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Chris Bennett: Bringing Environmental and Social Safeguards into China

TansFORM is publishing a series of interviews with senior specialists from the World Bank, looking at China’s rapid development in the transport sector and the role the bank has played over a course of 30 years. They will share their insights on the experience and lessons China has learned.

I worked in China from 2003 to 2009 and one of the highlights was the evolution of understanding of environmental and social safeguards in project implementation. The way the World Bank and Chinese government worked together changed over time.

Evolving cooperation

In the very early stages, the Bank’s environmental and safeguard policies were considered almost as an add-on to projects. They were something that had to be done to meet the requirements of the project. But as China began to become more aware of the importance of social and environmental issues in these projects, they evolved.

It came to the point that the Hubei provincial government asked if they could do - with the Bank’s support – a strategic environmental assessment (SEA) of the overall transport sector in the province. The aim was to identify what are the key environmental and social risks and how they could mitigate them, not just in the World Bank projects. This is important because the Bank financed only some 5 per cent of the projects in China’s expressway network; the other 95 per cent being done did not involve international donors.

The government of China used the World Bank projects as a platform to test different solutions and opportunities. When they were confronted with major technical, environmental and social challenges, the Bank would bring our experience to assist.

Environmental impact assessment in expressways

In the early years of China program, the expressway projects were straightforward and easy to do, which provided a way for Chinese contractors to develop more skills. By the time of mid-2000s, China was going into more challenging projects, from both environmental and engineering point of view.

The Yichang-Badong expressway, or Yi-Ba project, was a case in point. It went through the Three Gorges national park, a very environmentally sensitive area. The Hubei Provincial Communications Department (HPCD) asked the World Bank to help with minimizing the negative environmental and social impacts of that project.

From very early on, the Bank worked with HPCD counterparts. A lot of time was spent doing route selection, because the final environment impact depends a lot on the route you select. Together with the HPCD, the Bank team spent quite a lot of time on optimizing the general alignment to minimize slope cuts and fills and to make sure we’ve avoided very sensitive areas. For instance, there were hanging coffins in one section that had to be protected since they were of archaeological importance.

The expressway also went through very sensitive area of karst caves because the caves can be unique ecosystems where plants and bugs exist nowhere else in the world. The HPCD brought in caving specialists from Guangzhou. They took samples of plants and bugs and mapped the caves. And they put in place very detailed protection to the caves. They even named a new blind beetle found in one of that caves after me.

Internalizing and improving

Chinese contractors have developed a very good capacity for improving levels of engineering. When we found that the knowledge of the safety elements in tunneling was lacking, we brought in a Japanese specialist who ran some training programs in Hubei. When I later went back to China, I can see that the knowledge of tunnel safety has increased hugely not just in these projects, but elsewhere in the country.

This was a case where the Bank helped them to see issues that needed to improve. Once the contractors and the clients saw the value in that, they internalized it, applied it, and improved it. So, there’s been a huge improvement in terms of technical capacity over that period of time. The internalization and the receptiveness towards doing things better is what I think one of the real success factors.

The success of China’s expressway program lies in the vision and commitment. That vision was not just from the central government; it went all the way down the engineers in the field, who were totally committed to achieving the success of this program. There was also a clear support from the financing institutes to fund projects to achieve that outcome. There was a huge improvement in the capacity for the infrastructure designs. And then lastly, of course, [there were] the contractors who were able to construct this vision.