Environmentalists call for revamp of Sabah EIA system

Kampung Timpayasa in Penampang is one of nine villages that will be affected by the Papar Dam.

KOTA KINABALU: Environmentalists in Sabah have called for a review of the system for Environmental Impact Assessments (EIA), citing a lack of transparency and accountability on the part of the Environment Protection Department (EPD).

The Sabah Environmental Protection Association (Sepa) and the Task Force Against Kaiduan Dam (Takad) told FMT the EPD had not updated its website since 2016.

Sepa president Lanash Thanda said the department stopped updating information on projects subject to EIA studies following a series of controversial government-linked projects announced that year.

“Since the website was not updated, public participation is limited. Sabah was proud of being the champion in managing its environment through public participation, thanks to the transparent EIA system.

Lanash Thanda.

“But all this has gone down the drain now,” she said.

Previously, she said, interested parties could simply walk in and obtain the necessary information or even check the terms of reference (ToR) for EIAs at the EPD library.

“But now, official letters need to be sent to the director, who never bothers to reply.”

EIAs are based on a process intended to inform the public and decision makers of the likely consequences of a proposed action in order to avoid or mitigate environmental degradation.

They are meant to predict, identify and evaluate the social, environmental and economic impacts of developments, to provide detailed information on the environmental consequences of decisions, and promote sustainable development through the identification of appropriate alternatives and mitigation measures.

Lanash also voiced concern about a decline in levels of accountability, which she attributed to the lack of transparency in the system.

The Papar River has been identified by the Sabah government as the location of the next major dam in the state.

She said the review panel which evaluates EIAs should be free from conflict of interest, and that panellists should not engage with proponents of projects.

“Agencies that are conflicted should not sit on the panel either, as they have vested interests.”

Takad spokesman Diana Sipail said her concerns increased after the state government announced that construction of the Papar Dam would begin next year.

“Where is the EIA report? They cannot use the old one because apparently the government wants to build the dam at a different location.”

Adding that no engagement had been held with the people, she said they had yet to see the ToR for the EIA report.

Diana Sipail.

“This is the problem with the current system,” she said. “The government can just bulldoze its projects regardless of the impact on the people and environment.”

Sipail expressed concern that this could become a precedent for future projects, including the controversial coal mine proposed in Maliau Basin.

Both she and Lanash urged the government to form an independent review panel where panellists with proper technical know-how would function on a rotating basis.

Lanash also suggested that the government set up an environmental audit system to ensure that agencies adhere to the rule of law and to minimise the risk of vested interests.

She was referring particularly to EPD officials who, as government officials, could be “pressured” into following the directives of their superiors, she said.

“Sabah was the country’s leading authority in terms of having a robust EIA system that actually worked. Now, the system has been eroded to the point where any development that falls under the current system can no longer be deemed sustainable.

“But it’s not too late to return to those days, where environmental issues were at the front and centre of any project whether big or small.

“It is up to the Sabah government to make this happen,” she said.