Factors that Undermine the Power of ESIAs in Malawi

By Precious Chaponda, 23 October 2023

For the past 4 weeks, the media has carried stories about the Environmental and Social Impacts Assessment (ESIA) for the upgrading works for Mzimba Street and Kenyata Drive into 6 lanes in the City of Lilongwe, Malawi. The project was launched on August 31, 2021 by the President of Malawi, Dr. Lazarus Chakwera. Barely a few weeks after site clearing had commenced, it was reported that stakeholders were threatening to take the Government to Court for flouting its own environmental laws by starting to implement the project without an ESIA. And then, came a statement from the Malawi Environmental Protection Authority – an ESIA was conducted but there is need to incorporate a few things. Confusing huh!☺☺

Clearing activities at the 6 lanes road project site (Source, Times Online)

Well, eventually the Malawi’s Roads Authority was fined MWK 6.3 Million for failure to comply with an Environmental Protection Order linked to the ESIA; and the ESIA was recently approved on the 22 October 2021. Certainly, the environmentalists were right.

This got me thinking… What if the project was not protested? ESIAs are aimed at safeguarding the biophysical and socioeconomic environment during project implementation… do they really do that, or they are just tools to make us feel better while we, for example, cut trees to elect buildings? Using my experience in the development of over 30 ESIAs, this blog identifies 12 factors that undermines the power of ESIAs in Malawi:

  1. Lengthy approval process leading to some project proponents to jump some steps. The ESIA process for Malawi involves the preparation of a Project Brief, which may take 1 to 4 months to be approved; ESIA studies and preparation of reports which take an average of three months; and ESIA review and approval process which takes 3 to 6 months. The whole process may take 1 to 2 years, which is a long time to a Proponent, and ‘even longer’ for projects promoted by politicians. As a result, some steps are skipped and this could be the case with the ESIA for the 6 lanes road project.
  2. The use of Associates instead of the proposed Experts. Usually the Experts which are proposed to conduct the ESIA are not the ones actually used. Consultants prefer to use Associates and Assistants which are cheaper so that they can make more profits.
  3. Limited use of scientific methods and tools for gathering information and analysis. Most of the information in ESIA reports is qualitative, gathered and analysed using Expert judgement. While this is acceptable, the challenge is that as mentioned above, the people that actually do the work are not the Experts. Additionally, Expert judgement cannot replace scientific investigation, modelling and simulations in terms of the power of validity of the findings.
  4. Inadequate information gathering and analysis. Oftentimes identification of the potential impacts of the project and analysis is based on inadequate and old data. This is because most of the data in Malawi is not stored digitally hence difficult to find. Additionally, ESIA experts do not like spending a lot of money on scientific studies to generate recent data.
  5. Prioritization of infrastructure development over protection of ecosystems. There is no way the 6 lanesroad project could have been abandoned, even if the environmental harm were to be bigger. The ESIA process is rigged to developments of projects.
  6. Focus on mitigation rather than avoidance of impacts. Usually, projects are designed without consideration of alternatives. This leaves the ESIA with the task of identifying mitigation measures of the impacts on the proposed designs. Additionally, the studies are mostly not deep enough to identify measures to avoid project impacts.
  7. Prioritization of environmental issues over social issues. Tradition practices have created a system where social aspects of the project, except resettlement issues, are treated lightly as compared to environmental aspects. This is despite there being calls for consideration of social impacts – would you stop a project if you found out that it will result in increased gender based violence?
  8. Lack of public interest in the ESIA process. Most of the times the Consultant has to pay allowances for people to attend to public meetings at community and district level, where the project will be implemented. Additionally, when the reports are disclosed to the public, very few people are interested to read the documents and give comments.
  9. Inadequate public participation in the ESIA process. The requirement is to inform the public about an ESIA undertaking, engaging the public during the ESIA and disclosing the finding. Often times this is not done and a good example is the 6 lanes road project. Well, MEPA has asked the Roads Authority to disclose the approved report – looking forward to reading the report.
  10. Inadequate stakeholders and project affected person consultations: It is common for a Consultant to write an ESIA report without engaging stakeholders including the project affected persons (PAPs). This is also shown in the 6 lanes road project where the PAPs complained of lack of consultations.
  11. Limited public access to ESIA reports. Google the ESIA report for Nkhatabay District Hospital or the ESIA for the Construction of New Water Supply System from Likhubula River-Mulanje to Blantyre. Like the other 99 percent ESIA reports which are produced in Malawi, you will not find them online. While this can be said to be okay as the reports can be made available (if your lucky) on request at the Environmental Affairs Department, it helps the Consultant to get away with many things.
  12. Delays in the implementation of the project. Some developers take long to start implementing projects after the ESIA approval. While the requirement is to update the ESIA where there are long delays, this is rarely done. As a result, projects are implemented in a changed environment and a whole lot different impacts which may not have been anticipated.

The key elements necessary to tackle these challenges are strengthening ESIA regulation, increasing monitoring and evaluation, and stimulating public interest. Fortunately, with the recent establishment of MEPA as a regulator, this is the direction which the country is taking. The protests on the 6 lanes road project also show increasing public interest in ESIA and projects. I am sure our ESIAs will get stronger and stronger.