Mine action stakeholders need to take environmental assessment seriously if they are to avoid adverse environmental impacts from operations.
During a side event at the 24th International Meeting of Mine Action National Directors and United Nations Advisors (24th NDM), Linsey Cottrell and Kendra Dupuy set out how mine action stakeholders can systematically assess the environmental impacts of mine action and disarmament operations. This blog summarises key points from the event, including guidance on how to develop and use environmental assessment tools.
Watch the session on YouTube.
What is environmental assessment and why is it important?
Environmental safeguarding is receiving increased attention in the humanitarian mine action and disarmament sector. This means that environmental assessments will play an increasingly important role in managing any adverse effects of activities. An environmental assessment aims to establish the impacts from an activity or project – recognising that the effect of these impacts may be positive or negative. The process itself is not dissimilar to other risk or threat assessments in that it is systematic, iterative and should be undertaken as early as possible in the planning process.
The first stage requires establishing the baseline environmental conditions where activities are taking place, their sensitivity or value and then understanding how these may be impacted once any planned mitigation has been taken into consideration. The significance of any residual effects will depend on the scale of the impact, the mitigation in place, and the likelihood of the impact occurring.
Mitigation is the way in which adverse impacts can be avoided or reduced. This may be through design or adaptation that avoids or reduces any adverse effects in the first place, for example, by selecting an alternative disposal method to open burning or open detonation (OBOD). Instead, additional other measures may be needed where impacts cannot be avoided, such as careful location of an OBOD site and only undertaking disposal during optimum weather conditions. In some cases, an enhancement like compensatory planting may be possible, where measures ultimately improve the condition of the environment.
Environmental assessment is important for several reasons, although it is not yet being carried routinely across all mine action organisations. A poll at the 24th NDM side event indicated that few organisations were carrying out environmental assessments in full (see Box 2). Mine action standards do require it – IMAS 07.13 and national mine action standards on environmental management call on mine action operators to leave the physical, natural environment in a state that is similar to, or where possible better than, before operations commenced.
These standards require that national mine action authorities and centres, as well as mine action operators, identify and assess the environmental aspects of operations. Furthermore, humanitarian mine action operators are already expected to uphold the humanitarian ‘do no harm’ principle and there is a duty of care to ensure that people or the environment are not inadvertently affected. Just as with other humanitarian and development sectors, mine action also needs to minimise its contribution to climate change by reducing its own greenhouse gas emissions, and preventing environmental degradation. Finally, environmental assessment supports environmental reporting requirements, for instance those of bilateral aid donors to mine action.
Environmental assessment tools and guidance
IMAS 07.13 (Annex D) provides guidelines on conducting an environmental impact assessment (EIA), focusing on the specific roles for the mine action authority and mine action operators. EIA is a terminology often associated with a legal or sometimes contractual requirement, requiring a detailed appraisal of the environmental and socio-economic impacts of a project. Although not specific to mine action, bilateral aid agencies like USAID and SIDA have also developed guidance on undertaking EIAs. Norwegian People’s Aid (NPA) are developing a tool focusing on more simplified environmental assessment to inform planning and day-to-day mine action operations, and to create a register of any necessary environmental commitments and actions.
Environmental assessments should be carried out as early as possible, and before commencing operations. We recommend this as routine practice, and not just carried out in areas already considered as environmentally sensitive (e.g. areas within or adjacent to protected habitats). Revisions to assessments may also be needed following major changes such as amendments to operational tasks, staffing, weather events or seasonal changes, stakeholders, regulation, or the introduction of other new risk factors.
The NPA tool involves six key steps for carrying out environmental assessment for office and field-based activities.
Step 1: Establish and understand the baseline state of the existing environment and setting.
Step 2: Identify the local and national regulatory framework to ensure full regulatory compliance.
Step 3: Review the proposed activities and identify the possible environmental impacts associated with these activities.
Step 4: Propose or identify existing measures to mitigate any adverse environmental impacts.
Step 5: Predict whether there will be any residual effects from the activities and actions, and determine whether more could be done to mitigate these effects.
Step 6: Develop a register of environmental commitments and actions to document the planned mitigation measures, allocate responsibility and details of completion.
Open source environmental data
Collating environmental data is necessary to understand both how mine action may impact the environment, but also how the environment and changes in climate may affect planned mine action operations. Earth Map is one example of a high quality environmental data resource, which can be used to inform an environmental assessment. As well as including primary source data for example on water bodies, forests and areas of decline, it allows more complex analysis of data that can be used to understand the potential for increased risks due to climate change, such as flooding, which could severely impact mine action operations. As an example, the Earth Map data for Quang Tri province in Vietnam shows that the average annual rainfall has increased by 27% over the last 40 years, increasing the risk of both flooding and landslides.
Data on deforestation is also important to understand both regional and local environmental conditions. High rates of deforestation severely impact biodiversity and can also increase the risk of flooding and landslides. Where mine action operations are taking place in areas that have suffered from high regional deforestation, mine action programmes will need to consider whether there is a greater risk of local landslides, or the need for planting in post-clearance areas. In Otdar Meancheay Province in northern Cambodia, more than 191,000 hectares of forest cover has been lost since 2000, which is more than half of the province’s total forest cover.
Reporting and on-going commitments
Once the environmental assessment has been completed, it must be kept up-to-date and monitored to ensure the successful mitigation of any adverse effects. Any emerging issues, environmental accidents or incidents should be captured and addressed as part of the overall accident and incident reporting. By adopting a systematic approach to environmental assessment, evidence is available to demonstrate compliance with good environmental practice and can feed into environmental reporting to donors and other stakeholders. Enhanced environmental reporting requirements are generally expected in the near future. The recent 8+3 Harmonised Reporting framework includes the environment as one of the six optional questions and asks for the impacts and any positive environmental outcomes to be reported.
NPA plan to release and share version 1.0 of their Environmental Assessment tool in July 2021. Please get in touch for your copy – feedback is welcomed.
Linsey Cottrell is CEOBS’ Environmental Policy Officer and Kendra Dupuy is Norwegian People’s Aid’s (NPA) Senior Environmental Advisor.