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A Project Manager's Responsibility in Environmentally-Sensitive Projects
By Avinash Khare, PMP
A project might help in the economic development of a region, but leave a negative impact on the immediate environment. Multipurpose river valley projects, hydroelectric projects, and large construction projects fall in this category. As a project manager, you can take appropriate steps to forestall the damage and soften the impact.

Multipurpose river valley projects lead to the displacement of people. These projects increase the risk of damage due to earthquakes, submerge forest land, increase the spread of insect-borne diseases, and threaten the fragile ecosystem by reducing the flow of water from the river into the sea. The devastation to human lives and the biodiversity is often immeasurable in such cases.

Hydroelectric power stations make the flow of water downstream sluggish, leading to changes in sedimentation and increasing the instances of flooding. Dams can breach its capacity, resulting in huge loss of property and life.

Large construction projects can have an impact on the environment by polluting the air and water, producing waste, and precipitating water shortage. Ground water that is extracted for use in construction sites can push the water table down over a period of time. Similarly, in energy plant projects, greenhouse emissions can pose a threat to the air around the plant.

The project manager must explore risk mitigation measures before taking a decision on the future of the project. For multipurpose river valley projects, the flow rate of the river has to be maintained to preserve the river ecosystem. Vegetation can be regenerated by large-scale planting of trees. Water levels in the river can be maintained by bulding weirs. Fish ways that enable the fish to pass around the barriers without getting trapped should be installed on or around artificial barriers such as dams to facilitate the natural migration of fish, thus preventing fish mortality.

In hydroelectric power projects, flood tunnels can be made to reduce sedimentation around the reservoir. Water levels can be maintained to preserve wetlands and aeration must be implemented to improve water quality.

For construction projects, waste management is a big problem and the project manager must devise systems for waste collection, transportation, and disposal. Special care must be taken to handle and dispose hazardous waste, which if left unattended can pose a serious threat to the environment. Colossal construction projects involve deforestation which in turn increases the concentration of greenhouse gases that lead to global warming. Geo-engineering techniques for carbon-dioxide removal to reduce greenhouse gases emission must be adopted.

A project manager needs to conduct an environmental impact assessment of a proposed project, besides studying aspects like the projectís social and economic viability. This assessment will help the project manager and the project stakeholders take an objective view on whether to proceed with the project or not.

Environmental impact assessment studies need a significant amount of primary and secondary environmental data. Primary data is collected on the field to define the status of the environment such as air quality and water quality data. Secondary data is collected over the years and can be used to understand the existing enviornmental scenario of the study area. Next, the project manager must identify the risks that the project poses on the environment. The environmental impact study should be an ongoing exercise during the lifecycle of the project. The project manager must also take into account organizational guidelines or government guidelines during execution. A lessons learned repository is a helpful tool for such projects. Having a contingency plan in case of any environmental disaster would be an added advantage and should be kept accessible.

There must be clear policies and guidelines in the organization to protect, analyze, and monitor the environment while planning, designing, and executing a project. Some common environmental issues that an organization must guard against are: water and air pollution, waste disposal, and resource depletion, which are leading to climate change. Organizations must undertake environmental audit as a good practice in project management. Considering the increasing impact of projects on the environment, particularly in India that is stepping up infrastructure building, an environmental project manager is the need of the hour and will be the right resource for complex projects that are likely to impact the environment.

(Mr. Avinash Khare, PMP, works with a leading telecom ISP with more than five years of experience in handling datacenter projects for varied customers.)
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