and unexplored territory in environmental assessment. Mistakes will be unavoidable and should be viewed as part of a valuable learning process. Experimentation is vital for the development of EA concepts and techniques which fit the community context. Even in mainstream EA, we must remember that "imperfection does not mean irrelevance" (FEARO 1992:26). The sharing of environmental assessment experiences between community development practitioners is crucial if we are to learn from each other's successes and failures.

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Monitoring Environmental Impact

Monitoring environmental impact gives project managers and communities critical information on project performance and should be given the same attention as social or economic monitoring. The monitoring of environmental impacts can be built into the overall project monitoring process. To assess the effectiveness of environmental monitoring, two basic questions should be answered:

  • Do the various measures proposed for dealing with impacts seem to be having the desired effect?
  • Does the project or programme appear to be having any significant environmental impacts other than those anticipated during the design phase? (Danida 1994:31).

The Danish International Development Agency (DANIDA) has a policy which requires that EAs be conducted throughout the life of a project. Projects that generate new components or increase in size are continually assessed as they change. Since most community projects start small and grow larger, especially the successful ones, Danida's approach could prove useful for community projects that expand and diversity over time.

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Participatory Monitoring & Evaluation

Evaluation activities tell project managers whether the mitigation measures prescribed during the EA are working, and whether or not the project is having any unforseen environmental impacts. It is important to think about how to involve communities in the monitoring and evaluation of a project's environmental impact.

The classic approach is to recruit an expert who employs predetermined indicators to appraise the project's impact at specific points in its evolution. However, since the 1980s, it has become increasingly common for community projects in health, agriculture, or education to engage community members in monitoring and evaluation. There are even cases where children have played key roles in monitoring activity.

A participatory approach has many advantages. Once again, it is an opportunity for communities to take responsibility for an activity designed for its own benefit. In reducing the need for external experts, it lowers costs. Communities have a better opportunity to control and learn from the results. Community creativity can be tapped in designing approaches to monitoring and evaluation.

There is no standard procedure for participatory evaluation. Methods will be learned through practice. Some ideas for participatory evaluation include integrating evaluation and monitoring activities as well as planning numerous small evaluations instead of a strategic few. In its efforts to develop participatory evaluation methods for water and sanitation projects, the World Bank (Narayan 1993: 18) has found that the following key question helps focus an evaluation: "Does this process help users generate information to solve problems they have identified, using methods that increase their capacity to solve similar problems in the future?"

In meeting monitoring and evaluation objectives, any of the following simple techniques can be employed by communities:

  • Interviews
  • Group Discussions
  • Questionnaires
  • Observations
  • Scientific testing (It has been proven that communities can undertake effective testing without sophisticated training)
  • Maps, drawings or any other visual techniques that can accurately depict changes
  • Before-and-after images captured by audio-visual equipment
  • Other methods devised by the community.

In terms of indicators, communities can and should be involved in developing evaluation criteria. The following is an example of indicators developed by participants in a community water project in Indonesia (Narayan 1993: 35). The questions are very basic but they still cover the essential factors that need to be monitored in a water project:

  • Does the source look clean?
  • Are insects breeding in it?
  • Are there any leaves/sticks in it?
  • Is there other rubbish in it?
  • Is there animal/human waste nearby?
  • Does it have any colour?
  • Does it smell bad?
  • Does it taste bad?
  • Are there any animals in it?

Finally, not only can monitoring and evaluation be used to appraise environmental impact, it can also examine the community's participation in the process. Any of the following criteria can be incorporated into the objectives of any project evaluation:

  • Performance of project system (i.e. quality of building construction, irrigation system or latrine)
  • Human resource development (New skills acquired)
  • Environmental sustainability
  • Use and benefit
  • Transformation of community attitudes towards environmental issues. Even though this may prove difficult to define and measure, it is still a legitimate focus for evaluation.

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Guidelines for Involving the Community in Monitoring and Evaluation

  • Obtain the community's agreement for a participatory approach.
  • Make sure objectives and methods are clear from the outset. Methods should be simple and adapted to the local culture.
  • Recruit only community members acceptable to the community to do the work.
  • Ensure that community members have the necessary skills.
  • Avoid technically difficult and time-consuming follow up.
  • Make sure that the level of community involvement is in line with abilities as well as earlier environmental assessment efforts.
  • Consider how local value systems could be used to evaluate predicted impacts.

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Dilemmas in Community Level Environmental Assessment

Issues may arise in the course of any EA which complicate the process. There can be numerous sources conflict and dissension -- economic, political, social, ethnic, gender-based and simply personal. The issue of the control and use of natural resources is one which regularly arouses debate in a community, and one which is highly pertinent to EAs. There may be disputes over the potential environmental impact of the project. Some community members may be willing to accept environmental damage if it means increased economic standards. The rest of the community may disagree. A project which involves a major shift in direction for a community -- such as replacing foodcrops with cashcrops or introducing some form of mechanisation -- may not receive the full support of the community.

The community may unite around a position which is contrary to that taken by the EA team and project managers. Again, it may be willing to tolerate a higher level of environmental damage than the EA team feels is warranted, in order to attain economic benefits. It may even become clear during the EA that there is no support for the project. The community may have other priorities. The EA team may discover that a project's long-term sustainability hinges on changing a traditional practice that the community is reluctant to relinquish.

Regardless of its source, no conflict with the potential to harm the project should be glossed over. If it is serious enough, it is probably best dealt within the context of the overall project. Otherwise, as a general guideline, it is the responsibility of the EA team to resolve all such conflicts for the benefit of the project.

Assisting communities to understand and come to agreement on matters identified during the EA is likely to be quite critical to the project. These situations are likely to be the most challenging ones for the EA team, stretching their skills to the limit. Fruitful negotiations can result in important agreements between community level stakeholders as well as between the EA team and the community. There are many activities associated with PRA which can be used to build consensus and resolve differences. There may also be any number of established community practises which can also be used.

In working out compromises it is important that the EA team understand and respect the positions of stakeholders. Fostering an appreciation of opposing viewpoints should always be considered a productive EA activity. Also, whatever they may be, a community's aspirations for improved living standards must be recognised as valid social priorities. An EA whose recommendations conflict with such priorities is probably destined for failure.

Assessing the direction of the community will help to clarify difficult issues. A project may or not be indicative of a transition a community is making. The example of the tile manufacturers in Box 4.5, although extreme, illustrates the lengths to which people are willing to go in order to escape poverty and change their communities. Even if they cannot figure directly into the EA, the EA team should take such desires into account. If the sustainability of a project depends on transforming established community practices, the community should be shown concretely that the new technique or modification represents an improvement. This must be accomplished without anyone losing face. Pilot demonstrations and other such methods may help demonstrate better ways of doing things which can be easily adopted.

Finally, it is important to give communities enough time to come up with alternative approaches. Creative solutions to problems can often be found over time. Waste material that is an output of the project may have a second life as part of a finished product. Urban communities have shown incredible ingenuity in this regard. Even so, it will not always be possible to find alternatives and obtain agreement. The EA team must ensure that the EA is not compromised. In the example of the tile manufacturers, it is doubtful that an easy solution could have been found.

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Environmental Assessment Stakeholders

It is rarely enough to limit consultation to community leaders -- only for the most uncomplicated assessments will this be sufficient. While the support of leaders is generally vital to a project's success, their opinions may not be as relevant as those community members who are more directly affected. It may be much more helpful, for example, to canvass the opinions of artisans, farmers, health workers, neighbourhood merchants or women who collect firewood.

The EA team should identify the key stakeholders as early as possible in the process. As mentioned before, it is quite possible that stakeholders will hold conflicting views. It is also important to be aware that the key stakeholders in an EA may be different than the project's intended beneficiaries. Stakeholders may include marginalised groups such as the poor. The EA team must make a concerted effort to reach out to such groups. As the World Bank points out, there are no blueprints for identifying stakeholders (World Bankd 1994: 88). However, the following basic questions can help.

Although the questions below were not specifically formulated for EAs, they can be used to get the process started.

  • Who might be affected (positively or negatively) by the development concern to be addressed?
  • Who are the "voiceless" for whom special efforts may have to be made?
  • Who are the representatives of those who are likely to be affected?
  • Who are responsible for those who are likely to be affected?
  • Who is likely to mobilise for or against what is intended?
  • Who can make what is intended more effective through their participation, or less effective by their non-participation or outright opposition?
  • Whose behaviour has to change for the effort to succeed? (World Bank 1994: 88).

Once stakeholders have been identified, a planning meeting can be held between community leaders, the EA team and the stakeholders to explain the next steps in the assessment.

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Conducting an Effective Environmental Assessment: Key Points to Remember

  • Keep environmental assessment in perspective. Recognise it as a tool to enhance the decision-making process, "not the decision making process itself" (FEARO 1992: 4).
  • Keep the assessment simple and concentrate on pertinent factors and data. It should be "rigorous but not necessarily laborious" (FEARO 1992: 4). The type of assessment needed by community projects should be relatively quick and uncomplicated.
  • Focus time and effort on the most relevant matters. The assessment of a latrine and sanitation project to be built near a river does not require an inventory of local flora and fauna. The priority would be to understand the impact of the project on the stream as well as on social and economic life.
  • Don't invest too much, nor too little, time on an assessment. The process should be neither protracted nor hasty. It is better to take the time needed to do a proper job than to pay later for carelessness. Stay flexible throughout the assessment in order to meet any new challenges which may arise.
  • Tailor each assessment to the particular needs of the project. Each project has a unique set of environmental, economic and social characteristics. The values and priorities of the target population and the extent of their participation and support will also vary from project to project.
  • Be inventive. There is no standard format available for interpreting the information gathered during an environmental assessment.
  • Be prepared for inexact and suggestive data which call for speculation and extrapolation. "Typically data will be imperfect, and assumptions open to challenge. Quantification may be difficult (and in some circumstances, impossible). Nevertheless, lack of perfect information and insight should not stand in the way of conducting environmental assessment with the best available knowledge and data. Indeed, exposing the limits and inadequacies of knowledge, data and interpretation, can help stimulate improvements in the understanding of environmental issues and accelerate the provision of reliable information to support informed decision making" (FEARO 1992: 26).
  • Avoid secrecy. Open communication among all stakeholders throughout the assessment process not only produces better results, but also increases the project's credibility and builds trust and acceptance on the part of the wider community.
  • Seek external help and advice in situations which require more expertise than is available in the project management and environmental assessment teams.

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Tips for Preparing an Environmental Assessment Report

  • Be as concise as possible.
  • Avoid jargon, especially in summary or executive statements. Technical information should be expressed in plain language which clarifies its relevance to the project.
  • Report on all relevant matters. No information should be held back. This is especially true where opinions differ as to the extent of potential environmental impact or the merits of the project. However, it is not necessary to include all the information collected.
  • Analyze significant details in greater depth.
  • Provide a rationale for excluding topics from further consideration. For example, if a decision was made not to consult the local community, explain why.
  • Ensure that the report contains a comprehensive evaluation of how project activities affect both the depletion of local resources and the production of waste material.
  • Account for all community and project-related activities
  • Provide a community profile that describes and analyses the key social, cultural, economic, political and physical characteristics of the community.
  • Describe any impact on neighbouring communities.
  • Don't forget to mention opportunities for environmental enhancement. A report does not have to be limited to negative aspects. Many community projects will have environmentally beneficial aspects as well.
  • Describe the impact of the project on the local population. Outline the role of the target community in the assessment process.
  • Provide an assessment of basic alternatives, if necessary. This should include the cost of abandoning the project as well as the cost of various alternatives.
  • Explain any gaps or uncertainties in the information gathered.
  • Outline a plan of action for all mitigation measures. Specify the institutional arrangements and responsibility for implementing these measures. Mitigation measures must be precisely worded. Use terms like "will" and "must" instead of "may" or "should."
  • Include relevant material whether in written, oral or visual form. This might include baseline studies, interviews or records of public meetings.
  • Try to propose conclusions that can be defended by the environmental assessment team. The techniques and ideas presented here should help achieve this aim.
  • Distinguish between opinions held by the community and those held by the environmental assessment team.
  • Mention the consequences and impacts of the project for different social groups.
  • Lastly, make sure that communities are furnished with copies of the final environmental assessment report.
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This page is based on personal experiences, field notes and other sources. Its primary reference is Pallen, Dean (1997), Environmental Sourcebook for Micro-Finance Institutions. Asia Branch, Canadian International Development Agency.
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