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Impact assessors (IAs) have made progress in developing smarter impact assessments to deal with Covid-19 restrictions, but developing countries still need more home-grown solutions.

This was one of the themes that emerged from the recent International Association of Impact Assessment virtual annual conference, according to Ndomupei Masawi, principal environmental scientist at SRK Consulting.

“The use of digital technologies in impact assessment has worked well in the developed world, but in Africa we still have issues that hinder progress – like access to smart devices among our stakeholders and the affordability of mobile data,” said Masawi. “We need to focus attention on strategic environmental impact assessment (EIA) and find innovative ways to engage stakeholders.”

The discussions with impact assessors from other regions confirmed her confidence in the work being conducted by most EAPs in South Africa, she noted.

“We are already applying many of the practices that some delegates were pushing for in their own countries, such as declaring our independence before we begin our impact assessments – to ensure that our work and recommendations are impartial,” she said.

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The well-attended event highlighted the 50 years of the IAIA’s achievements, including its global reach with over 180 countries now using impact assessments to guide development. The organisation has played a vital role in establishing impact assessment as a core element of sustainable development. There was still much to do, however, said Masawi.

“Among the many issues we are working on is the importance of cumulative impact assessments, which South African competent authorities –  the departments that assess and make decisions on our environmental impact assessments, such as the Department of Forestry, Fisheries and the Environment (DFFE), Department of Mineral Resources (DMR), provincial authorities such as the North West Department of Economic Development, Environment, Conservation and Tourism and Gauteng Department of Agriculture and Rural Development – have raised at our local IAIA conferences,” she said. “We also want to adapt EIAs to meet new developmental forms and new social and environmental issues of concern.”

At the level of project work, impact assessors are also advocating for environmentally inclusive designs. They generally find that they are only included in projects after the key decisions on locations, designs, project layouts and technology have already been made. It would be beneficial to all stakeholders, she said, if impact assessors were involved from the early planning stages of a development.

The conference considered how the profession was helping industry and the planet to nurture its transformative and adaptive capacity, whether it was adapting to the changing world and perceptions, and how it could improve relationships with stakeholders and governments.

“We need to make sure that our environmental legislation and impact assessments take into account climate change and climate adaptation,” she said. “Most financial institutions are changing their policies to align with aims of the Paris Agreement and the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). This means that Strategic Environmental Assessments (SEAs) are becoming increasingly critical to developers seeking funding.”

While the conference was efficiently conducted on a virtual platform – with much discussion related to technologies like artificial intelligence, data visualisation and digital stakeholder engagement – there is still a hope that physical engagements will return in a post-Covid environment.

“The lack of physical human interaction at these online conferences is resulting in lost opportunities for delegates to interact and share their insights and offerings,” she said. “While there is a place for digital conferences, this should never replace real conferences going forward.”