Foundation for sustainable progressImproved environmental legislation is needed to portray the consequences of hydroelectric development.
Environmental assessment, either in the form of environmental impact assessment or initial environmental examination, is the foundation for sustainable development. It constitutes all aspects of project impact and clearly mentions social, environmental and economic effects and their probable solutions with any alternative measures. Assessment reports, which comprises all environmental considerations, have been mandatory in Nepal prior to commencing construction of hydropower projects. These reports have been conducted until today in accordance with the Environmental Protection Act (EPA) 1996 and the Environmental Protection Rules (EPR) 1997.
These guidelines were well enforced for the last 23 years, but there were some limitations that led the government to amend the guidelines and bring a new EPA in 2019 while the EPR 2019 is yet to be made public. Despite all these guidelines and obligatory needs, various flaws and unethical practices are regularly adopted in the course of project implementation. One commonly known example, and one that has also been raised in the media, is the environmental impact assessment report for Nijgadh International Airport. It was revealed that the major flaws encountered in the report were not limited to technicalities such as significant effects to the forests and biodiversity or a weak alternative analysis study: The stakeholders, officials and engineers involved in decision making and approval engaged in unethicality.
Evaluation and approval
Generally, the reports are written by expert teams affiliated with the project or by independent assessment agencies and are submitted to the concerned ministries. These reports are presented to the government officials who evaluate and approve them. It is rumoured that the evaluation and approval of the reports were done on the basis of the three-page Nepali executive summary, which is mandatory for each report. We don't know for sure, but if there is even the slightest truth in this story, this means there has been a bias obstructing us from achieving sustainable development.
Overlooking these issues, the draft EPR based on the new EPA 2019 requires the entire environmental assessment report to be prepared in the Nepali language. It will be difficult to assimilate the issues raised from the environmental assessment and write them down in Nepali because the technicalities that need to be incorporated in the report are taught in English. The EPA 2019 has introduced a new tool, strategic environmental assessment, which, if carried out ethically, will help developers and the government to overcome the constraints encountered in the implementation of various projects that have been questionable.
There are a few missing aspects related to specific impacts on the environment of the area where the development project is carried out. Some of these are outlined here based on a study of 13 hydropower projects, and their approved initial environmental examination reports, monitored remotely using GIS (geographic information system) from 2013 to 2019. We studied the reports and evaluated them against our results obtained from satellite data. The study evaluating land cover and land surface temperature shows a drastic change in the land cover around the hydropower project area after it went into operation. A comparison of land cover images depicts changes in barren land, water bodies, grassland and forest area in the regions influenced by these hydropower projects.
Similar results for surface temperature were observed where the surface temperature drastically decreased after the diversion of the river on which hydropower was established. The decreased surface temperature ranging from 1 to 7 degrees Celsius may be due to the energy loss pertaining to the flow of water due to river diversion. This decline in temperature could cause an adverse effect on the aquatic life downstream. The results relating to the variation in land cover patterns are, to some extent, available in the respective initial environmental examination reports of the hydropower projects. But the aspects of land surface temperature change and intensified impacts on common areas from two or more hydropower projects are not stated in the reports.
These initial environmental examination reports cannot prophesise the amplified variations in land cover and surface temperature in the overlapping watersheds of hydropower projects. All these upshots infer that the official initial environmental examination reports of hydropower projects are not competent to identify, evaluate and predict all the environmental consequences caused by hydropower functionality and are ineffective for sustainable development. The draft EPR 2019 doesn’t fully specify these aspects which were limitations in the previous EPR 1997 too. These issues, which were identified on the basis of our short study, could have been easily identified through a study of the gaps and an evaluation of the completed initial environmental examination and environmental impact assessment reports in the last 23 years.
Once the new rules are published, it may take at least another two decades before an alternate environment rule incorporating these issues are passed. But there is still time before the new EPR is put into effect. Thus, it is essential to take a break and work on identifiable issues predicting long-term changes based on science and practical approaches. It is necessary to understand that restructuring and complicating the administrative structural process is not a way out.
The draft EPR 2019 still prioritises the administrative process, and misses out on restructuring the actual procedure with modern and effective techniques for carrying out the initial environmental examination and environmental impact assessment. If these aspects are not included or addressed in the upcoming EPR, the country's development and environment sector is bound to face more unpredicted challenges in addition to the existing problems, more so in the hydropower sector.
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