The Current State of Environmental Impact Assessments (EIAs) in Pakistan and the Way Forward

14 minutes

1. What is an EIA?

Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA) means ‘an environmental study comprising collection of data, prediction of qualitative and quantitative impacts, comparison of alternatives, evaluation of preventative, mitigating and compensatory measures, formulation of environmental management and training plans and monitoring arrangements, and framing recommendations and such other components as may be prescribed’ (as set out in the Definitions, Section 2 of the Environmental Protection Act 1997). To prepare an EIA it is necessary to provide a systematic identification and evaluation of potential impacts (effects) of a proposed infrastructure or any other development project on the environment, by examining the physical-chemical, biological, cultural, and socioeconomic components. The primary purpose of an EIA is to provide decision makers and the public with information on the potential consequences of the project for the environment. The duty of the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) is to safeguard the environment from adverse effects of a proposed project and it is the duty of the proponent of the project to provide the EIA to the EPA prior to commencing a development proposal.

If the EIA process is successful, it defines alternatives and mitigation measures to reduce the environmental impact of a planned project. The EIA process provides for effective public participation, thereby promoting transparency. While negative environmental impacts can be made apparent through an EIA, the process does not guarantee that the project will be modified or even rejected due to that. While the EIA process ensures an informed decision, it may not turn out to be an environmentally-beneficial decision. For example, an EIA approval may result in the degradation of an environmentally sensitive area, if the proponent fails to implement the Environmental Management Plans in a proper manner. Such non-compliance should be followed up by the EPA as part of its monitoring responsibilities. An EIA should consider best practice, and should there be doubt as to the effectiveness of conditions applied as part of an approval, provision should be made for the conditions to be varied on an evidence-based process.  

EIA Process

When is an EIA required? In Pakistan the process to determine the need for an EIA is set out in Section 12 of the Environmental Protection Act 1997. Projects are assessed to decide if an environmental assessment is required, with reference to the criteria for either an Initial Environmental Examination (IEE) or an EIA. These criteria are proscribed by the Environmental Protection Agency ‘(Review of IEE and EIA) Regulations 2000)’. Note that there are provincial variations in the law following the devolution of federal responsibilities in 2010, after the 18th Amendment to the Constitution.  An EIA generally comprises the following steps:

  • Screening: The screening determines whether a particular project is required to be supported by an IEE, Schedule I (Regulation 3) or an EIA, Schedule II (Regulation 4). The schedules referred to are part of the ‘Pakistan Environmental Protection Agency (review of IEE and EIA) Regulations 2000’, made pursuant to the principal Environmental Protection Act 1997, Section 33 ( )
  • Scoping: The scoping exercise helps identify key environmental issues that should be highlighted in the EIA. These should include:
    • A description of the proposed activity
    • An assessment of actual and potential effects on the environment
    • An assessment of whether these effects are likely to be significant and describe alternatives examined
    • A discussion of the risks to the environment from any hazardous substances that may be part of the proposal
    • For contaminants, an assessment of the rate of discharge or abstraction is made to assess the sensitivity of the affected environment to any possible adverse effects and any alternative methods to reduce the effects on the environment
    • A description of how adverse effects are to be avoided, remedied or mitigated (These could be social mitigations.)
    • Identification of the persons who may be affected by the proposal, mention of consultation undertaken, if any, and a report on response to the views of the persons consulted.
    • Any monitoring and management plans. (These may become part of the approved EIA.)  
  • Preparing Terms of Reference: A Terms of Reference (ToRs) may be prepared in consultation between the EPA and the proponent, to assist in the preparation of the EIA. The ToRs typically includes issues and impacts that have been highlighted during the scoping exercise.
  • Preparation of EIA Report:  The proponent prepares the EIA in accordance with the agreed ToRs and submits the report to the EPA for assessment.  The EPA has 10 days in which to confirm the adequacy or otherwise of the EIA.    
    Section 10 of the Regulations provides for public notification of an EIA that has been accepted by the Agency and specifies the date, time, and place for the public hearing for comments on the proposal.  The notice of public hearing is advertised so that all the relevant stakeholders –including those identified as possibly affected by the proposed development- can come and raise their concerns and learn about the possible mitigation measures suggested by the proponent. The EPA evaluates the submissions made by all parties when considering the merits of the EIA before deciding on approval and the design of conditions to be imposed to protect the environment from adverse effects. 

2. Importance of EIAs

2.1 History of EIA in Pakistan

The EIA has its genesis in the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) of the United States, which was signed into law on January 1, 1970. The law was promulgated after an era of considerable environmental degradation, following industrialization. This degradation was typical of many nations as they developed following the industrial revolution of the late 18th century. This included degradation in surface water quality, deforestation, groundwater contamination, acid mine drainage, rise in air pollution and the growing threats to public health because of improper waste and wastewater disposal.

While Pakistan has had environmental-related legislation such as the Forest Act of 1927 or the Factories Act of 1934, it wasn’t until the Pakistan Environmental Protection Ordinance (PEPO) of 1983 (later Pakistan Environmental Protection Act 1997) that the country had a law that aimed to address environmental vulnerabilities. The PEPO 1983 made it mandatory for all project proponents to have an EIA conducted prior to commencement of the project. However, it would take another decade for EIA to be streamlined into the decision-making processes.  Having an EIA conducted for development projects was made mandatory on July 1, 1994.  It was the oil and gas industry which would lead the way in the 1990s with exploration ventures throughout Pakistan.

The Formation of Environmental Protection Agency (EPA)

The Federal EPA was established under the PEPO 1983 as a central body with branch offices in the provinces. In 1990, the Pakistan EPA developed a ‘Proforma for Environmental Impact Assessment’.  In addition to this the proponents, especially those with funding from international financial institutions as well as the oil and gas sector, relied on guidelines known as ‘Operational Directives’, issued by the World Bank.  These guidelines described what Environmental Assessments entailed and the processes involved in conducting them. In 1997 the PEPO was repealed by the Parliament and replaced with the Environmental Protection Act 1997. As part of the Pakistan Environment Program, an Environment Section was also set up at the Planning Commission to analyze the impact of development projects on the Environment. A ‘Part D’ was added to the Planning Commission’s Form 1, commonly known as the PC-1 project proposal proforma, submitted to the Planning Commission. However, either due to lack of capacity of relevant proponents or political will at higher levels of the government, this part of the PC-1 was either not completed or a finding of ‘no significant impact’ was submitted without conducting a detailed Environmental Impact Assessment.  In 1999, National Environmental Quality Standards (NEQS) were introduced in the country.

Following the 18th Amendment, the provinces adopted these standards as Provincial Quality Standards (PEQS). The NEQS and PEQS specify the permissible limits of pollutants for ambient air, irrigation water, drinking water etc. to protect the population, land, or user. The NEQS/PEQS for water is an Effluent Quality Standard. The standard was re-gazetted in 2016 as ‘Environmental Quality Standards for Municipal and Liquid Industrial Effluents’. It sets the limit for the quality of the discharge of waste water into surface water. This standard is not an environmental quality protection standard but sets a maximum limit for contaminants discharged into surface waters, subject to certain conditions.

The 18th Amendment of the Constitution

In 2010, the 18th Amendment to the Constitution of Pakistan was passed, which delegated the management of the environment from the federal level to the provinces.   The Environmental Protection Act 1997 was later adopted by each of the provinces with minor changes.   The devolution of environmental management after the 18th Amendment has resulted in a toll on environmental management in the country over the years. It appears that the devolution was not accompanied by a proper or consistent procedure for the establishment of the provincial environmental agencies. Only climate change has been retained at the federal level with the establishment of the Federal Ministry of Climate Change.  In the opinion of environmental specialists, the consequent issue of pollution and the management of EIAs have been generally poorly administered by the provinces since devolution.

Provincial Environment Protection Agencies (PEPAs) are responsible for assessing EIAs. At present, the environment and climate change appears to be a low priority for the Government. This is evident from the current status of policy uptake and budgetary allocations at both provincial and federal level. Earlier in the Government’s five-year plan there used to be a separate chapter on environment. Despite the reports published by the World Bank about the economic cost of environmental degradation in Pakistan attributed to poor environmental management (6% of GDP), the budget stays at only 1.2 billion PKR for the Ministry of Climate Change. This figure also includes the funds for the Prime Minister’s Green Fund (an afforestation project valued at 27 million PKR).  

Environmental impact studies should be conducted by interdisciplinary teams conversant with a variety of different concepts, methods and data analysis techniques, to provide an integrated and comprehensive report.  Experts in the field are of the view that in Pakistan, EIAs to date have been conducted by individuals who may lack the necessary qualifications, experience and expertise required in carrying out such studies.  Furthermore, officials responsible for reviewing EIA studies within the relevant EPAs have often acted as advisors to the proponent. This compromises their position as regulators in providing objective assessment of the EIA.

2.2 Current Issues with EIAs

Currently the most pressing problems occurring with regard to implementation of EIAs include:

  • Lack of institutional coordination at provincial level: The provincial governments do not always provide sufficient resources to their respective EPAs to carry out their responsibilities. Moreover, there appears to be a lack of policy direction provided to the provinces from the federal level. This is especially in the context of projects with trans-boundary impacts. It is understood that there is provision in the current regulations to request the federal government to assist with these matters, however it is not known where that guidance has been sought. 
  • There are issues relating to the capacity and qualifications of personnel at the provincial level. The provincial EPAs often have insufficient resources to follow up on reported violations of environmental approvals and concerns relate to where construction and operation of a project proceeds before the application and evaluation of the EIA has been completed. In many cases an EIA has not been prepared.   
  • There is anecdotal evidence that pressure is applied to EPAs to bypass environmental legislation in favor of business development, for reasons of political expediency.  The fact that there are demonstrated examples where factories across the country continue to discharge air pollutants and wastewater into the environment, without sanction by the relevant EPA, illustrates this.
  • Time constraint is often used by proponents to pressure the EPA to consider an application and accept submission of Planning Commission Form 2 (PC2), rather than the proponent providing the necessary EIA at the same time as the proposal is being developed and the plans drawn up. Often approval is sought at the time when the project is almost ready to start hence making it a ‘formality’ rather than part of the process.
  • There is lack of general public and stakeholder confidence that the project proponent/implementer will be willing to fully participate and engage in the EIA process. This is due to the proponent’s perception that the EIA is a hindrance in meeting their project goals rather than recognizing that the project may have environmental effects, and possibly impact the community.
  • The language of the EIA is foreign (English) therefore the general public can neither understand the importance and role of the EPA in assessing the environmental impact of the proposal nor are able to read the recommendations of the EPA after consideration of the EIA. Moreover, public hearings are also conducted in English thus making it difficult for the general public to fully engage and participate in the process.  Public hearings can only be conducted effectively when the locals are fully involved, and they are made aware of the project, its consequences, and the means that should be adopted by the project proponent to counter the said impacts. In the absence of this information, the locals cannot make informed choices. The public hearing is announced in a local newspaper whose readership is often restricted in having the necessary skills to assimilate the information provided in the notification. It is seldom advertised on the electronic media, to encourage wider participation. The relationship of people to the locality and local culture is not usually considered in the EIA process however it is an integral part of the environment that the EIA should take into account.  
  • Procedural delays are also very crucial. It has been reported that there may be nearly 2500 EIAs pending decision with the Punjab government.  The EPA has 120 days to process an EIA and if the EPA does not meet that, the proponents may presume that the EIA is considered approved.  However, it is lack of capacity within the EPAs that is hindering progress in this regard.
  • It is reported that in 2013-2014 an assessment showed that the quantity of EIAs received by the provincial EPA have increased whereas the quality has reduced.
  • There is a lack of monitoring of approved/consented EIAs by the respective EPAs. It appears that conditions in the EIAs are mostly not implemented. The EPA has the responsibility to monitor the entire process of EIA but unfortunately this appears not to occur.
  • State of the Environment (baseline data on condition of the environment). There appears to be little coordination for the collection of baseline data. Other agencies (e.g. irrigation departments, municipal authorities) gather information on basic water quality and quantity for their own management responsibilities, however it is understood that there are no arrangements in place for data sharing.

3. Recommendations

In light of the above, the following recommendations came out of the discussions during the roundtable:

  • A needs assessment of federal and provincial EPAs should be carried out, especially in terms of human resources and financial requirements. Moreover, plans should be put in place to address such shortcomings.
  • A meaningful and engaging interaction with all stakeholders (including the community) must be undertaken by the proponents. 
  • The EPAs should ensure that the ToRs for EIAs are consistent with environmental laws and regulations and, furthermore, are included as part of the final EIA document. 
  • The EPAs should ensure that only accredited consultants are able to prepare an EIA.  Moreover, employees of EPAs or their contractors should be prohibited from preparing EIAs so as to avoid a conflict of interest, since the role of the EPA is that of regulator.
  • Translation of EIA documents in local or regional language should be made available when the need arises. 
  • EIA documents should be freely available on the websites of relevant EPAs. 
  • Public hearings are required to be published in the area affected by the project (Section 10 Regulations 2000), and should be conducted in regional languages, to be accessible to a larger group of stakeholders.  Public hearings are an integral part of the EIA process and therefore should be well advertised and held at an accessible venue, to ensure public awareness and increase participation.
  • Media entities including newspapers (print and online versions) as well as television and radio should be actively encouraged to participate in the consultation process.