Checklists in Environmental Impact Assessment

We all have made checklists for a variety of reasons. Things you need to buy in the market? Checklist. Things you need to study the night before an exam? Checklist. Things you need to finish during a workout? Checklist.

The concept is not new. One of the many, many areas in life in which checklists are used are EIA studies.

More specifically, checklists are prepared as part of the impact prediction step in the Scoping stage of EIA. This step follows the baseline study, and incorporates most of the data obtained from it. This impact prediction step seeks to understand which activities of the project is going to affect which environmental aspects in the study area.

Checklists: The simplest form of impact prediction

The EIA team sits down and simply makes a checklist of the relationship between the activity and the all the aspects it will impact. It is inexpensive, and generally does not take a lot of time. Oftentimes, checklist formats for common developmental projects and the aspects it can impact are already available with government bodies and EIA teams.

This form of impact assessment forces the EIA team to think creatively. They are required to come up with all possible impacts a project can have. For example, let’s take a proposed oil drilling project. The drilling itself, is likely to have the following impacts-

  • The drilling action will impact the physical properties of the soil.
  • The drilling fluid used can alter the chemical as well as physical properties. It can be potentially fatal to the organisms living there.
  • The drilling will send vibrations laterally as well as deep into the earth. It can therefore, impact the soil and life in the soil not just in the drilled area, but areas beyond.
  • The drilling fluid can interact with groundwater, polluting it. Further, it can go on to impact the populations depending on this groundwater source for their water needs.
  • Drilling is going cause a lot of noise pollution.
  • Siesmicity generated due to drilling can impact possible faults below the point of origin. It could potentially trigger earthquakes and landslides.

There are more that can occur, of course (how many more can you think of? Comment below!)

Things to look out for during the preparation of the checklist are-

  • It is important to consider the different levels of impact caused by an activity. For example, a change in site run-off can affect the hydrology in the watershed (primary impact); it can also affect the fishes living in the river (secondary impact).
  • Certain effects are temporary, while others are long-term. Both form of effects need to be identified and specified.
  • Intermittent effects, caused by freak accidents or abnormal natural events should also be considered.
  • All of these effects should be viewed individually as well as cumulatively. It is possible that the cumulative effect a collection of impacts can lead to further impacts on the environment.

How is it done?

In preparing a checklist, first, a list of activities is drawn up. Then, the team looks at the possible areas within the project area that will be affected by the activity. This is followed by characterizing the environmental aspects within that area that will be impacted (primary impact). Then, the scope is broadened to include indirect impacts within the area (secondary impacts). The team then considers the the indirect impacts of the activity outside the specific area (tertiary impacts). Finally, temporal aspect and cumulative aspects of the activity are taken into the picture.

The checklist is prepared in the form of a table, that looks something like this-


When answered, it looks like this-


Once a list of all possible impacts and their duration is specified, the team compiles the list into significant and less significant impacts. The significant impacts are given immediate attention during the planning of the activities of the project. Most of the alternatives suggested to the project proponent are based on these impacts.

Checklists have different variations…

  • Simple- Where a list of activities is drawn up against which, the aspects it will impact is written down.
  • Descriptive- Along with the aspects, information on how this aspect is affected is written down. This is where levels of impact is considered.
  • Scaling- Against each impact, a scale of 1-3 is used to quantitatively estimate the impact (completely subjective).
  • Questionnaire- This is what is described above. This also takes stakeholders’ opinion into account. It is detailed and comprehensive.

However, checklists may not be the best way to go about impact prediction…

Checklists, though the simplest, have a lot of disadvantages associated with it’s use. First of all, the list prepared is very long. You can see that in the guidelines for preparing a checklist in Europe (from which the above pictures was taken). The checklist alone runs into multiple pages. Further, it is very subjective. One EIA team could consider an impact significant, while another might not. Within the same team, there may be disagreements. The checklist is also very confusing, when you take the primary, secondary, tertiary impacts as well as the temporal aspect of the impact. Compilation will also take much longer, in this case. Which would you consider significant and which isn’t?

Checklists are unnecessarily long and confusing.

Checklists are only recommended for small-scale projects, that is unlikely to affect large areas or environmental aspects. For larger projects, matrices and networks are better options.

Author: Saurab Babu

Usually found sitting with a good book, nibbling on a piece of dark chocolate. Always ready for a good story.

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