Change agent: Frontline EIA

6th September 2013

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Joe Attwood discusses why professionalism is so important when conducting environmental impact assessments in conflict zones for the UN

Some might argue that carrying out an environmental impact assessment (EIA) under the threat of being shot at or blown up is unnecessary. They might question if harm to the environment is important enough to justify entering a conflict zone, but for me the answer is always yes.

The environment suffers at the hands of conflict and harm often transcends national boundaries. Reckless pollution, such as Iraq’s burning of Kuwaiti oil wells, can have regional implications, while the use of weapons that leave a legacy of water or soil pollution – for example, the use of depleted uranium during the war in the former Yugoslavia – require neutralisation once the conflict has ended.

Such environmental damage does, however, bring about a commonality between warring factions and this is often exploited by the UN. I have been working with the post-conflict branch of the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) for the past 10 years.

The branch is tasked with assessing and responding to the environmental implications of a conflict and seeking to create a dialogue between the warring parties. Once the hostilities cease, we work to rebuild the country’s infrastructure, with a focus on environmental protection.

My work comes at the assessment stage, often before the hostilities have fully ceased. I gather the data used to push the process forward, identify impacts that can result in acute risk and advise on mitigation.

I recently returned from Mali, where my mission was to evaluate the environmental impact of deploying 12,000 peacekeeping troops. An incursion into northern Mali by so-called jihadists last year created tensions within the country that was liable to implode into civil war. Malian authorities requested support from the UN security council and the peacekeepers now form a “blue line” between two warring factions.

The environment is a key issue in Mali, more so perhaps than in other areas. Being adjacent to the Sahara, water is scarce. Existing communities barely survive and free food is distributed by the government to prevent starvation. I was called in to advise on how this fragile environment could support an influx of soldiers.

Credibility is the name of the game. I am termed an “expert” and expected not only to use the best possible techniques and practices, but to be able to apply them in whatever context I find myself. This can be a fleeting visit to an insecure zone or a conversation via a translator with a village elder.

Whatever the situation, the process I use to assess environmental impact and risk remains the same. The reports I produce adopt the same terminology as those if I were performing an EIA of a new development in the UK. Sometimes, when I am working in places like Mali, I wonder if colleagues in the UK would be surprised to see that the same level of professionalism is applied in a conflict zone.

My work also plays a role in the broader political picture. Over the past 20 to 30 years, environmental awareness has become a key issue on the global political stage.

Expectations now run high that countries exhibit their environmental credentials by committing to multilateral treaties, such as the Kyoto protocol. These treaties represent the need to prevent, as well as understand, damage to the environment. What I do, and the recommendations I make, play into this agenda.

One of my first missions was to the Gaza Strip immediately following Israel’s withdrawal in 2005.

The region’s infrastructure, including farms, industrial complexes and entire villages, had been destroyed to prevent it being put into use by the Palestinians. Our job was to assess the level of impact.

The work was fraught with difficulty; our every move was tracked by the Israeli Defence Force or one of the many armed factions that controlled the territory. Gunfire was a nightly occurrence and by day drones buzzed overhead.

But for us, there were other pressures. The work we performed had to withstand international scrutiny, and I drew on my training and experience to ensure the EIA techniques used would be entirely credible.

Despite the tensions, the mission was a success and our findings enabled the release of a substantial sum of money to Palestine. Without our work and its validation by the international community, the funding would have been withheld and that would have been a severe blow to the Palestinians.

Furthermore, UNEP used our findings to bring together Israeli and Palestinian diplomats to commence dialogue using the common theme of environmental protection.

My work with the UN is high adrenalin stuff; guns and tanks definitely make for interesting fieldwork. However, the main focus remains assessing environmental impacts and developing recommendations that reflect the needs of locals and the expectations of the international community.

A structured approach to EIA is the only way to develop a picture against which those recommendations can be developed. It is important that, as environment practitioners, we continually review our assessment techniques to ensure that we remain credible, whether we are dodging bullets or lobbying governments.

Joe Attwood, MIEMA CEnv, is a partner at Future Proof Consulting Solutions.


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