When natural disasters account for anthropogenic catastrophes

The importance of Natural Hazard Impact Assessment

In 2005, New Orleans levees broke under the pressure of Hurricane Katrina, causing the flooding of about 80% of the city and at least 986 human deaths [1]. On 11 March 2011, a major earthquake off the coast of Japan triggered a 15-meters tsunami that caused a nuclear accident in Fukushima [2]. These two events are recent reminders of the power of natural hazards to interact with human infrastructures in harmful ways.

This video depicts the consequences of the damage the tsunami generated to the Fukushima Daiichi reactors [4]:

Environmental Impact Assessments (EIAs) usually account for natural hazards that could result from a project but pay less attention to potential impacts of the environment on the proposed project [3]. In the light of such events however, integrating natural hazards more thoroughly within the EIA process becomes a necessity.

This can be achieved through the use of Natural Hazard Impact Assessment (NHIA) defined by the Caribbean Development Bank as: « A study undertaken to identify, predict and evaluate natural hazard impacts associated with a new development or the extension of an existing facility (from existing hazards as well as those which may result from the project). This is achieved through an assessment of the natural hazards that are likely to affect or result from the project and an assessment of the project’s vulnerability and risk of loss from hazards. An NHIA is an integral component of and extension to the environmental review process and environmental impact assessment in that it encourages explicit consideration and mitigation of natural hazard risk. » [3]

A NHIA guide to EIA practitioners

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Fully and explicitly investigating the relationship between a proposed project and natural hazards is not only essential in disaster-prone regions such as Japan or the Caribbean [3], but also for any future project proposed in hazard-prone areas.

To ensure natural disaster risk reduction through the project cycle, EIA practitioners can and should refer to Caribbean Development Bank (CDB) and Caribbean Community (CARICOM) 2004 guidelines presented in the Sourcebook on the Integration of Natural Hazards into the Environmental Impact Assessment [3]:
– Section 1 presents the rationale behind the addition of an NHIA component to the generic EIA process.
– Section 2 details how to integrate considerations related to natural hazards in every step of the EIA process. For instance, the project description should include information on soil characteristics, slope and drainage, proximity to rivers and coasts, and hazard or damage history in the area.
– Section 3 discusses the role of natural hazard risk considerations within the Cumulative Effects part of the EIA procedure.
– Section 4 provides examples of the framework implementation at the national level in the Caribbean that could serve regulators and policy-makers.
– Appendices give adequate tools, checklists, and methodologies for practitioners to implement NHIA-EIA studies.

Advantages of the NHIA-EIA Framework

Overall, NHIA intends to strengthen EIA practitioners’ vision of exposure and vulnerability to natural hazards as an environmental issue [3]. The set of tools and methodology developed in the Caribbean innovates in the way it copes with natural hazard risk in EIA in a preventive manner, rather than through traditional emergency response to disasters. This is essential in a world where the frequency and magnitude of natural events are increasing with change in climate.

The crucial contribution of NHIA to cumulative effects assessment is an important lesson to learn, especially because Cumulative Effects Assessment is increasingly accepted as the best practice for impact assessment [3]. The New Orleans and Fukushima events illustrate well significant environmental and social impacts that may arise from the combined action of natural hazards and infrastructure failure.

References:

[1] Plyer, A. (2014). ‘Fact for Features: Katrina Impact’, The Data Center [Online]. Available at: http://www.datacenterresearch.org/data-resources/katrina/facts-for-impact/ [Accessed 8 February 2015]

[2] World Nuclear Association (2015). ‘Fukushima Accident’ [Online]. Available at: http://www.world-nuclear.org/info/Safety-and-Security/Safety-of-Plants/Fukushima-Accident/%5BAccessed 8 February 2015]

[3] Caribbean Development Bank and Caribbean Community (2004).  Sourcebook on the Integration of Natural Hazards into the Environmental Impact [Electronic]. Available at: http://www.caribank.org/uploads/2012/03/Source-Book5.pdf [Accessed 8 February 2015]

[4] Nature Video (2011). Fukushima nuclear crisis, six months later [Online Video]. Available at: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=zCNFMoe8ASI %5BAccessed 10 February 2015]

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It’s all about the L-EA-rning Process

In 2005, the International Journal of Sustainability in Higher Education published an article by Stelmack et al. entitled “An overview of the state of environmental assessment education at Canadian Universities”.  Several years later, in 2007 and 2008 respectively, Sánchez documented the teaching of EIA in the University of São Paolo, and Gazzola conducted a review of 64 Master’s level programs relating the environmental assessment within nine European countries. Although these papers help to provide some insight into EIA education at the international level, they do not provide a true means for cross-comparison. As such, at the IAIA08 and IAIA09 conferences of the International Association for Impact Assessment (IAIA), a questionnaire was distributed to those academics present who were involved in impact assessment education (Sánchez and Morrison-Saunders, 2010). The purpose of this survey was to determine an overview of the teaching methods employed by these academics, and the type of content their courses contained in order to establish whether it would be possible to develop a common curriculum for impact assessment (IA) at the international level (Sánchez and Morrison-Saunders, 2010).

Some of the most interesting findings from this study, in my opinion, concern the topics covered in these various courses (Table 1). It was noted that all courses dealing with IA gave some overview of the general steps of the EIA process (i.e. screening, scoping, etc), but that not all of these individual steps were necessarily thoroughly covered. For example, the most frequently covered component was public involvement (explored in 82% of the courses) whereas, in contrast, follow-up was the topic the least frequently taught (in only 58% of courses) (Sánchez and Morrison-Saunders, 2010). I find this to be very interesting primarily because follow-up is one of the areas of EIA that is also the least employed in practice. Perhaps it is not taught as often because for the most part it is only a voluntary step, but what if it is actually the opposite? Perhaps the reason we see so little follow-up done is because it is not engrained in the teaching of IA. It could also be a combination of both scenarios, entrenched in a vicious feedback cycle . At any rate, it is my personal opinion that more emphasis should be placed on follow-up procedures in the education process since, as practitioners, we are more likely to implement a step if we truly understand its importance and value.

Table 1. Content Topics of IA courses. From Sánchez and Morrison-Saunders (2010).

In general, this survey had very similar conclusions to those found by Stelmack at el. (2005) (Sánchez and Morrison-Saunders, 2010). This, in my opinion, is an indication that an international curriculum pertaining to IA could indeed be developed considering so much overlap already exists throughout these various countries. Now, obviously this study may have been biased as the only respondents were those attending the conference. All the same, it provides a good start to understanding the EIA learning process at the international level. Also, in all honesty, developing an international curriculum for EIA sounds like a great idea, and I think it could really help in international relations, especially as they pertain to project developments. However, even if we could implement such a widespread curriculum the fact remains that each country has its own laws and regulations which will always make transboundary projects difficult. Perhaps the next step then is to develop a set of international rules and regulations pertaining to EIA such that we could all work together in harmony… but that may well be wishful thinking.

 

References

Gazzola, P. (2008). Trends in education in environmental assessment: a comparative analysis of European EA-related Master Programmes. Impact Assessment and Project Appraisal, 26: 148-158.

Sánchez, L.E. (2007). Environmental impact assessment teaching in environmental engineering. Presented at ICEE 2007, International Conference on Engineering Education, Coimbra, Portugal, 3-7 September 2007.

Sánchez, L. E. and Morrison-Saunders, A. (2010). Survey of impact assessment education. From IAIA10, Transitioning to the Green Economy, 30th Annual Conference of the International Association for Impact Assessment, Geneva, Switzerland,  6-11 April 2010.

Stelmack, C.M., Sinclair, A.J., & Fitzpatrick, P. (2005). An overview of the state of environmental assessment education at Canadian Universities. International Journal of Sustainability in Higher Education, 6(1), 36-53.