Change agent: Frontline EIA

6th September 2013

Related Topics

Related tags

  • Consultancy ,
  • Training ,
  • CPD



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.

Transform articles

Land and Soil in Environmental Impact Assessment

IEMA’s Impact Assessment Network has recently been busy finalising a major guidance publication on land and soils in environmental impact assessment.

23rd September 2021

Read more

The Environment Bill returned to Parliament following the Queen’s speech and is making progress through the House of Lords.

30th July 2021

Read more

In March, the Environmental Audit Committee kicked off an inquiry focused on improving the sustainability of the built environment sector.

30th July 2021

Read more

Defra has completed a consultation on its draft environmental policy statement. This focuses on five core principles that policymakers will be expected to consider:

30th July 2021

Read more

In June 2021, the UK’s governing Conservative Party lost a by-election in Chesham and Amersham, a seat it had held for 47 years. The principal reasons reported as the cause of this defeat were proposed planning reforms and the promotion of housebuilding on greenfield sites across the south of England.

30th July 2021

Read more

As we celebrate the 10-year anniversary of the EIA Quality Mark, IEMA can announce that, during the past 12 months, the scheme has undergone a thorough review of practice, including stakeholder consultation with registrants and assessors, in order to improve it.

28th May 2021

Read more

We are anticipating the launch of new Principles for Cultural Heritage Impact Assessment for the sector in July.

28th May 2021

Read more

The delivery of effective outcomes for the environment, communities and development is a team effort, and more so when it comes to consenting projects that undergo Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA).

26th April 2021

Read more

The end of 2020 saw four of our members step down, having completed their three years’ service.

29th January 2021

Read more

Media enquires

Looking for an expert to speak at an event or comment on an item in the news?

Find an expert