Subscribe to My Feed

Tell a Friend

  • Polls

    How Is My Site? / ¿Cómo es mi sitio web?

    View Results

    Loading ... Loading ...
  • Recent Comments:

  • « | Home | »

    The Basics I: Open Wide and Say “Ah….”

    By Keith R | November 23, 2006

    Topics: Air Quality, Environmental Protection, Marine/Coastal Issues, The Basics, Waste & Recycling, Water Issues | 2 Comments »

    1 Star2 Stars3 Stars4 Stars5 Stars (No Ratings Yet)

    This begins a blog series on environmental law and policy that I like to call “The Basics.” This will examine some of the elements many experts think (and I agree) are necessary to have an effective environment policy.

    What are these? Some people might add to this list, but most agree on at least the following, in no particular order:

    1. diagnosis/data
    2. priority-setting
    3. transparency
    4. disclosure/”right-to-know”
    5. performance measurement
    6. public participation
    7. compliance/enforcement
    8. access to justice
    9. back-up technical infrastructure

    Today I’ll start with diagnosis/data.


    “We Have it Taken Care Of”

    Back in 1999, when I still resided in Santo Domingo, Jaime Moreno and I tried to put together a group of business people that would try to get Dominican politicos to stand out of the way and allow some real progress on a series of environmental issues, chief among them waste management. As part of that effort, he and I paid a visit to ONAPLAN (Oficina Nacional de Planificación), a part of the President’s Technical Secretariat then headed by Rafael Camilo. In those days before the passage of the framework Environment Law (#64-00), environment policy was conducted by a tiny secretariat tucked inside ONAPLAN, so it was important that we liaise with these folks.

    Camilo listened to our plans and was mildly supportive. He confessed that he really knew little about the issue, but that one of the staff was in fact working out a policy strategy for waste management. Encouraged, Jaime and I asked if we could meet him.

    When the fellow came in and Camilo explained who we were and why we were here, the staffer’s manner was, to put it kindly, haughty. “We already have a detailed plan,” he declared, slapping a thick document onto the coffee table in front of him. “It is a confidential internal document, so I cannot share it with you. But trust that we have everything well in hand.”

    Jaime and I glanced at each other. Jaime said he was encouraged to hear that. I was suspicious of this guy’s smugness, however. “Great! So you have done a full technical diagnosis of the waste sector in the DR! Can you at least share that data with us.”

    The fellow confessed that they had not done a technical diagnosis.

    “But you’ve at least done a gravimetric analysis of the composition of the waste at Duquesa [Santo Domingo’s municipal dump]? Maybe an examination of the collection rates, the average composition of flows into Duquesa, a survey of how many unmanaged waste dumps there are in the country?”

    No, they hadn’t done that.

    How then, I asked, can you plot a coherent, detailed policy strategy without basic data to identify the true nature and dimensions of your waste problem?

    Nonplussed, the guy repeated that they had a strategy, a very good strategy, and that we would see just how good soon enough.

    Seven years later, I am still wondering what was really in that document he plopped on the coffee table.

    The Importance of a Sound Foundation

    The point of this little tale is not to make fun of this particular “waste expert,” but rather to make the point that good policy — whether about the environment, or any other issue for that matter! — rarely comes without good data and diagnosis of the problem to be addressed. Drafting the policy first is a bit like putting the cart before the horse. Or like a doctor operating before gathering data for a diagnosis.

    Traditionally, sound technical diagnoses of environmental problems and good data in which one can have a reasonable degree of confidence has been a big problem in Latin America, no matter which country or what policy area we’re talking about. If you have participated in or followed many environmental policy debates in Latin America and the Caribbean (LAC), you know that discussion often stumbles because we simply don’t know the true extent to which the air and water are polluted, what are the major contaminants, what are the true dimensions of the waste problem, etc….

    Why does this matter? Well, for example, if it turns out that your biggest contributors to urban air pollution are diesel buses and trucks, rather than motorcycles, automobiles, factories, power generation plants or simple individual household generators (plantas), then you give first priority to tackling buses and trucks instead of wasting time and money on factory emissions.

    A more concrete example: a few years back, environment officials in Santiago de Chile decided to diagnose the waste composition of their rapidly filling landfill — in part from their conviction that it would show the need to impose controls on things like plastics. Instead, the study showed that roughly half was waste from civil construction and demolition (C&D) — concrete, wood and metal pieces left over from projects. Consequently they went to the construction sector first, telling them to change their ways. [The eventual result: a “clean production” agreement with the construction industry that minimizes how much C&D waste enters landfills and promotes reuse and recycling.]

    Open Wide, Stick Out Your Tongue, and Say “ahhhhhhhhhhhhhh…”

    The good news is that many LAC governments have started addressing the data gap, usually with the aid (and strong urging) of international agencies. For example, many LAC nations — starting in 2000 with Barbados, Cuba and Peru, and soon followed by Argentina, Bahamas, Brazil, Chile, Costa Rica, El Salvador, Guatemala, Mexico, Nicaragua and Panama — have participated in the UN Environment Programme’s (UNEP) Global Environment Outlook (GEO) assessment series, in many cases resulting in the first comprehensive look at the state of their environments.

    Several nations have done their own “state of the environment” reports. Chile and Mexico did so in the context of an Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) review of their environmental performance (Mexico is an OECD member state, Chile has aspirations to be one and volunteered for the assessment). Others (Colombia, Nicaragua, Trinidad and Tobago) have done their ones in their own format, which at times obscures data gaps and subjects they would simply prefer not talking about.

    The links to all these “state of…” reports, GEO or otherwise, can be found on this page.

    The World Health Organization (WHO) and UNICEF, as part of their role in tracking progress toward fulfillment of the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs), have helped improve data collection on water and sanitation [If you’re interested in seeing their aggregate data tables follow this link]. They are also trying to start building a database on drinking water quality for developing countries, starting with a pilot study that includes Nicaragua (see the Temas blog article on the water/sanitation MDGs progress report).

    A specialized office of the Pan American Health Organization (PAHO), CEPIS, not too long ago made a valiant effort at getting PAHO member states to collect and publish comparable basic data on solid waste generation and management following a common methodology and reporting format. The resulting dataset is uneven in quality, in my estimation (more on this is in a future Temas blog article), but I applaud the effort. At the very least it gives waste policymakers more to go on than many of them had previously.

    A few countries have undertaken inventories of their air and wastewater emissions (see, for example, my discussion of Peru’s data on air quality in this article). Mexico has gone further, creating a Registry of Emissions and Transfers of Contaminants (RETC) system, and Chile is in the process of doing likewise and other LAC nations have expressed interest in the concept. Several countries, as part of their commitments under the Stockholm (POPs) and Rotterdam (PIC) Conventions, have done their first comprehensive national inventories of PCBs, and in a few cases such as Uruguay, of all persistent organic pollutants (POPs). A listing of links to existing inventories can be found at this page.

    Even More Useful if Not A State Secret

    A key aspect of the final product of each of these diagnosis/assessment projects is that they were published and disclosed to the public. That is a related topic I’ll cover in an upcoming “Basics” Temas blog — the importance of the public seeing and understanding what the government knows about the state of their environment. Without this disclosure and “right-to-know,” it is difficult to assess how well they are doing their jobs, whether they are focusing on the proper priorities, and just how urgent (or not) the different problems are.

    Progress, But Still Far to Go

    Huge data gaps and uncertainties remain across LAC nations that must be addressed if meaningful and useful policy is to be undertaken and succeed. And much of what data exists is not accessible by independent analysts and the public. Let’s return to the Dominican example, which is by no means unique in the LAC region. When Jaime and I spoke to that waste “expert” in 1999, the Dominican government was in the midst of reputedly “comprehensive assessment” of the DR’s environment situation.

    Another environmental assessment of the DR done five years later in 2004 by the World Bank gives us some insight what progress had been made. The Bank praised the Environment Ministry (SEMARN) for developing cartographic information on the DR’s natural resources, satellite surveys of its protected areas, and databanks on wildlife. It also notes that the Japan aid agency, JICA, financed air pollution monitoring equipment (if so, why does no one outside SEMARN see the resulting data?). “But for key issues, such as water, monitoring capabilities are clearly inadequate, and monitoring efforts depend on unsystematic external demand and support.” Water pollution control of industry is limited to self-monitoring. SEMARN and the health ministry (SESPAS) conducted a short-termed beach water quality survey. The Water Resources Institute (INDRHI) and SEMARN do not cooperate fully and share data enough. INDRHI’s labs, while able to able to process physical, chemical and biological analysis of 4,800 samples per year, are understaffed and and not well maintained.

    Hey, So Why Talk to Me?

    You the reader are probably sitting there thinking this is all well and good, but it’s up to the government to gather, analyze and publish that data, so what can I do about it until they do their job?

    The answer is, probably more than you think you can. Just a few ideas:

    — Keith R

    Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

    2 Responses to “The Basics I: Open Wide and Say “Ah….””

    1. Frederic de Hemptinne Says:

      I totally agree with you. Here in Europe, we say that a good start is half of the work done. Clearly to design a sound strategy (instead of only focussing on technical equipment), you need to rely on good data.

      Nevertheless, I would like to stress 2 points:
      1) Data collection comes at a certain costs. It is an investment that must be carefully planned. In Europe, the Water Framework Directive requests us to reach good ecological quality but this concept of ecological quality is rather vague and dogmatic. This generates a waste of valuable resources.
      2) We have to live with uncertainty and lack of data. If we insist too much on this, it can be counterproductive because of political arguments and stakeholders’ conflicts (especially if somebody has to pay). I prefer very much an iterative process starting with is available and engaging rapidly into action plan that will include a data collection component for upcoming revision.

    2. Keith R Says:

      Dear Frederic,
      Thanks for the insightful comment. I hope you return and comment often, as this is the kind of feedback and discussion I would love to see more of at the Temas Blog. I wonder, given Eureau’s interests, if you might also wish to comment on the entries on the MDGs for water and sanitation and the Blue Flag certification program (which requires beach communities to improve bathing water quality in order to obtain and maintain certification?

      On your 2 points:

      (1) definitely, I am all too aware of the fund limitations in the budgets of environment, health & water authorities in LAC nations, which is why I suggested ways people can help out…

      The trouble is, in many LAC nations on all too many issues, there is almost no data or the data available reflects the realities of the last time data-gathering was funded — often as far back as the 1980s or early 1990s, whereas realities on the ground have changed considerably in the interim.

      Sometimes LAC governments are copying US or European environment/health legislation verbatim, in the process often reflecting North American or European priorities, when a bit of prior analysis of local conditions would suggest useful local variations in policy priorities. As I said in the essay, if your priority is preserving landfill space and local analysis indicates your main problem is C&D waste, then focus on that first. If your priority is reducing litter and your analysis indicates that a certain type of packaging waste is the problem, focus on that…

      (2) true. I am not a believer in not waiting to act until all uncertainty is removed, since in life there really is no such thing as 100% certainty. Sometimes, as you point out, you have to act on what’s available — assuming, of course, that some useful baseline data is actually available (many times not the case).

      I like the “interactive” point — sometimes key data is not available until the process is actually launched. Then the process can be adjusted, redirected and/or retooled based on new and better data.

      Best Regards,

    Leave a Reply