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No critical examination of flawed environmental assessments in Nepal, experts say

Nepal Beni jomsom road construction

Jomsom to Beni road construction near Baisari, Rakhu Bhagawati, Myagdi. Image by Bijay Chaurasia/ Wikimedia CC BY ND 2.0

  • Nepal has for decades required an environmental impact assessment (EIA) be conducted for development projects, but their quality and monitoring has been largely ineffective, experts say.
  • The issue came to light earlier this year when the top court canceled an airport project in part because of its flawed EIA, which included entire passages lifted directly from a hydropower project’s EIA.
  • Experts say the laws and monitoring mechanisms are in place to ensure the EIA process is effective in mitigating harm to the environment, but that the political will is lacking.

KATHMANDU — When Nepal’s Supreme Court recently canceled government plans to build an international airport in Nijhgad in the country’s south, the project’s environmental impact assessment report, or EIA, was one of the reasons cited in the decision.

The authors of the report were found to have copied and pasted content from a similar document prepared for a hydropower project. The court held that as the report mentions the production of clean energy and envisages the construction of infrastructure such as a powerhouse and headworks, it could be surmised that some paragraphs were lifted from the report prepared for the hydropower project in the Gaurishankar Conservation Area.

Similarly, in the case of another airport project, this one in the bird paradise of Pokhara in central Nepal, the EIA report only mentioned 28 species of birds. However, conservationists have counted more than 470 species in the Pokhara Valley. That project has proceeded, with the airport now expected to open at the end of the year.

“Usually in Nepal, EIA is done for a project late in the project cycle after many important decisions on design and locations have already been made,” Shree Govind Shah, a professor at the Faculty of Environmental and Biological Science at Kathmandu University, wrote in a 2019 study. “In the case of government sponsored projects, EIA has remained as ‘pro forma’ compliance with government’s legal requirements.”

The requirement for large development projects to undergo an environmental impact assessment was adopted in Nepal during the 1980s, as officials sought to balance development needs with environmental ones. The first EIAs were carried for hydropower, irrigation, drinking water and road construction projects.

Sikta Irrigation Canal during construction 2013 Nepal
Sikta Irrigation Canal during its construction phase in 2013. Image by Nirmal Joshi CC BY 2.0

The government formulated the National EIA guidelines in 1993 to integrate the process into national policies. The Environmental Protection Act (1996) and the Environment Protection Rules (1997) were key documents regulating EIAs in the country.

The updated Environment Protection Act (2019) and Environment Protection Rules (2020) now define the types of projects that need to carry out environmental assessments, which demand a more detailed study and wider participation of the local communities. The law also divides mandatory impact assessment into three categories — brief environment study, initial environmental examination (IEE), and environmental impact assessment (EIA) — depending on the size and nature of the project. An EIA is the most detailed of all the studies, while the brief environment study is the least rigorous, according to the law.

The assessments provide a list of potential negative impacts of the project concerned on the environment and various ecosystems, and recommend mitigation measures to address these impacts. Most of the projects that commission an EIA in Nepal are related to water resources and energy, followed by projects on roads, forests, and mining.

“If one is to go by the spirit that EIA entails, development projects that are found to cause irreparable damages to the environment need to be abandoned,” said conservationist Raju Acharya, who written extensively on the issue. “However, in Nepal, the government gives the go-ahead to such projects without critically examining the EIA report.”

For example, experts have often warned that the construction of highways and railways through protected areas would cause irreparable damages to wildlife, but the government has gone ahead with such projects regardless.

“This is happening because contractors, hired through competitive bidding, want to spend as little money as possible on EIAs and recruit fresh college graduates to do the job,” Acharya said. “They have neither the knowledge nor the experience to meet quality requirements.”

Women workers Nepal
Women workers at a construction site in Nepal.  Image by Satyam Joshi/USAID CC BY 2.0

Until three years ago, there weren’t any legal provisions for the government to take action against authors of EIA reports that failed to meet the standards. “However, a positive development now is that the 2019 law allows the government to blacklist consultants who prepare questionable reports for one to five years,” said natural resources lawyer Dil Raj Khanal.

But that alone won’t improve the quality of EIA reports, he added. “The government body that reviews and approves EIA reports should also be held accountable for faulty reports,” he said. Khanal said that until independent experts replace officials with political affiliations in such bodies, EIAs can’t be effective and reliable.

Monitoring of the implementation of the mitigation measures identified the EIAs is also a weak point, said conservationist Hem Sagar Baral. “Monitoring is weak not just during the construction phase, but also in the post-construction phase as most projects wrap up their operations then,” he said. “But there are certain mitigation measures that need to be carried out over long periods of time. These measures are ignored by both the developers and the monitoring agencies.”

For example, hydropower projects commit to release a certain amount of water downstream during the dry season when the river flow is lean, to ensure that aquatic species get enough water. But due to lax monitoring, sone hydropower companies, looking to maximize their power generation, don’t release any water, Acharya said.

As Nepal implements a decentralization of the authority to carry out infrastructure development and natural resource extraction, from the central government to municipal ones, there’s a growing tendency to ignore the whole environmental impact assessment process. “In case of mega projects, EIA norms are being flouted, but at the grassroots the people’s representatives are ignoring them altogether,” Acharya said.

Elected representatives in Nepal’s municipalities have been reported to prioritize roads, which are mostly constructed without technical help from engineers. In such situations, they don’t carry out even the brief environment study or the initial environment examination that’s required by the law.

Acharya said he believes Nepal already has the laws and policies in place to ensure the quality of EIAs and their implementation. “The laws we have aren’t the problem, it’s the will and seriousness of the authorities concerned,” he said. “We are bound to get reports such the one submitted for the Nijgadh and Pokhara airports until our political leaders take this issue seriously.”

Banner Image: Construction work goes on at a road building site in Nepal. Image by Bijay Chaurasia CC BY 2.0

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Shah, S. G. (2019). An analysis of EIA report of the Second International Airport Project, Nepal. Hydro Nepal: Journal of Water, Energy and Environment, 24, 57-67. doi:10.3126/hn.v24i0.23585


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