Safeguarding Myanmar’s Future: Environmental Impact Assessment

Since 2012, with support from the Asian Development Bank and other international partners, Myanmar has been building an environmental impact assessment (EIA) system to safeguard the country from the adverse environmental effects of economic development. 

Myanmar’s political and economic reforms have reconnected the country with the global community and led to an upsurge in foreign direct investment (FDI) that is helping drive rapid economic growth. A record $8 billion poured into the country during the 2014/2015 fiscal year, more than double the previous year, while gross domestic product increased 7.8% in 2014 and is forecast at 8.3% for 2015. 

Much of the foreign investment aims to harness the country’s extensive array of natural resources. Oil and gas extraction make up nearly a third of FDI, while mining and forestry operations, manufacturing enterprises, hydropower dams, and expanding and intensifying agricultural production are also attracting foreign investors. Other investments are positioning the country to leverage socioeconomic development opportunities through an array of ambitious, and much needed, transport and telecommunication infrastructure projects.

While foreign investment projects are essential for the country to achieve poverty reduction and wider development goals, if not well designed and implemented, they can cause considerable damage to natural ecosystems, and sometimes to communities. New laws and policies regarding environment, land, and foreign investment are among major reforms in Myanmar that aim to manage and balance development economically, socially, and environmentally.   

However, the scale and pace of economic development presents a massive challenge to sustainable development in the country. Although Myanmar’s natural environment remains in relatively good condition due to the country’s long isolation from external markets, the negative impacts of rapid and poorly planned economic development are on the rise. Forest and biodiversity losses in Myanmar are near the highest in Southeast Asia, while water and air pollution and soil damage are among a growing suite of emerging environmental problems. 

Recognizing the need to better manage the environmental risks of economic development, over the past three years Myanmar has put in place the regulatory architecture for an environmental impact assessment (EIA) system. This emerging system will play a key role in managing the potential negative impacts of investment projects, most of which are financed through private companies where environment and social safeguards are usually weak or non-existent. 

EIA is a process that systematically identifies and assesses the environmental (and sometimes social) risks of proposed projects and recommends actions to improve project design and implementation. A strong EIA system can put a ‘red light’ on particularly risky projects, meaning investors held accountable to such a system know that they must prepare projects that stack up environmentally. 

During 2012, Myanmar established the legal basis for EIA through its new Environmental Conservation Law, supported by framework EIA rules. The Ministry of Environmental Conservation and Forestry was given the mandate and increased powers to build and oversee the EIA system, led by its recently established Environmental Conservation Department (ECD).

Since late 2012, the Asian Development Bank-led GMS Core Environment Program (CEP) has been at the forefront of international support to ECD to put together other pieces of the regulatory puzzle. These included EIA procedures, technical guidelines, and environmental quality guidelines. Throughout 2013 and 2014, CEP and partners such as the World Bank and the Japanese International Cooperation Agency brought in international EIA expertise to support ECD, ensuring international best practice informs Myanmar’s emerging system. CEP and ECD facilitated a series of awareness raising and consultation workshops to ensure all EIA stakeholders – sector ministries, business, international organizations, and civil society – understand the value and requirements of EIA and have their say on how the system can best be tailored to the Myanmar context. 

As of early 2015, fine-tuning of EIA procedures and supporting guidelines is nearly complete and are expected to be formally adopted by Cabinet this year. Between them, the procedures and guidelines provide the nuts and bolts on how EIA must be conducted, by whom, for what type of projects, and the steps, actions, and timelines for both authorities and investors. Environmental quality guidelines complement this by providing benchmarks on acceptable levels of emissions from types of industry. The current quality guidelines are intended as a bridging measure while the country develops comprehensive environmental quality standards over the next few years.   

Meanwhile, ECD has already been working with other ministries to test out the new EIA system. By the end of 2014, ECD had provided support, guidance, and review for environmental assessments of more than 123 investment projects. These included 40 projects—mostly in energy, infrastructure, and manufacturing—that underwent full EIA. 

While the policy and legislative environment for EIA is nearly complete and piloting is underway, much remains to be done before Myanmar has a fully functioning EIA system. Institutional capability is a challenge across the board. For the ministries and agencies involved in EIA, coordination and information sharing mechanisms as well as technical expertise are among many areas that need strengthening. In response, and building on its own work as well as that of related ADB support, CEP has leveraged $1.3 million for a safeguards capacity building program to help ensure the laws and regulations are implemented effectively. This new technical assistance kicked off in March 2015 and includes EIA training programs for MOECAF and other ministries such as agriculture, energy, transport, water and urban development. It will also target compliance monitoring as well as build EIA information and report sharing systems. 

Although still early days for Myanmar’s EIA system, its emergence marks an important milestone in the country’s efforts to better manage its environment and safeguard the country’s future. 

Publish Date: 15th April 2015

Last Updated: 10th May 2017

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