Enhancing Access to Information and Public Participation in Environmental Decision-making

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Bridges of trust

The Danube river basin is one of the most polluted in Europe. Various activities such as energy generation and domestic and industrial waste contribute to the degradation of the river basin. One of the impediments to better environmental management and halting pollution is access to information and public participation. In regions that have been devastated by pollution and are undergoing economic transition, engaging the public becomes increasingly important to halt destructive activities and clean up affected ecosystems.

People need to know their rights and what kinds of information they are entitled to and how to ask for it. Governments, for their part, must understand their responsibilities and have the tools to actively provide information when requests are filed. The project "Enhancing Access to Information and Public Participation in Environmental Decision Making" has aimed to do just that.

The project takes a two-pronged approach to improving access to information. First, the capacities of the five national governments in the Danube Basin were built by the development of working tools intended to be on the desks of government employees as they receive and process requests such as manuals on how to respond and fill information requests. Secondly, a series of pilot projects meant to engage the public to understand how their actions affected the ecosystem were implemented. The pilot projects took place in all five countries in partnership with NGOs, businesses and communities over the course of one year. Depending on the country, the activities included development of databases as sources of environmental information, establishment of local committees to resolve information issues surrounding very polluted areas and the production of informational materials such as brochures and websites for the public regarding how to obtain information and how to use that information to influence decision-making.

The project was successful in its aim of enhancing both the local and national capacity of all stakeholders. As one participant put it, "As an engineer, I've become aware of the benefit of sharing ideas and discussing environmental and water-related topics with environmental lawyers. I've discovered what an advantage it is to have lawyers and technical experts working together". The key to success lays mainly in local ownership of the project through the pilot projects and demonstrated transparency through access to information.

Context

Enhancing Access to Information and Public Participation in Environmental Decision-making

Many cities, communities, farmers and industries contribute to the pollution of the Danube River which flows through or forms a part of the borders of ten countries and has a drainage basin that includes parts of ten more countries. Accordingly, the challenge of cleaning up the Danube requires a considerable joint effort between government, industry, NGOs and the general public, and vastly improved public awareness of both the challenges and the opportunities. An aware and activated public in each of the countries can assist government efforts, modify their own habits and practices that might adversely impact water bodies, and in some cases, act as a prod toward more effective government action. Information is the key to both engaging and empowering the public and to making plans for remediation and reducing future pollution. Critically, information access is very much a two way street. People need to know their rights, what kinds of information they are entitled to and how to ask for it. And, government must understand its responsibilities and have the tools actively to provide information and to respond when requests are filed. The purpose of this project, and the demonstration projects that are part of it, is to build those tools and capacity both in government and in the public. Funding of this project also demonstrates a recognition by the Danube Regional Project (DRP) of the need to enhance its technical and transboundary governmental efforts with awareness-raising in and engagement of civil society and to focus on the long term. This has wider implications for an improved Danube and an vigorous civil society. In the words of project participants, the project has allowed them to “expand [their] perspectives of how a stable institutional framework [for environment and water] should look, one not influenced by the results of every forthcoming election,” and to gain a “wider understanding that public participation in making and implementing decisions is critical [including] in our process of democratizing our society.”

Focus Areas

Geographic Scope

This project takes place in and between five countries of the Danube Basin: Bulgaria, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Croatia, Romania, and Serbia (formerly Serbia and Montenegro) (a previous, similar project took place in Hungary and Slovenia and learning from that project has been shared in this one). A brief explanation of the demonstration project-activities in the five countries follows:
Bosnia and Herzegovina
“Inclusion of citizens, NGOs, industry and relevant authorities in decision making process related to water information in Lukavac.” This project assesses obstacles to public access to water pollution-related information in the highly polluted community of Lukavac and works to achieve improvements in information flow among authorities as well as between the authorities and the public. Pollution sources include electric generating plans, coke factory and cement producers, among others. Public participation is engaged to develop improvements. Activities include community and area-wide consultations, skills and knowledge-building capacity activities, and codifying lessons learned. The project has also built bridges between the NGO and business communities to address joint water pollution challenges.
Bulgaria
"The Right to Know and to Participate in Water Management.” The project has put in motion a variety of activities and initiatives to improve access to ecological information in the Lovech/Troyan Region, involving support of regional River Basin Directorates and other local authorities. The Directorates are key to any improvements in the Water Basin. Project participants tested the practices of national, regional and local environmental and water authorities by asking for pollution information (permit, discharge and other information) which are important for the local community through a series of citizen information requests. They have given special emphasis to Directorate websites as a vehicle for conveying on-line information on such issues and helped to improve the practices of all authorities at the same time. Activities have also included questionnaires, public and media outreach activities, and capacity building workshops.
Croatia
"Osijek Water Forum – Enhancing public involvement in wastewater management." The demonstration project establishes a broad stakeholder body, the Water Forum, to improve communication within the community and with the relevant authorities and institutions and allow a regular exchange of information about all ongoing and planned water related activities including the development of a proposed waste water treatment plant and its benefits for the community. There is currently no centralized water treatment for domestic waste and most industrial waste also goes straight to the river. Additionally, the activities will further the implementation of the Croatian Water Law consistent with the EU Water Framework Directive (WFD) and will improve current practices under the Law of the Right to Access to Information. Activities have included roundtables, training sessions, public and media outreach, and establishment of the Osijek Water Forum itself.
Romania
“Taking Care of the River together with its Beneficiaries.” The project models a process for improved NGO participation in River Basin Committees (RBCs) and improving the flow of information to, and involvement of, represented interest groups and the public in RBC water management issues. These Committees are a critical element of Romania’s planning under the EU WFD. Activities have included joint identification of communication problems within and outside the Committees with the communities and different stakeholders, development of representation methodology for NGOs and other stakeholders, a capacity building seminar, manuals and brochures to improve NGO/citizen and government employees understanding of their respective roles and responsibilities, and a database of affected parties
Serbia and Montenegro
“Demonstration Project in Bor”. The aim of the project is to increase public access to information about wastewater and drinking water problems and the utility of public participation in the successful resolution of these problems. Bor is an industrial center in east Serbia where the pollution sources are industrial discharges from mining and metallurgy that leaches from pits, some of which also contaminate ground water, and domestic sewage. Bor has no wastewater treatment plant and despite adoption of various action plans, little progress has been made towards improving water quality. Activities have included the creation of an emissions data base in cooperation with businesses; awareness raising campaigns; electronic networking and sharing of information with the public; concrete methods and procedures for securing public access to information and enabling the municipality to collect and disseminate water-related information and take over the activities after the project is ended; public and media outreach activities; development of a web-site; and a capacity building event.

Stakeholders

Funding for this project originated in the Global Environmental Facility, through UNDP to the Danube Regional Programme, and then to a Consortium of the Regional Environmental Center for Central and Eastern Europe (Hungary), Resources for the Future (Washington, D.C.) and New York University School of Law (New York City), who are carrying out the project.

Contacts

Ruth Greenspan Bell (on behalf of Magda Toth Nagy (Regional Environmental Center for Central and Eastern Europe) and Ernestine Meijer (New York University School of Law), International Institutional Development and Environmental Assistance(IIDEA), USA

Contents

Background and Significance

The project helps to build the capacities of government authorities in five Danube countries — Bulgaria, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Croatia, Romania, and Serbia(formerly Serbia and Montenegro) — to provide access to water-related environmental information to the public and facilitate public participation in decision making as required by the EU Water Framework Directive and the Aarhus Convention at all levels. It also reinforces community involvement in solving water pollution-related issues through a specific tool -- demonstration projects at 5 selected local “hot spots” in the Danube River Basin. These demonstration projects focus on the impacts of improved access to environmental information and on more effective environmental public participation and help build building blocks in the form of skills and awareness. This presentation contains an overview of activities in all five countries with particular emphasis on the approach taken in the demonstration projects underway in the five countries. The problems and lessons from the demonstration projects were fed into and coordinated with the activities on the national level which addressed priority problems at the national scale. These are also described in section Main Results below.

In each of the countries, project participants used the lists compiled by the International Commission for the Protection of the Danube River to identify a highly polluted transboundary “hot spot” location of great concern, at which there existed local NGOs capable of proposing and carrying out demonstration efforts and active, cooperative local authority. The direction given to the candidate NGOs was to design a year-long program to identify and enhance opportunities in which improved access to environmental (and specifically water-pollution) information might, in turn, improve the effectiveness of environmental public participation.

Following a review to be sure that the ideas put forward by NGOs addressed critical issues, the local NGOs have been engaged in a variety of activities. Although each country has identified its own set of issues, there have been a number of common themes to the demonstration projects, as discussed in more detail below. The learning from these demonstration projects will be disseminated within each country and also between participating countries and finally throughout the entire Danube River basin.

Goal and Objectives

The ultimate objective of this project is a cleaner Danube River and river basin. This project contributes toward that objective by building capacity in government officials who are the “front lines” of access to information and responsible for implementing public participation, and by providing skills that can empower citizens and NGOs. National and local NGOs and the public involved in the Danube and water-related issues are critically important stakeholders and partners of the officials. Engaging all of them actively in capacity building will support full and effective public involvement in planning in the context of the EU Water Framework Directive (WFD) and cleanup and prevention of future Danube hot spots. Overall, these efforts contribute toward stronger civil society and improved governance skills, as well, ultimately, toward an improved environment. As noted by the funder, these impacts should last long after the Danube Regional Project (DRP) has been completed because while aimed at improving water quality, they also improve governance structures and experience. In the words of project participants, NGOs gained a new appreciation of how to communicate “with different partners even when you do not agree with their point of view,” and government officials said the “experience led me to thoroughly understand the role of NGOs [and that we can] gain power by working with NGOs to achieve the EU WFD objectives and the importance of public participation in this process.”


The Experience: Challenges and Solutions

WHAT

Our program for improving public access to environmental and particularly water-related information was designed to assure that it responded to concrete needs in each country. This was achieved through maximum engagement of stakeholders, who helped shape the purposes of the effort and its goals. Moreover, the project was constructed on a foundation of solid research. Thus, country experts provided thorough research concerning the current status - legal and practical - of access to environmental and particularly water information in each country. The research was reviewed in national meetings with a wide range of stakeholders and used as a basis for formulating project priorities in each country, as well as for devising the basis for demonstration projects. This assured that efforts would be closely tied to national needs and would respond to actual, not theoretical needs on the ground. The results include a variety of practical tools to enhance public understanding of their rights to information and government capacity to respond to requests. Additionally, there has been targeted training and technical assistance to assure that the tools are properly used. Key decision-makers have been consistently engaged in the project and consulted; their participation is a key to introducing genuine change in each of the countries. For example, as noted below, many countries are producing manuals for use by government employees to aid their understanding of how to manage and respond to information requests from the public. An official approval and encouragement to use these manuals is essential, if the manuals are really to be distributed to each desk and actually used.

WHO

The project is implemented by a Consortium of three organizations with long-standing experience in access to environmental information and environmental public participation in all its aspects, as well as deep knowledge of the region. This expertise is supplemented by REC’s country offices. REC has one or more country offices in each of the engaged countries, and the personnel of these offices routinely work with local officials, NGOs and others. Therefore, so the project has benefited from authoritative on-the ground expertise and access to appropriate decisionmakers. Stakeholders include government officials at all levels of government, formal NGOs engaged in activities to improve the water quality of the Danube River, ordinary citizens who swim, fish and otherwise use the river as a resource, agricultural interests and industry. Throughout this project, stakeholders have been engaged to the maximum degree, involved in the research, national and five-country meetings and especially in the demonstration projects. The beneficiaries are essentially the same as the stakeholders – everyone who lives and works in the Danube River Basin and benefits from improved water quality for drinking water, recreation and agricultural uses.

WHERE

These activities take place in five countries and at both the national and local level. In a river basin, it does not make any difference where you are located – the important issue is how water and pollution move from specific pollution sources to eventually find their way to the main river body. Thus, demonstration projects have taken place in areas of water pollution “hot spots” where the needs are greatest and NGO concern the strongest, with overall concern for demonstrating methods that can be used in other parts of the river basin or other river basins.

Similarly, responsibilities for information access are found at all levels in each of the countries and therefore, the project has been conducted at various levels. While laws in general are written at the central level (there are some variations on this, particularly with the complex government structure of Bosnia and Herzegovina), they are often carried out at every level including districts, provinces and municipalities. Accordingly, we have held meetings in capital cities and elsewhere in the Danube Basin, and the focus of demonstration projects has assured a strong presence in out-lying areas disproportionately impacted by pollution sources. All manner of active groups have participated including local industry, trade associations, consumers, farmers and others.

WHEN

Efforts under this project began in September 2004 and are scheduled to end no later than December 31, 2006. Each demonstration project was implemented for no more than one year. The timetable has provided the project organizers more time than was available in a previous, 18 month pilot project that involved two countries, where we did not have sufficient time to include a demonstration project. It is always the case with efforts to change governance habits and improve related skills that more time would be preferable to less but project organizers and participants are joining forces to seek ways to sustain these activities even after the formal project ends.

HOW

We have chosen to list activities and steps in chronological order because they would not otherwise be understandable. We began with county-specific research to identify the status of existing laws and practices in each country, and thereby to identify gaps and needs that could be addressed in the project. These reports were reviewed in national meetings and modified accordingly. Country-level project activities were discussed and preliminarily decided. The national meetings also examined potential sites for demonstration projects and made recommendations. An initial plenary meeting was held which gathered all the countries together to share their experience in identifying specific issues to work on in the course of the project. In this meeting, in addition, the shared experience allowed all participants to gain additional insights into the challenges they faced and possible solutions. The plenary meeting solidified the decisions made in national meetings. Thus, at the conclusion of the meeting, each country had a game plan of action on which it could act.

Thereafter, specific proposals for the conduct of country activities and demonstration projects were accepted and reviewed and decisions were made which set implementation into motion. A second round of national or country level meetings allowed everyone to review progress and provide specific comments on preliminary drafts of the various manuals, brochures and/or legal language that would be the “products” of these efforts. Following the national meetings, work has continued to finalize the various products, to conduct training sessions in their use, and to otherwise complete efforts.

Of course, there has been considerable interaction and communication between the various formal meetings, taking place through phone conversation, emails and occasional site visits by members of the project implementation team. Draft documents have been shared and commented. A listserv of all project participants allows ready communication. We have also conducted several “Steering Committee” meetings to be sure that the DRP, ICPDR and key individuals in each country are fully current with the project and its results and to obtain approval of its key decisions. The project will essentially end in fall 2006 with a Danube Basin-wide dissemination meeting in Szentendre, Hungary. Major participants will share their experience and provide lessons learned to each other and to the wider audience of all of the countries of the Danube Basin.

The project managers have also committed to a dissemination program to be sure that the experience gained is not lost. Several articles about the project have been posted in publications like “Green Horizons,” and in wider networks around Europe that follow efforts related to improving water quality. Project materials are posted on the project website and on the websites of REC Country offices, as well as on the websites of participating NGOs. Further dissemination activities are being planned by the DRP and ICPDR.

Results and Impact

Lessons for Replication

The project has been a success because, in the end, it reflects a “bottom-up” approach. It focused on local needs and local solutions informed by experience elsewhere, adapted to fit the particular circumstances presented in each country and each locality. It also worked because the project design was flexible enough to respond to unanticipated needs and challenges. Two Study Tours (one to the US and one to Netherlands), attended by government officials and NGOs from each participating country, helped provide concrete examples from mature systems of environmental protection on how to implement and carry out plans to provide information to the public and to respond to requests from the public.

We can offer a number of lessons that can help inform and build broader basin-wide improvements in access to environmental/water information and environmental public participation. These include:

Lessons learned by participants in the project

• Government agencies on all levels need concrete, clear procedures for accepting, processing and responding adequately to information requests,

– Useful examples of such procedures are available in other countries, and from earlier projects, see e.g. http://www.rec.org/REC/Programs/PublicParticipation/DanubeInformation/default.html

– The art is to understand how best to adapt these examples to the specific national/local conditions; clearly, one size does not fit all.

• It will be difficult for government agencies to be responsive to requests unless they catalogue what kind of information they have and where this information can be found within the agency:

– Databases and other ways of gathering and organizing information are essential.

• Setting clear rules and procedures for what information is legitimately confidential will make release of other information less difficult because it removes uncertain discretion that can be interpreted too restrictively.

• Advocacy for change by NGOs can be a combination of criticism and partnership with the government, depending on specific issues.

• There is always greater force in numbers; therefore in developing alliances with each other, NGOs should look for points of agreement even with groups they might otherwise disagree with, acknowledging that the areas of agreement might be limited;

• Engaging the broader public in issues of access to information and public participation requires significant outreach, clear language and inclusiveness.

• Without the trust, confidence and interest of the public, government agencies are isolated and their decisions may not be optimal.

• Government agencies need public allies at every stage of regulation and implementation in order to strengthen these regulations and this implementation.

• Involvement of the public leads to increased essential practical, local and sometimes technical knowledge.

• Access to information and public participation can increase respect for rights and laws.

Project related lessons • Sharing of lessons and practices between countries can ensure better progress in each country.

• Collaborative efforts of government officials and NGO representatives reduce mutual suspicion and help build government-NGO-bridges.

• Iterative processes help build solid and sustainable results.

• Learning-by-doing is critical to build long lasting capacity with government officials and NGOs and ensures that they feel ownership of the issues they have been working on.

Lessons for groups organizing projects such as these

• Change that involves altering the thinking and behavior of human beings is a step-by-step process, where small successes can breed more success.

• Participants are predominantly interested in practical ideas, less in theory.

• Projects can facilitate learning by:

– Bringing in-depth knowledge from other countries

– Building bridges between sectors within countries, and between countries

– Assisting with “cultural interpretation” to make lessons relevant to local circumstances.

Main Results

The many concrete achievements include the development of a number of manuals and brochures to aid individuals, NGOs and governments to improve their skills in access to information and information dissemination and to better carry out their responsibilities. Although the five countries are pursuing different tasks on different timetables, there are some common elements among their expected products and outcomes.

Depending on the country, the expected tools or “products” include:

• information brochures for ordinary citizens and/or NGOs on what information is available, how to obtain it and what to do if a request is refused;

• development of databases (including information sources, substances, emissions, stakeholders contacts, etc.) that improve understanding of what information exists and where it is located (which offices and agencies), in preparation for improving access to that information;

• improved local understanding of water-related pollution and its health and other impacts on people in the community (for example, human health, the quality of fishing and recreation) through various awareness building exercises;

• efforts to reach out to local media and work with them to understand and better report important information about water quality;

• the establishment of various tools (local committees, websites) to provide a platform for on-going community and regional discussion and resolution of issues surrounding hot spots and highly polluted water bodies;

• recommendations to local authorities on improvements they can easily make for public access to water related pollution information at the local community level; and

• recommendations on how the NGO sector can influence decision making processes and their own roles as models for other stakeholders.

Most countries either have completed or will soon complete various planned training efforts to raise local capacity in various aspects of information access and environmental public participation. Other training has been instituted to assure that stakeholders in government and in the public know how to use the various developed tools.

Testimonies and stakeholder perceptions

We have listed below several remarks made by project participants including some who attended one of the Study Tours:

  • “As an engineer, I’ve become aware of the benefit of sharing ideas and discussion environmental and water related topics with environmental lawyers. I’ve discovered what an advantage it could be to have lawyers and technical experts working together.”
  • “Even though I work within the governmental structure, I was really impressed by the good and strong collaboration established between authorities and NGOs in order to mutually identify and promote solutions for environmental issues.”
  • “I’ve come to understand that access to documents is as important as access to data.”
  • “As a government employee, the experience led me to thoroughly understand the role of NGOs. I’ve learned that we in government can gain power by working with NGOs to achieve the EU WFD objectives and the importance of public participation in this process. But the partnership needs to be carefully analyzed and organized, to avoid it becoming a mere formality or even its own contradiction.”
  • “[This experience has] enhanced my communication and collaboration skills, openness, ability to better hear and respect other (different than my own) opinions... all of mentioned factors are needed in better facilitation of enhancing public participation in my own society.”

Timeframe & Status

The project officially began work in September 2004 and will conclude all of its activities no later than December 31, 2006.

Outlook (Conclusions and Next Steps)

The entire point of this exercise has been to create living documents that are used on a daily basis. Thus considerable thought has gone into how to make sure that government officials welcome the tools and support their daily use in government operations. The various tools – brochures, manuals and the like – produced in this project are being printed in multiple copies and disseminated in each country. Additionally, materials will be placed on the websites of the relevant REC country offices, the REC itself and on the websites of NGOs and other who participated in the project. Project products were produced within each country with the full cooperation and support of

Interviewees and Key Contacts

Quotations came from evaluations submitted to the project by participants in the US and Netherlands Study Tours. Names are therefore not provided. However, we can separately provide the names and addresses of relevant personnel in the REC Country Offices who can, in turn, be a resource connecting inquiries with country participants.

References

See also

Water Knowledge Fair 2006

UNDP/GEF Danube Regional Project

Strengthening the Implementation Capacities for Nutrient Reduction and Transboundary Cooperation in the Danube River Basin

TEST - Transfer of Environmentally Sound Technology in the Danube River Basin

Pilot Project on Rapid Environmental and Health Risk Assessment (REHRA) in secondary rivers of the mean and lower Danube basin

DEF - Danube Environmental Forum

UNESCO water portal; The International Commission for the Protection of the Danube River (ICPDR), case study on Sharing water in the Danube River Basin

“WWF - 2006 Floods in the Danube River Basin”

External Resources

A host of relevant materials are found at the REC project web site:

http://www.rec.org/REC/Programs/PublicParticipation/DanubeInformation/default.html

http://www.rec.org/REC/Programs/PublicParticipation/DanubeRiverBasin/default.html

Attachments

 REC 1.doc  REC 2.doc

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