Academic journal article Contemporary Southeast Asia

Prospects for Regional Cooperation on Environmental Impact Assessment in Mainland Southeast Asia

Academic journal article Contemporary Southeast Asia

Prospects for Regional Cooperation on Environmental Impact Assessment in Mainland Southeast Asia

Article excerpt

Economic development in Southeast Asia is increasingly pressing against environmental limits. Infrastructure construction, including the "connectivity corridors" established through the Asian Development Bank's (ADB) "Greater Mekong Sub-region" (GMS) initiative, affects biodiversity, forest cover and water systems. (1) Mining of gold, bauxite, iron ore and other minerals raises issues of waste storage and chemical pollution. (2) In perhaps the highest-profile example, construction of the Xayaburi and Don Sahong dams along the mainstream of the Mekong River is claimed by some analysts to threaten fisheries throughout the lower Mekong basin and even end the rainy season reverse flow of the Tonle Sap river system in Cambodia (3)--claims that are denied or downplayed by project proponents. (4) The environmental impacts of these projects have emerged as issues of common concern among governments, organized civil society groups and business sector actors in the region.

This article begins from the premise that there are potential benefits to transnational cooperation to address environmental impacts, whether they are felt within a single country or across borders. (5) The formation by the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) of the ASEAN Economic Community (AEC)--due to come into effect at the end of 2015--is the latest in a series of steps by countries in Southeast Asia to increase multilateral cooperation aiming for development and sustainability. (6) ASEAN has taken substantive action to address the perceived "development gap" among member countries through the establishment of an Initiative for ASEAN Integration, with a focus on raising standards among the poorer members such as Cambodia, Laos and Myanmar. (7) Yet environmental issues have been notably scarce on the integration agenda. (8) Sub-regional institutions, notably the Mekong River Commission (MRC) and the GMS, have picked up some of the slack, funding high quality research on environmental impacts at the sectoral and project levels. (9) However, these studies have not yet led to the establishment of regional cooperation mechanisms. Each regional institution and major donor has tended to set up its own system, resulting in a plethora of working groups and conferences, all including some important actors but leaving others out. As a result, the MRC, ASEAN, and international financial institutions have overlapping mandates and roles, each relating to different parts of national governments.

At the domestic level, legal processes for environmental impact assessment (EIA) are well-established in all Southeast Asian countries. EIA and related forms of environmental assessments are carried out throughout the region with varying quality, legal frameworks, monitoring and compliance. (10) As a widely-applied process for preventing, mitigating and reducing potential impacts of developmental projects on the environment and society, EIA is not primarily a tool for decision-making about project approval. Instead, assessments answer the questions of how and where a proposed project should be built, offering regulators a means to influence options for project design and monitor compliance. (11)

Previous research has identified a "window of opportunity" to engage in supporting new EIA laws and improved implementation through a regional EIA standard, linked to regional openings such as the AEC. (12) Such a standard would form the basis for an agreed-upon benchmark or minimum level of quality for EIA practices, potentially including specific principles, criteria and indicators that define social and environmental performance. But how would regional governments, investors, and societal actors respond to opportunities to cooperate on EIA standards?

To answer this question, the author and a team of eight regional researchers initiated a qualitative political economy study in late 2014 to identify key features of EIA policy processes and to develop a proposed roadmap for improving these processes through regional cooperation. …

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