Strategic Environmental Assessment: Slowly, but Surely

This image was taken from the Living Asia website where this article was originally published.

What is strategic environmental assessment or SEA? Unfortunately, not everyone is familiar with this concept. Even environmental activists and the concerned public in Kazakhstan and other countries in the region have hardly heard of this tool.

However, SEA is an effective tool of public control over projects that can severely impact the natural environment and have been used for quite a long time in the world.

Besides, in the legislation of several Central Asian countries, there is a point that is similar to SEA, although more reminiscent of its palliative – the state environmental expertise of strategic documents.

The only consolation is that the practice of SEA is slowly but steadily coming to our region. And its potential is so high that it should have been covered within the series of webinars dedicated to building expertise in connection with the Belt and Road projects.

The basic idea of SEA was presented to Central Asian environmentalists by Jay Pendergrass, Vice President of Programs and Publications at the Washington Environmental Law Institute. Strategic environmental assessment is necessary to study the environmental aspects of the proposed programs and plans before they are finally adopted, to integrate the solution of environmental problems into them. Thus, SEA takes place at a preliminary stage before planning. Moreover, since this instrument has been in effect for a long time, a broad legal base has already been settled. There is, for example, the European Directive on Strategic Environmental Assessment, and there is also the Kyiv Protocol, which entered into force in 2010.

“In terms of the key principles of SEA, it aims to protect the environment by preventing irreversible actions that may be associated with poor planning. Its primary goal is to ensure sustainable development and expand the involvement of experts and the public in the decision-making process, to increase the number and level of experts who take part in this work,” explained Jay Pendergrass.

When is SEA required? When large-scale political plans or programs are being prepared. These, for example, can be projects for the development of a regional transport network, energy, or water management. The SEA concept requires that environmental services, agencies, ministries necessarily participate in the assessment at the preliminary stage. First, the current environmental state of the territory is determined, then the issues that may be related to the environment or climate change are defined, then experts proceed to assess the potential environmental impact. It is crucial to identify indicators of program success in terms of environmental impact. The last stage of SEA is conclusions and recommendations. The assessment should include reasonable alternatives to the proposed plans, and public consultation is one of the main aspects of SEA at the project level.

Examples of SEA applications can be found in the experience of European, African, Asian countries. Perhaps one of the most ambitious is the Vietnamese case. In this country, SEA was covered by the Environmental Protection Law of 2005. When the idea of building sixty hydropower plants came up, the findings from the appraisal were incorporated into a comprehensive energy development plan. They covered a wide range of different socio-economic, hydrological, ecosystem, and climate change-related issues.

Marianna Bolshakova, Coordinator for Environmental Law and Governance at the United Nations Environment Program (UNEP), provided a “vertical” and “horizontal” explanation of SEA at the webinar.

If there are plans to build a new mine or cut down a forest, then there is a direct impact on the interests of a certain number of people who are directly affected. And if the plans are developed at the national level, they have a significant impact on virtually the country’s entire population. So, the final programs and strategies at the local level are created on their basis. For example, an airport is expanding in a particular region – this is a consequence of the transport strategy adopted at the national level. Therefore, SEA ultimately has a severe impact on the future of specific, ordinary people and the country’s nature as a whole.

In its turn, the “horizontal” view relates to the geographic aspect. For the Central Asian countries, in the context of the Belt and Road “super-project,” it is worth taking a closer look at it. In the 90s of the twentieth century, the Convention on Environmental Impact Assessment in a Transboundary Context was adopted and within its framework – a protocol on strategic environmental assessment. Now SEA has both national and, if necessary, transboundary application. The protocol came into force in 2003 and is being effectively used in Europe, but the Central Asian countries have not joined it yet.

So, how does the assessment of the impact of large-scale projects on the environment look like in our region? Unfortunately, a very unclear and confusing situation has emerged. The head of the Socio-Ecological Fund, Vadim Ni, commented on it:

“Environmental impact assessment is presented to some extent in all five countries of the region. Since Soviet times, there has been a state environmental review of various planning documents. At the legislative level, it is seen as a kind of replacement for SEA. But that doesn’t work anywhere. Therefore, two countries (Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan) are introducing SEA. The rest, as far as I know, are discussing this issue. As for the current situation in Kazakhstan, we are developing in some directions: public participation in the discussion of the adopted regulatory legal acts has become more active. It includes government planning documents. All these documents are posted on the e-government portal. We have an environmental impact assessment, EIA, at the project level, and then there is a stage of state environmental expertise. But, as a rule, at the stage of the state examination, the possibilities to submit any proposals are very limited. It is because the conclusion of the state examination is accepted in a rather short time.”

On July 1, a new Environmental Code is coming into force in Kazakhstan. A large part of the document is devoted to SEA issues. But the expert is wary of this, since the introduction of this tool requires a revision of government agencies’ work, but have the appropriate conditions been created for this? For example, who will prepare the environmental report? If government agencies will have to attract experts for this matter, then where are the budget allocations for these purposes?

“The current situation in Kyrgyzstan is similar to how it used to be in Kazakhstan. There is also a norm on state examination, there is a list of documents required for examination, but it is not complete. Therefore, we can say that this rule does not work. Only proactive discussions of individual documents are being held. Tajikistan also provides a state environmental review of individual documents, but it has never been carried out. In Uzbekistan, the state environmental expertise of plans and programs is also not executed, although it is provided for by law. The problem is that there are almost no active participants in civil society in the country, so there are not many representatives of the interested public. Nevertheless, the draft Environmental Code of Uzbekistan, as well as in Kazakhstan, contains detailed articles on SEA,” said Vadim Ni.

The development of environmental legislation and the emergence in some countries of the region of modern instruments for public participation in assessing draft plans and programs is steadily progressing. But at the same time, new problems arise. For example, the practice of discussing projects online, which spread during the pandemic, has a dual effect in terms of public influence and participation. For example, Zoom “creates” the possibility of manipulation by the organizers.

“The virtual format provokes the feeling that any citizen can become a participant in decision-making. But, as a result, it raises the question, is there a possibility after that to appeal the decision, to complain about the violation of the right to public participation? For example, participation in a discussion via Zoom is limited to one hundred participants, and the number of those wishing to take part is often greater. It is a crucial issue, especially since the structure of civil society is changing in Kazakhstan. There are many environmental activists for whom participation in the discussion is fundamentally important in itself. And this is one of the problems that need to be discussed after the end of the pandemic,” said Vadim Ni.

This article originally appeared on Living Asia in Russian.