Social impact assessment and EIA

24th October 2013

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As social impact assessments (SIAs) are increasingly combined with environmental impact assessment (EIA), Fraser Paterson, from Xodus Group, discusses approaches to and the importance of SIA

For some projects, community and wider stakeholder opposition to a development can often represent a major risk to schedule and may even become a showstopper.

EIAs often fail to adequately address the full range of social issues or add value to the process, making no real contribution to reducing traditionally high levels of stakeholder anxiety about potential project impacts during the preapproval and construction phases.

Although this is generally due to lagging legislative requirements and/or inadequately scoped terms of reference, the SIA community could be more proactive in its consideration of issues like human rights, ecosystems services, local content and community resilience.

For example, almost every project claims employment opportunities as a beneficial outcome but, unlike impact assessments for international development projects which have to meet strict project finance criteria, adequate labour impact assessments are the exception.

Consequently, despite improvements in the treatment of occupational health and safety, EIAs/SIAs/ESIAs usually provide insufficient detail to help communities, proponents and regulators fully understand the nature, scale and duration of socioeconomic changes. They also fail to adequately explain how adverse social impacts can be mitigated or how the predicted project benefits be secured.

Communities, naturally, want to know more than just what broad job opportunities might be available for local people. They want details on how many outsiders will be coming into their area, what impacts that will result in (especially in regard to spin-off benefits like additional spending by project workers on local goods and services), and what would happen in any retrenchment situation.

Their expectations about employment opportunities are generally unrealistic and often not properly recognised, resulting in disappointment and disillusion especially amongst young people. A good SIA will help to manage these expectations.

Comprehensive baseline information on employment can be difficult to obtain, so consideration should be given to supplementing what is available with a selection of case studies, from either the proponent or the project area, providing additional context, if not validation of baseline evidence.

Identifying suitable case studies involves extra effort, but can be leveraged to improve the SIA’s insight into expected changes and to strengthen overall confidence in the assessment.

Details of the project’s proposed construction and operational workforces should be obtained as early as possible. An indication ought to be given as to the split between direct opportunities with the proponent, as well as indirect positions with contractors and suppliers and the potential for induced employment.

Ideally, the information should also include a breakdown of job numbers by:

  • phase and skill level;
  • workforce profiles – such as, average age, gender, family status/size and level of education;
  • how and from where workers will be recruited;
  • scheduling and rosters;
  • wage levels;
  • relevant proponent HR policies;
  • accommodation strategy, if relevant; and
  • employee transport and logistics.

Of course, all this data may not be available at the time of the assessment, but a good estimate is essential and will provide useful data for other studies such as traffic and cumulative impacts, as well as for organising stakeholder consultation.

When it comes to assessing impacts, SIA often needs a different approach from that of EIA. The most effective SIAs set the scale to the project location and link baseline data to geographical context and then to the predicted impacts.

Given that social impacts vary significantly from project to project, practitioners should consider developing specific parameters and significance criteria. While the standard definitions of impact magnitude, frequency and ranking may only require fine adjustments, duration and geographic context often need greater consideration.

A clear understanding of geographical context is needed to facilitate a clear explanation of potential impacts across several jurisdictions; however, defining a project’s social “area of influence” (AoI) is complex, particularly when a project could trigger significant resettlement or inward migration.

A social AoI may extend to the home areas of the workforce and, in some circumstances, along value chains. Consequently, the AoI’s true extent may only be definitively determined after the SIA is completed and once the project is recruiting and/or contracting suppliers.

Impact duration is also important because it helps explain impacts across multiple timeframes. Traditionally, impact timescales closely mirror the project’s phases, but these may need to be realigned – ie construction recruitment, employment and lay-off – so that stakeholders gain a clear understanding of the predicted impacts and benefits.

The language for the eventual impact statement needs careful consideration to avoid misleading stakeholders on the nature of the predicted impacts, mitigation strategies and residual effects.

Differentiating employment impacts from outcomes; avoiding subjectivity; and not bowing to internal or external pressures are constant challenges. And, although labour and employment issues are fairly straightforward, SIA as a whole is not going to get any easier –particularly once human rights becomes a regular feature and projects have to deal with alleged breaches to communities’ right to highest attainable standard of health or the right to access to clean water and sanitations, and so on.

This article was written as a contribution to the EIA Quality Mark’s commitment to improving EIA practice.

Fraser Paterson is an environmental specialist at Xodus Group

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