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An overview of SEA as yet another appraisal method in the decision-making process.

Background

Strategic Environmental Assessment (SEA), is the most recent addition to the established list of Integrated Environmental Management tools (IEM). These tools include Environmental Impact Assessments (EIAs)
and Environmental Management Systems (EMS), Strategic Environmental Management Frameworks (SEMFS) and Strategic Environmental Management Plans (SEMPS). The introduction of SEA has resulted from the limitations of project-specific EIAs and the need to ensure that those environmental issues are proactively addressed in policies, plans and programmes (Versfeld, 1997).

SEA in South Africa

SEA has rapidly emerged as a tool for planning and environmental management in South Africa. Most South African SEAs have been initiated as a result of consensus amongst provincial government representatives and development proponents that environmental issues should be addressed at an early stage of the project life cycle.

It is often seen that a tiered approach is followed with SEA initiatives in South Africa. In this approach SEA is intended to be part of an ongoing process of environmental assessment and management. SEA may tier to stages of detailed planning, project EIAs or Environmental Management Systems.

SEA and the International Context

Internationally SEA attempts to integrate environmental factors and sustainability goals into the main stream of development policy making, as called for by the Brundtland Commission and Agenda 21 (Sadler, 1996). However, the adoption and use of SEA varies both geographically and with regard to the levels and sectors of decision-making that are addressed. Only a few countries have established formal SEA systems, although others are in the process of doing so or have acknowledged the importance of applying SEA. In general, the acceptance of SEA to plans and programs is more widely accepted than policy level SEA (CSIR, 1997).

SEA is in many ways a prototype of this new approach to environmental issues. It requires institutions to consider the consequences of a wide range of alternatives and actions to be considered at an early stage during the planning process. It also intends to choose the most appropriate action on environmental as well as socio-economic grounds, and to minimise any remaining environmental impacts. It is thus characterised by its strategic nature and its emphasis on preventing environmental damage. SEA requires environmental data as the basis for its predictions; as well as greater institutional co-operation to collect the data and to make consistent predictions. By requiring planning decisions to be made in a more rational and transparent approach, SEA is likely to promote both equity and public participation (Therivel et al; 1995).

The methodology behind SEA and its approach

SEA is at present a generic term that is not yet linked to a clearly established methodology. It is thus important to recognise that there is no definite approach to SEA, either in South Africa or internationally. However, commonalties between different SEA processes can be identified and have been used to develop a set of principles, which provide some characterisation of SEA. These principles are based on practical experience in South Africa and the tracking of international trends.

Two of the main principles for SEA are its flexible approach and its focus on the environment. This flexibility allows it to be applied at high levels of planning, policy formulation and decision making processes.

Furthermore, SEA can be applied at different spatial scales and across different sectors.

The focus of SEA is on the environment (social, economic and biophysical) and the assessment of the effect of the environment on development, whereas EIAs assess the effect of development on the environment, should development take place.  SEA is therefore an important tool for the promotion of sustainable development (CSIR, 1997).

Other SEA principles are as follows:

  • SEA identifies the opportunities and constraints that the environment places on development.
  • SEA is part of an ongoing process or tiered approach to environmental assessment and management.
  • SEA is a flexible process, which is adaptable to the policy, planning and sectoral development cycle.
  • SEA is a participative process, which is stakeholder driven.
  • SEA is set within the context of a vision and presents alternative scenarios.
  • SEA sets the criteria for levels of environmental quality or limits of acceptable change.
  • The scope for SEA is defined within the wider context of environmental processes.
  • SEA is linked to sustainability.

SEA is not a procedure that can always be taken "off the shelf". This is because the issues, needs and priorities expressed by the users or clients of the SEA, define the form of SEA. It is important to note that the flexibility of SEA is to be applied for different purposes at different scales. As a result of the flexibility of SEA in its application and approach, it should be noted that few SEAs would adopt all the principles outlined above. However, no SEA should contradict any of the stated principles.

SEA does not attempt to replace or contradict existing planning and policy-making mechanisms. Instead, it complements these mechanisms by offering a tool which addresses issues of resource use, efficiency and sustainability.

Effectiveness of SEA

Effectiveness is: 1) improving the relevant strategic actions; and 2) indirectly affecting other strategic actions by educating decision-makers and influencing the way in which decisions are made.

  • SEA is a process - an ongoing and tiered approach, a process of communication and information. The mind frame of the participants is thus vital. It is important that the participants must be willing to change the strategic action in the light of the SEA findings.
  • SEA should be well integrated into the existing policies, institutional and organisational frameworks.
  • The key emphasis of a SEA should be in choosing the best way to achieve objectives (or in the case of existing strategic action, changing /improving it) i.e. consider appropriate alternatives and proposing mitigation measures.
  • SEA should be started early in the decision making process, before any alternatives have been rejected or substantial decisions made.
  • It moves from the environmental, the so called "green issues" to sustainable assessment i.e. it also considers social and economic issues ("brown issues").
  • Public participation is a cornerstone of effective SEA, since it ensures that the SEA process is comprehensive, gives appropriate importance to issues and is transparent. It must just be insured that this principle does get included in the real life examples of SEAs.
  • SEA should be integrated with other activities, this means involving people who were not previously involved in that decision-making (Therivel, et.al. 1995).

References

CSIR, 1996: Strategic Environmental Assessment (SEA). A Primer. CSIR, Stellenbosch.
CSIR, 1997: A protocol for strategic environmental assessment in South Africa. Draft discussion document, August 1997.
CSIR, 1998: Towards Strategic Environmental Assessment Guidelines for South Africa. Draft Discussion Document, July 1998.
Sadler, B & Verheem, R, 1996: Strategic Environmental Assessment: Status, challenges and future directions. Ministry of Housing, Spatial Planning and the Environment of the Netherlands.
Therival, R; Wilson, E; Thompson, S; Heaney, D & Pritchard, D 1995: Strategic Environmental Assessment. Earthscan Publications, Ltd., London.
Versfeld, D 1997: Strategic Environmental Assessment. Unpublished document.