Importance of Data Access
Author: Stephen Stec, Central European University, Budapest, Hungary
Access to environmental information in water security and management helps ensure that national development projects are undertaken in a manner that contributes to the achievement of development goals. Ensuring the wide dissemination of information to various public and private bodies gives support to planning and policy decisions. By increasing the knowledge and capacity of the public to participate in complex decision-making processes, various interests can better be taken into account. Environmental information enables the public to make their own critical decisions about their lives and their communities. An informed and concerned public can play a role in environmental monitoring, compliance and enforcement, greatly augmenting the capacities of public authorities. These are some of the many reasons why access to environmental information is so important to sustainable development.
The importance of transparency, accountability and access to environmental information in protecting the environment for future generations has been recognized on the international level for over 40 years. Principles 19 and 20 of the 1972 Stockholm Declaration were followed, fifteen years later, by the report of the UN Commission on Environment and Development led by Gro Harlem Brundtland. Madame Brundtland’s report under the title “Our Common Future” set out the concept of sustainable development that still guides global policy today. The international community adopted the main elements of the Brundtland Report in 1992 in the form of the Rio Declaration, containing a set of 27 principles, and Agenda 21, an action plan for the 21st Century. The Rio Principles have been reconfirmed in 2002 in Johannesburg and in 2012 at the Earth Summit in Rio de Janeiro.
Principle 10 of the Rio Declaration is one of the most important ones. States that apply the principle grant procedural rights to members of the public to get access to environmental information, to participate in environmental decision-making, and to have access to justice in environmental matters. Like many of the Rio Principles, Principle 10 is on the verge of acceptance as a general principle of international law. It is widely applied on the national level through legislation and practice, and the principle is also embodied in a number of international agreements. One regional treaty – the Aarhus Convention – is simply about application of Principle 10. Another regional convention is under negotiation in the Latin America and Caribbean region. Access to environmental information is also guaranteed in the constitutions of a large number of states as well as through various human rights instruments. A large majority of the world’s population lives in areas where access to environmental information is guaranteed through one or another treaty, and/or under national law. To help countries apply Principle 10 and to assist in the establishment of global standards for the principle’s application, UNEP adopted a set of guidelines in 2010, called the “Bali Guidelines” after their place of adoption.
The Bali Guidelines deal with access to environmental information in two aspects. First is the right of members of the public to request information held by public authorities. This right is sometimes referred to as a “passive” obligation, because it does not require authorities to actively disseminate information but only to respond to a request. The passive right of access only applies to information that is actually held by the authorities – it does not by itself require the public authorities to generate environmental information. However, it is increasingly recognized that the public authorities need to have essential information at their disposal to be able to carry out their responsibilities, whether for environmental protection or for other matters. And it is further recognized that the public needs to have access to this information in a structured, cost-effective, user-friendly way in order to make use of it and to assist public authorities in carrying out their duties. Consequently, the second aspect of access to environmental information is now considered essential to the good functioning of environmental authorities – that is, the duty of authorities to gather and structure information in publicly-accessible databases. The mechanism of the pollutant release and transfer register, or PRTR, is one important tool in this regard. Other important mechanisms for active dissemination of information include environmental information systems based upon monitoring data, EIA, SEA and integrated permitting.
While the focus of Rio Principle 10 and the instruments that have been developed to implement it have been on information held by public authorities, many states have developed legislation with provisions aimed at making more accessible environmental information held by the private sector. It is generally considered good practice today for private entities dealing with environmental information to put mechanisms in place for public information, consultation and awareness. Private entities may even work in cooperation with NGOs that undertake a watchdog function towards polluters. Water security and management is a field where private actors often play a key role. Some water districts or water usage schemes are quite localized, particularly in rural areas, and are often managed by private entities or cooperatives. Community-based water governance systems may often be quite responsible when it comes to giving out information, but they may also require robust access to information rules in their dealings with public authorities and private enterprises (Ewing and Nolan 2006).
Access to information has already been particularly important in terms of ensuring equitable access to water by the urban and rural poor. Extension of access to water requires increasing the efficiency of delivery systems, reducing overuse and pollution, and giving a voice to those who are often disempowered in decision-making. Studies have shown that there is a direct correlation between access to information about water quality, and the quality of the water itself (Krchnak 2005). That is, transparency about the quality of services delivery increases the pressure on responsible authorities to meet their goals. Furthermore, the existence of a well-functioning system of access to information enhances the ability of authorities to respond to extraordinary situations, such as emergencies.
Ewing, Michael and Stephen Nolan. “A Pilot Study of Water Governance in Ireland.” Centre for Sustainability, January 2006.
Krchnak, Karin M. “Improving Water Governance Through Increased Public Access to Information and Participation.” Sustainable Development Law & Policy, Winter 2005, 34-39, 48.