Prospect of Strategic Environmental Assessment (SEA) in Developing Nations

By Syed Masiur Rahman
March 2005

The Author is Research Assistant at the King Fahd University of Petroleum & Minerals in Dhahran, Saudi Arabia. → See also:

Developing countries are accepting more responsibility for the environmental impacts that result from their development activities and many have developed Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA) legislation as a management tool for these impacts in the last two decades. EIA is now practiced in more than 100 countries worldwide. Despite the existence of good EIA guidelines and legislation, environmental degradation continues to be a major concern in developing countries. In many cases, this has not been effective due to legislation, organizational capacity, training, environmental information, participation, diffusion of experience, donor policy and political will. EIAs have not been able to provide "environmental sustainability assurance" (ESA) for these countries. This failure and the inherent limitations of EIA lead to the consideration of SEA which can be defined as "the formalized, systematic and comprehensive process of evaluating the environmental impacts of a policy, plan or program and its alternatives, including the preparation of written report on the findings of that evaluation, and using the findings in publicly accountable decision-making" (Therivel et al. 1992).

To date, there are only a limited number of fully operational SEA systems from which lessons of implementation can be drawn. Although still limited to certain countries, SEA practice extends across an increasing number of sectors and areas of application even in developing countries. For example, as part of Nepalīs forest plan, Pakistanīs water and drainage programs, Sri Lankaīs city and tourism plans, and National Conservation Strategy development in many countries.

SEA is also becoming popular in the regional level. On a regional level, The Environment Program of the Mekong River Commission (MRC) is focusing on aspects of environmental assessment systems, including related areas such as SEA and is examining how transboundary impacts can be accounted for and incorporated into the various EA processes. The Mekong River Commission (MRC) is an inter-governmental agency of the four countries of the Lower Mekong basin, Cambodia, Lao PDR, Thailand and Viet Nam.

Taking into account social, economic, and environmental considerations at the earliest appropriate stage of decision-making is an essential component of sustainable development. SEA supports this process by providing appropriate environmental information. Therefore, SEA is required to assist the government in the formulation of future development strategies (including PPP). The proper implementation of SEA will influence the planning and design stages in land use planning, the alternative selection of large infrastructure sites, technological choices and policy options to be pursued and the ability to recognize and avoid or mitigate serious adverse cumulative impacts.

SEA has been defined as a systematic process for evaluating and anticipating the consequences of decisions taken before the project stage. Therefore, SEA has the potential to screen out many environmentally unfriendly projects or guide many projects before the irreversible decisions taken such as land acquisition, selection of the development proposal and financing commitments. Thatīs why the increased use of SEA, not as a substitute for EIA, but more as an up front supplement can ensure long term benefits to environment, intergenerational equity regarding natural resources and finally leads to meet sustainable development. In fact, the identification of serious environmental threats in proposals of policy, plan or program will cause the reduction of the number of project-based impacts. Thatīs why the failure of EIA due to the inherent problems associated with the governance should not undermine the adoption of SEA.

The Asian countries, which initiated SEA, seem to perceive it as a trickle down process. It will cause successful implementation in the countries with strong centralized bureaucratic governments such as Singapore, Hong Kong, and Vietnam as strong contenders. Certainly, it should not undermine the awareness and participation of the public and NGOs. But in any democratic country, the full adoption and implementation of SEA in policy-making system will require greater support from a wide range of stakeholders. Moreover, there should have a general consensus that SEA does add value to the decision-making process and promotes sustainable development. However, the ultimate advantage of bringing the environmental agenda to a strategic level must surely be beneficial and influential in improving the current state of the natural and urban environment. It is therefore imperative that the government becomes fully aware of the environmental and sustainability issues associated with a particular policy, program or plan (PPP) in order to avoid, minimize or mitigate the likely consequences.

The success of SEA is contingent upon the availability of accessible and appropriate information. Unfortunately, baseline information about ecological and socio-economic conditions or about the nature, scale, and location of likely future development does not always exist especially in developing countries. Inadequate or unavailable data compound problems surrounding our limited ability to anticipate and monitor the environmental impacts of a policy. The huge scale of SEA will exacerbate the difficulty with predicting impacts. As a result, unreliable data and indefinite predictions will undermine public support for SEA and the policies that result.

In most jurisdictions strategic assessment conclusions are not final decisions rather they are advisory contributions to decision making. In many developing countries, the short-sighted elected officials with the power to override or modify SEA recommendations will face competing immediate interests that conflict with long-term sustainability.

The international donor agencies are also contributing on the adoption of SEA. For example, recent policy and institutional developments at the World Bank have implications for future use of SEA. As part of the new environmental strategy, increasing use is being made of strategic assessment of structural and sector adjustment lending activities. The implementation of SEA is associated with both technical and procedural problems. SEA requires information regarding future development and its impacts. The consideration of alternatives makes the process more complex. There are not enough models to carry out SEA especially in developing countries. Many PPPs evolve in an incremental and unclear fashion. PPPs do not have clear boundaries at which they stop and other policies begin. It becomes difficult to conduct SEA in this situation. Moreover, policymaking is a political process.

In most developing countries, all the involving actors (including public and local NGOs) in SEA will have to upgrade their human resources to enable them to understand, formulate, implement and evaluate SEA. The SEA practitioners need to become informed about the nature of policy-making processes and they have to identify where the opportunities lie for SEA to contribute to any particular policy making process.
Finally, a coordinated effort between all agencies (Public and International donor agencies) involved would enable the developing countries to pursue the path of sustainable development through the development and application of strategic environmental assessment.

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