EIAs: a worthless piece of paper to satisfy conditions on paper

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Environmental impact assessments (EIAs) for investment projects in Vietnam, including hydropower plants, seem to be good for nothing, as their importance is diminished by laws and they lack credibility because they are done by incapable people.

For instance, take the two highly controversial hydropower plants that are planned at the UNESCO-recognized Dong Nai Biosphere Reserve in the southern province of the same name.

The investor, Duc Long Gia Lai Group, first hired the Southern Institute for Water Resources Planning, managed by the Agriculture Ministry, to conduct an EIA for the project.

However, it was revealed soon after that many parts of the VND420-million (US$19,986) assessment were actually copied from other projects' EIAs.

Incredibly, the EIA was done by a group of "experts" who spent just one week on a field trip to the project's location, including three days when they got lost on their way there.

Later, the investor hired the Institute of Environment and Natural Resources under the National University of Ho Chi Minh City to do the job. But, the esteemed "experts" now spent just two days surveying the location.

But, many officials of the reserve who accompanied the consultants said that the survey was not conducted at the actual site, but around the rice fields and cashew gardens of local people which were many kilometers away.

Hence, the second undertaker made strange conclusions that no rare wildlife species and primeval forests were found at the project's location, even though the plants would destroy 327 hectares of the reserve, originally a national park, including 137 hectares located in its core area.

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Explaining the profusion of worthless reports, Dr. Nguyen Khac Kinh, one of the veterans of EIAs in Vietnam, said this happened because the role of EIAs in Vietnam was actually not important as it should be.

As 80 percent of an EIA's value is in deciding the location of a project, it is a convention in the world that if the EIA is not conducted properly or proves that the investor cannot tackle the project's impacts on the environment at the chosen location, authorities will not approve it, Kinh said.

However, in Vietnam, after the 2005 Environment Law regulated that investors have to conduct EIAs before choosing the location, in 2008 and 2011 the government issued decrees which allowed investors to present the assessments after getting approval from the authorities.

Perhaps this is why the investor of the Dong Nai hydropower plants, which have been included in the Ministry of Industry and Trade's power plans and already approved by the Ministry of Agriculture, was so casual about the EIAs.

The fact that two agencies having close connections with government agencies were selected for doing the EIAs is more than a hint that it was done to obtain easy approval from the government.

Apparently, the aim of the authorities as well as the investors is not to get a serious assessment of a project's impacts, but a piece of paper that will satisfy conditions on paper.

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