Public participation in environmental risk

12 August 2002
STARTING in October 2002, UCT's Occupational and Environmental Health and Research Unit (OEHRU) will host a one-year research project that strives to identify lessons learnt by involving the public in environmental risk management decision-making, following the democratic reform process in South Africa.

The project is undertaken through UCT's collaboration with the United Nations Institute for Training and Research (UNITAR) and Yale University. Through multiple case study research, the views of government officials and different stakeholder groups will be elucidated for a select number of national and local environmental decisions that were undertaken through a consultative process. Case study results will be analysed against the background of legal, institutional, and public policy reform measures that were put in place in South Africa in the context of democratic reform.

Achim Halpaap, co-ordinator and principal investigator of the project, says many developing countries have during the 1990s started to explore opportunities to strengthen public participation in administrative decision-making affecting human health and the environment – often in the context of an overall democratic reform process.

"Little is known, however, of how public involvement in environmental decision-making plays out in practice, what specific contribution it makes to the administrative process and what general lessons have been learnt in particular in developing countries. These questions are most timely and relevant in light of the great interest that the WSSD has taken in this issue."

The research is expected to identify both the opportunities and the challenges of introducing participatory processes related to environmental matters within a broader democratic reform process. It also seeks to contribute to a better understanding of conditions that may need to be in place to enhance the effectiveness of public participation in a developing country context.

According to Halpaap, the environmental decision processes considered for inclusion in the local research project has not been finalised.

Some of the case studies considered for inclusion are the new standards for cleaner gasoline, risk-management decision-making for pesticides, and the siting of new industrial facilities in the Western Cape.

At the international level the research will inform the development of UNITAR guidance and resource materials aimed at assisting countries to develop sound public involvement plans. To ensure sound project planning and implementation, a steering group with experts from various UCT departments and other institutions will be established.

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