Process of environmental impact assessment to be strengthened

Three areas being looked into, including centralised management of consultants

The process guiding when and how environmental studies should be done ahead of development is being reviewed again, Minister for National Development Desmond Lee said yesterday.

Three areas are being looked into, Mr Lee said during a virtual press conference to address concerns over how parts of a Kranji vegetated plot were cleared before environmental studies there were completed.

First, a more comprehensive picture of Singapore's nature areas and how they connect to one another will be developed. The idea is to map out the islandwide ecosystem and connectivity to better consider how specific sites connect to nature areas, buffers and corridors.

"We will do this in a science-based manner on an islandwide scale and we'll conduct baseline studies for specific sites to understand their ecological profile and their role in ecological connectivity," Mr Lee said.

Baseline studies essentially aim to document the types of wildlife found in an area. "The findings from these studies will add to the existing data and connectivity models that my colleagues at the National Parks Board have built up over the years and help guide longer term planning."

Second, the Ministry of National Development (MND) is reviewing whether it is better to centralise the management of environmental impact assessment consultants instead of having individual developers manage their own.

Lastly, MND is exploring the use of technology in the built environment sector and will see how it can be applied to project management.

"We will learn from this incident and the discussions that have resulted. I hope that everyone, including our nature community, will continue to partner and support us in our efforts as we continually work to improve," said Mr Lee.

The Kranji incident will be thoroughly investigated and the findings made public, he said.

"We will not hesitate to take the necessary action should any party be responsible," he said.

But in parallel, his ministry will look to strengthen the environmental impact assessment or EIA framework, Mr Lee added.

The new areas being reviewed to improve the EIA process come after sweeping changes were made to the EIA framework last October.

The changes then had included the introduction of new biodiversity impact assessment guidelines, the enhancement of transparency of such environmental studies, as well as the roll-out of strategies to improve the planning process so developers take wildlife into consideration at an earlier stage.

"In our engagements with the nature community last year before we launched the enhancements, we had identified and discussed with them several ways to further strengthen the EIA process, which we have been studying," said Mr Lee.

Asked if an EIA law was necessary, Mr Lee said the requirements for developers to conduct relevant studies are pegged to legislative gateways. For instance, the Planning Act, where statutory permissions and conditions can be imposed for the conduct of these studies and investigations into biodiversity, said Mr Lee. The Wildlife Act also gives NParks greater regulatory and enforcement powers to look into and to impose relevant studies and measures.

But other than through legal means, Mr Lee said there are other measures in place to improve the EIA process. "I think it's an entire ecosystem we have to build, both the laws, enforcement capabilities, the monitoring capabilities, but also the local consultancies and capabilities to carry out these studies."

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on February 23, 2021, with the headline 'Process of environmental impact assessment to be strengthened'. Subscribe