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Strategic environmental assessment in Mekong countries

Open Development Cambodia (ODC) was thrilled to host a panel discussion on “Strategic environmental assessment (SEA) in Mekong countries” at the 42nd Annual Conference of the International Association for Impact Assessment: Resilience through impact assessment and Leadership on 10th May 2023 at Borneo Convention Centre Kuching, Kuching, Malaysia. Representatives from Cambodia’s Ministry of Environment’s EIA department, SEA, and environmental law experts participated in our discussion to share their experiences and insights on SEA progress, development, and best practices in the region.

Mr. THY Try, ODC’s Executive Director, started the discussion by explaining what ODC is and what we are working on. The discussion will provide an update on the progress and development of SEA in Cambodia and opportunities to learn from experts in the field. During the session, three important questions were discussed: the current legal framework, key research gaps and priorities for advancing SEA, international cooperation and knowledge sharing, and opportunities and challenges to SEA development and implementation in Mekong countries.

Because there are still limitations in environmental impact assessments (EIA) that have been used to evaluate the impact of investment projects on the environment, the establishment and implementation of SEA are required for significant investment. EIA also has varying effects on the projects. Cambodia’s development and economy have benefited greatly from investment inflows. Aside from the contribution to the country’s growth rate, the environmental impacts can be seen at both the micro and macro levels, which should be carefully considered. The micro level focuses on the correlations between the attraction of investment by firms and the cost of the environment, whereas the macro level focuses on the government’s and international community’s concern about whether foreign investment will degrade the ecological environment of host countries or not.

The Law on Environmental Protection and Natural Resource Management, the National Environmental Strategy and Action Plan (2016-2023)Sub-decree No. 72 on the EIA Process, and the Environmental and Natural Resources Code are all SEA-related regulations in Cambodia. The code could make SEA a requirement for strategic planning in a variety of industries. The process of preparing a SEA report must take special consideration and provide opportunities for vulnerable people, ethnic minority groups, and indigenous peoples to participate. The monitoring results will be made available to all ministries and institutions, as well as the general public.

Although the SEA process was initiated in the late 1980s by high-income countries such as the United States and European states, this tool is receiving increasing attention in the Greater Mekong sub-region. In Cambodia, the SEA initiative was only launched in the mid-2010s, with the publication of some pilot industry-specific reports, such as one on sustainable tourism. The SEA of Cambodia’s strategic planning framework for fisheries 2010-2024 was also published as a result of the development partner’s commitment. The Cambodian SEA path, like that of other countries, began with an emphasis on EIA.

Currently, ODC is assisting the Ministry of Environment’s Department of EIA in developing the SEA guideline. The department highlighted the development of the SEA technical guideline and the SEA on sand mining in Cambodia. Based on the discussion during the session, the guidelines will be conducted within the next three years based on the timeframe provided. This is an important step towards ensuring that our natural resources are used sustainably.

The experts have concerned with the management plan and responsibilities of the SEA’s lead agency. It would be sustainable if the SEA’s leadership is the line ministry. Because SEA and EIA are not the same things, and each SEA report is unique, stakeholders must be trained and experienced in SEA practice. Cambodia should make an effort to develop this policy because its role is critical and it has many opportunities and value in the ASEAN region. We applaud the ministry’s commitment to promoting environmentally responsible practices and eagerly await the results of this SEA. During the discussion, the participants also shared updates and the progress of the SEA implementation in Mekong countries.

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Strategic Environmental Assessment (SEA) partner meeting with the Netherlands Commission for Environmental Assessment

On 20 October 2023, the ODC team traveled to Utrecht City, the Netherlands, to engage in a crucial meeting with Dr. Arend Kolhoff, Technical Secretary of International Cooperation at the Netherlands Commission for Environmental Assessment. ODC has been collaborating closely with the commission on providing inputs to the draft general guidelines for Strategic Environmental Assessment (SEA) and SEA for sand mining along the Mekong and Bassac Rivers in Cambodia. The primary objective of this meeting was to critically update the progress and challenges that have emerged within the area of SEA in recent times. The discussion focused on the ongoing work regarding SEA within the Cambodian context. The National Council for Sustainable Development (NCSD) of the Ministry of Environment of the Kingdom of Cambodia established the National Training Team on Strategic Environmental Assessment (NTTSEA) on 20 December 2022. The team is responsible for arranging and preparing training materials, disseminating SEA knowledge at national and sub-national levels, and raising awareness through a range of meetings, training sessions, and workshops. In addition to their educational activities, NTTSEA has mobilized resources and forged partnerships with NGOs and other stakeholders, in a determined effort to foster a comprehensive training program on SEA. Stay tuned for more updates on this journey towards sustainable development!

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Environmental data and strategic environmental assessment (SEA)

Phnom Penh, 03rd November 2022, Open Development Cambodia (ODC) hosted a Technical Workshop on Environmental Data and Strategic Environmental Assessment (SEA). This workshop was supported by the United States Agency for International Development (USAID) through Family Health International (FHI 360) under Cluster Anchor Grant from the Civil Society Support (CSS) Project and Heinrich Böll Stiftung (HBS) under Promoting Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA) for a more Transparent and Responsive Environmental Governance in Cambodia Project. The workshop aims to: Raise awareness of the SEA among CSOs, citizen journalists, indigenous people, and researchers. Discuss and share the current statue of the SEA in Cambodia Identify the potential of integrating SEA and its implication in environmental and natural resource management. The event brought together 32 participants (11 females) from the Ministry of Planning (MoP), World Wide Fund for Nature (WWF), Wildlife Conservation Society (WCS), Family Health International (FHI 360), other international and local non-governmental organizations (NGOs), community-based organizations (CBOs), journalists, researchers, and indigenous peoples (IPs). Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA) and Strategic Environmental Assessment (SEA) Mr. THY Try, Executive Director/Editor-in-Chief of Open Development Cambodia, and Mr. MATHEW Baird, Director of the Asian Research Institute for Environmental Law, have highlighted the differences between EIA and SEA as well as some procedures of SEA. Development projects typically promote economic development, but they should not neglect or ignore the impact on the environment and society. SEA incorporates environmental considerations into policies, plans, and programs (PPP).  SEA is used to estimate and evaluate the consequences of specific development PPP. It means that the project is not there yet. The government will decide whether the project could be implemented or invested in that area. It usually happens before doing the EIA. In contrast to the commonly used EIA, which occurs after the decision-making process, SEA occurs before all important decisions, which offers significant advantages. It was initially promoted to fill gaps in project-based EIA due to the limitation of EIA to address the environmental policy integration at the strategic levels, particularly during policy and plan-making. The capacity of EIA to account for the strategic consequences of subsequent projects in a single area is limited. As a multi-stage process focusing on overall sustainability, SEA takes a proactive approach to all development activities, identifying key obstacles before final approval. Public participation is the key point, and it must be included in both SEA and EIA processes. EIA and SEA complement each other. It does not mean that we can ignore one of them. Mr. THY Try also demonstrated a video about the UNECE SEA Protocol, which was created by the United Nations Economic Commission for Europe  (UNECE) as part of the EU-funded program “Greening the Economies in the European Neighborhood.” The protocol establishes clear and transparent procedures for incorporating environmental and health concerns into national development plans, programs, and legislation. Spatial Plan and its Integrated Landscape Approach Mr. SENG Teak, Country Director of the World Wide Fund for Nature (WWF), presented one of the significant implementations called the “Mondulkiri Provincial Spatial Plan.” He highlighted the 2040 scenario-based analysis for the province divided into three scenarios: conservation, green economy, and business-as-usual. The first scenario, “conservation,” could keep the forest cover in Mondulkiri up to 85% by mainly protecting all forests inside and outside the protected areas (PA) and using non-forest areas for agricultural and development areas. The second scenario, “green economy,” only protects the forest in the PA, whereas the forest outside the PA and non-forest areas are used for agricultural development areas. By doing so, the forest cover in the provide will remind 53% by 2040. In the last scenario, “business-as-usual” will not enforce forest protection, and the forest cover will remain at only 34%. In brief, the second scenario is used for the spatial plan for Mondulkiri and will be adopted shortly. The spatial plan is critical because it has the potential to provide effective development principles and tools for informed decision-making and spatial development processes to promote balanced territorial development. The planning could be done by following significant steps, including establishing a multi-stakeholder platform, building a shared understanding, collaborative planning, implementing, monitoring for adaptive management and accountability, and shaping the context. The potential of SEA Integration and its Implication on Natural Resource Management H.E. NOR Vanndy, Director of the Economic Statistics Department, National Institute of Statistics, Ministry of Planning (MoP), and Mr. TEP Sakmakara, Deputy Chief of Office of the Department of Economic Statistics, MoP, highlighted how the ministry addresses the environmental data and issues in the development plan. Integration of environmental issues in the development plan is the initial stage, and the country should do it. Environmental issues are considered to include in long-term and medium-term development plans such as National Strategic Development Plan (NSDP) and Sector Development Plan. It was observed that the integration of the environmental issues in the previous NSDP (2014-2018) is less and not paid much attention. Therefore, the government has considered and added more environmental issues to the new NSDP (2019-2023). Chapter 4 (4.42) of the NSDP (2019-2023) “Promote the inclusion of strategic environmental assessments in the decision-making process, policies, plans, and legal documents to ensure the sustainability of the environment and natural resources.”

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The 42nd Annual Conference of the International Association for Impact Assessment

From 08 – 11 May 2023, Open Development Cambodia (ODC) attended the 42nd Annual Conference of the International Association for Impact Assessment under the theme of “Resilience through impact assessment and leadership” at Kuching, Malaysia. As part of the partnership on technical assistance for developing SEA guidelines in Cambodia, ODC also supported two government officials from the Department of Environmental Impact Assessment, Ministry of Environment, in attending the conference. The conference aimed to establish a path to resilience through impact assessment and leadership by organizing presentations on contextual applications and conceptual advances of impact assessment. There are 70 sessions focusing on two main streams: thematic sessions on “resilience through impact assessment and leadership” and general impact assessment sessions.  On 08 May 2023, the program officially started with an opening plenary, seven concurrent sessions, a poster session, and a welcome reception. Similarly, there were nineteen concurrent sessions, six sessions on the theme forum, and other networking/meeting activities on the conference’s second day. The next day, three sessions focused on the theme forums, and nineteen sessions were concurrent. ODC also hosted a panel discussion on “Strategic environmental assessments (SEA) in Mekong country” to explore the considerations in policy, program, and plan on SEA in Mekong country. Twenty-one experts (08 females), including representatives from the EIA department of the Ministry of Environment in Cambodia and SEA and environmental law experts, joined the discussion to share their experiences and insights on SEA progress, development, and best practices in the region.  The last day of the conference mainly consisted of three sessions for the theme forum, thirteen concurrent sessions, committee meetings, a closing plenary, and exhibit and poster dismantle. During the conference, the ODC team and the two government officials from the EIA Department participated in more than thirty sessions to learn, discuss, and share experiences on impact assessment and leadership across the region. This participation also allowed us to meet more than 600 global experts to explore their perceptions of nations’ interests, sustainable development, indigenous rights, and preservation of biodiversity. It can benefit the consideration to apply in Cambodia to establish a path to resilience through impact assessment and leadership. Below are some speeches by ODC team after attending IAIA23: Mr. Thy Try, Executive Director/Editor-in-Chief of ODC: Attending IAIA23 in Kuching was an incredible experience, reconnecting with experts in impact assessment and leadership. It was my second time attending an IAIA conference in person, with my first experience being in Florence back in 2015. The event in Kuching once again showcased the resilience needed in our SEA and EIA field, and I am truly looking forward to the next IAIA conference in Dublin in 2024, where new insights and opportunities await. Ms. Kuoch Layheng, Economics Editor – Researcher of ODC: IAIA23 was an amazing first-time experience for me. Meeting, discussing, learning, and sharing experiences with many experts across the globe was an excellent opportunity for the team and me since we could consider using it to apply in Cambodia’s context. Mrs. Koem Chhuonvuoch, Natural Resource and Land Editor – Researcher / Project Coordinator of ODC: IAIA23 on resilience through impact assessment and leadership provided me with a wide range of knowledge and experiences with experts in various fields. We got to see what’s going on and how they handle impact assessment around the world.