Climate change debates have recently become the forefront of national, regional and global issues. Its effects are alarming, they can be evidently seen everywhere, take an example of the blazing sun and increasing humidity levels in Dar es Salaam and the torrential rains elsewhere in the country and the world.
With these increasing environmental concerns, public participation in decision making is very important. This is because the public is the main stakeholder in our environment. The first question that arises is what is the public? According to section 3 of the Environmental Management Act (EMA), 2004, the public means individuals, civil society organizations and institutions, community based organizations; public and private institutions.
Another question could be what is meant by decision making? Section 3 again defines decision-making processes to mean institutionalized processes or procedures initiated by public or private institutions with the intention of making decisions with potential to have socioeconomic and environmental consequences. Now that we know what the public is and what decision making entails, how then does the law empower the public to participate in decision making?
Section 7 (3) (e) of EMA provides for observation of the principle of public participation which requires the involvement of the people in the development of policies, plans and processes for the management of the environment. This is in accordance with Principle 10 of the Rio Declaration.
Part XIV Section 178 of the EMA elaborates on this principle. The law appears to be all encompassing in covering the principle. However, what is in practice? EMA came into force 2005, now five years but engaging the public in decision making has not been and is still not an easy task.
The section vests the public with two rights; to be timely informed of the intention of public authorities to make executive or legislative decisions affecting the environment and of available opportunities to participate in such decisions and the right to participate in decisions concerning the design of environmental policies, strategies, plans and programmes and to participate in the preparation of laws and regulations relating to the environment.
Is the public aware of these important rights? If so, does it exercise them accordingly? Research and studies show that a large percentage of the public is not aware of these rights and/or reluctant to exercise them. This leaves the intention of the legislature unattended.
Further still, section 178 (3) does not make it mandatory to avail information relating to decisions affecting the environment. This may be overlooked by public authorities hence may not give the public a chance to participate adequately.
One may also question the extent to which section 178 (4) and (5) has been implemented. The government has tried to involve the public in environmental decision-making. It has however ignored some sections of the public as defined by the Act for example individuals. This can be attributed to manpower shortages and limited resources.
The public is also reluctant to take active role in environmental decision making. One can say this is a new culture we are adopting from developed nations who began involving the public from time memorial. So it will take us some time to adjust from our lukewarm and procrastination culture to active participation. As the saying goes “Rome was not built in one day”, our complacency culture shall not be changed in one day. However we cannot take very slow steps in doing this because climate change is not taking light toll on us, the effects are fast and worsening by the day. We need to move two steps ahead and no step back!
We need to curb the effects of climate change together with our authorities. They cannot do it alone; they need our help and support. This is our country, our world and our environment!
Similarly, a strong commitment from the local government to be inclusive, develop political support, or show leadership will necessitate the involvement of the community. A prudent local government will involve the community in order to ensure broad commitment from all residents of the city. This will also ensure acceptance and ownership of its policies and programmes with the community.