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New guidelines on impact assessments almost ready

Workers construct the framework of foundations at Stung Treng’s Lower Sesan II dam construction site in late 2014.
Workers construct the framework of foundations at Stung Treng’s Lower Sesan II dam construction site in late 2014. Phak Seangly

New guidelines on impact assessments almost ready

Civil society groups are getting closer to unveiling a new set of guidelines that will change how the impact of big development projects is assessed across the Mekong region, NGOs said yesterday, following the end of a two-month public consultation period.

Activists, however, remained sceptical yesterday that the guidelines would have the intended effect, given what they characterised as the government’s failure to abide by similar regulations already in place.

The Regional Guidelines on Public Participation in Environmental Impact Assessment – slated to be signed in May – will promote citizen involvement in assessing the potential impact of projects like hydropower dams, power plants and mines.

The first draft was drawn up by a regional working group with the help of advisers from the US and EU. The public consultation period for the draft closed on Monday with over 2,000 comments collected.

Organisations involved in the process say the guidelines will change the conversation around development projects by giving a voice to those directly affected by them. “We think these guidelines are well placed to move the dial on public participation in the region, with no small credit to the collaborative approach we’ve taken in their development,” said Christy Owen, country director for the Mekong Partnership for the Environment, which helped form the working group.

In addition to collecting public comments, the group consulted about 500 people in government, civil society, business and academia from around the region. Roughly 130 of those people hailed from Cambodia. Officials from the Ministry of Environment, NGO Forum and Development and Partnership in Action all participated in the working group.

But despite the wide array of input, some wondered whether it will be possible to enforce the guidelines in Cambodia after the agreement is signed.

“The country’s constitution, relevant domestic laws and mechanisms, as well as international treaties are openly violated by those personally profiting from those projects. I don’t see how it will be any different with this new set of guidelines,” said environmental activist Alex Gonzalez-Davidson.

Environmental consultant Chea Phallika, meanwhile, said the guidelines should have more teeth than the Environmental Impact Assessment sub-decree passed in 1999.

“The law is more important than a sub-decree. I hope these guidelines will be transformed into law,” Phallika said.

While acknowledging that enforcement would be a “challenge”, the Mekong Partnership’s Owen nonetheless maintained that governments are increasingly realising that such assessments are “no longer optional”.

The Ministry of Environment could not be reached.

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