Before you start something new, what is the first thing that you do?
Most people take an inventory; what are the things they have and what are the things they will need. What are the things that are likely to change over the course of “this activity” and how to prepare for it.
For example, before you decide to start working out to become fit, you will probably do the following things-
- Take a picture of yourself.
- Check your weight, height, waist size, etc.
- Take a look at the number of calories you are eating.
- Assess the amount of physical activity you already do.
How does this help you in your endevour? This helps you assess the change/improvement you will have achieved over the course of your workout, 1 month from now. It also helps you keep targets for yourself.
That is exactly what baseline data are, for a development project.
Why is baseline data collected?
We collect baseline data to serve two purposes in the EIA study. First, it helps us understand the current conditions of the area, and how the project needs to be implemented considering these conditions. Second, it helps us assess and predict the possible environmental changes that could occur, once the project is underway.
Baseline data are the data collected about various factors of the project study. This includes-
- Physical- the area, the soil properties, the geological characteristics, the topography, watershed properties, etc.
- Chemical- water, air, noise and soil pollution levels, etc.
- Biological- the biodiversity of the area, types of flora and fauna, species richness, species distribution, types of ecosystems, presence or absence of endangered species and/or sensitive ecosystems etc.
- Socioeconomic- demography, social structure, economic conditions, developmental capabilities, displacement of locals, etc.
- Cultural- location and state of archaeological and/or religious sites.
How is this collected?
There are two broad ways in which such data can be collected. You can collect it yourself; go the field, take readings and measurements and samples, analyse what you obtain and present that data. This is called primary collection.
Or, you could take this data from secondary sources; there must have been scientific studies carried out in that area with regards to the ecology, the environmental factors like water, soil etc. You could also consult public records and photographs taken in the past. You can then customize this data for your developmental project. This method is called secondary method.
Once this data are collected, they are used to predict how these parameters will change once the project is underway. Usually, this process is referred to as impact identification. This process occurs during the scoping stage of EIA; running parallel to the preparation of the Terms of Reference. It is important to note that at this stage, the focus is NOT on quantitative or qualitative assessment of the impacts. However, subjective opinion of the extent and significance of impact is given by the experts.
Once all this is done, we present the baseline data along with the identification of impacts to the public as well as regulatory authorities. The representation of this data is important; boring paragraphs will not help anyone’s moods. The data need to be represented in the form of graphs, pie charts, tables, etc. In case of biological data, the representation needs to be short and precise.
The public doesn’t understand science the way the scientists who conducted the study do. The project proponents want to start with the project as fast as possible. Both these parties (arguably the most important) have little patience with elaborate scientific data. By describing the baseline data attractively and concisely, you can help these two stakeholders understand and care about what is going on. It will also justify the extra time taken for the project to be accomplished, as well as the alternative methods to accomplish it, to the project proponents. It makes sure the environment is not brushed aside at the cost of speed.
Baseline data can be a big problem as well…
Unfortunately, the environment doesn’t understand that the project has deadlines to meet. Assessing the environment, therefore, takes much longer than what the stakeholders like. For example, if you are assessing the biomass of the study area, it will change with season. For a comprehensive baseline study, you need to incorporate all the variations. This means the study is going to take longer than a year. With this, costs also increase.
One alternative for this to look at only the most important environmental parameters and assess their data. The downside is that, we cannot assess all the parameters and some years down the line, this WILL create environmental problems.
Another alternative will be proactiveness. If the government can delineate possible areas in the country where such projects are expected to occur, preliminary studies can be started even before a project is proposed. So when a project comes to the table, much of the data is already available.
Baseline data ensures that we can assess and prevent environmental degradation due to a developmental project. Their importance should not be undermined or compromised.