6-5 Social Impact Assessment

People are an integral part of the environment. Human activity alters the biophysical environment and, in turn, these impacts are translated into social effects. In many EIA systems the immediate and direct social impacts of a proposal always should be analysed as an integral component of an EIA.

Social impacts include changes that affect individuals, groups, communities and populations as well as the interactions between them. They are alterations in the way people live, work, play, relate to each other and organise their communities and institutions to meet their needs and guide their collective actions, as well as changes in their characteristic values, beliefs, norms, traditions and perceptions of quality of life and well being.

Social impacts can be divided into four main types:

  • demographic impacts such as changes in population numbers and characteristics (such as sex ratio, age structure, in-and-out migration rates and resultant demand for social services, hospital beds, school places, housing etc);
  • cultural impacts including changes to shared customs, traditions and value systems (e.g. language, dress, religious beliefs and rituals) archaeological, historical and cultural artifacts and to structures and environmental features with religious or ritual significance;
  • community impacts including changes in social structures, organisations and relationships and their accompanying effect on cohesion, stability, identity and provision of services; and
  • socio-psychological impacts including changes to individual quality of life and well being, sense of security or belonging and perceptions of amenity or hazard.

Often, local people are not the beneficiaries of proposed development. Rather they bear the brunt of the adverse impacts. These effects are especially acute in developing countries when projects displace people whose security and subsistence depends on the land and resources that will be affected. World Bank environmental and social assessment procedures give particular attention to the impact on indigenous peoples and other vulnerable ethnic and cultural groups whose lifestyle, value and tenure systems may be disrupted or lost.

A comprehensive social impact assessment (SIA) will be required in such cases. In other circumstances, adding a relevant specialist to the EIA team may suffice to address social impacts. However, it should be emphasised that there is little consensus on the social impacts that should be included as part of an EIA process. Other than agreeing that the scope is too limited, SIA practitioners themselves differ on the aspects to be studied and the framework within which they should be analysed.

Health impacts

Health impacts can be a significant aspect of certain types of development. These impacts can be beneficial as well as adverse; for example, water infrastructure projects eradicate or drastically reduce the occurrence of cholera, diarrhea and other gastro-intestinal diseases that are endemic in less developed countries. However, adverse health impacts can also occur as a result of development projects, either directly from changes to the biophysical environment (such as exposure to pollutants) or indirectly as a secondary result of other changes; for example, the creation of habitat conditions favourable to the spread or intensification of disease vectors, such as mosquitoes (malaria) or water snails (schistosomiasis).

To date, insufficient attention has been given to health impacts in comparison to coverage given to biophysical or even other social impacts. In many cases, health impact assessment (HIA) is carried out separately and independently; for example in the chemical, nuclear and other hazardous industries. The World Health Organisation, the World Bank and other international agencies recommend that, where necessary and appropriate, HIA should be integrated with the EIA process. Both use similar information, approach and methods; for example, when identifying the health and environmental impacts of exposure to air particulate emissions from a proposed power plant.

Examples of health impacts by sector
Sector Communicable Non communicable Nutrition Injury Psychosocial disorder and loss of well-being
Source: Birley draft materials prepared for World Health Organisation (2000)
Mining Tuberculosis Dust induced lung disease Crushing Labour migration
Agriculture Parasitic infections Pesticide poisoning Loss of subsistence
Industry Poisoning by pollutants Occupational injury Disempowerment
Loss of food production Occupational injury
Dams and irrigation schemes Water borne diseases Poisoning by pollutants Increased food production Drowning Involuntary displacement
Transportation HIV/Aids Heart disease Traffic injury Noise and induced stress
Energy Indoor air pollution Electromagnetic radiation Community displacement

July 26, 2006 Uncategorized — brendan @ 2:59 pm


  1. I am really enjoying working through these materials, which are of high quality and beautifully presented. Note that in the table of health impacts, above, there is a minor error, with loss of food production and occupational injury related to forestry being placed in the wrong columns (move them to the right by one column). In the last line of the paragraph before the heading “health impacts” there are two isolated letters “yt”. Is there missing text here or are these just typos?

    Thanks so much for making these materials available!

    Comment by Dr Mark Ritchie — May 14, 2007 @ 1:03 am

  2. Dear Dr. Ritchie,

    Many thanks for your comments and both points have now been addressed.

    Brendan Barrett
    UN University

    Comment by brendan — May 14, 2007 @ 8:12 am

  3. in a SIA process – what is the difference between scoping and Projection of estimated effects. Are they not essentially the same thing?

    in scoping you identify social impacts and in Projection of estimated effects you also identify impacts.

    Comment by john — April 25, 2013 @ 6:05 am

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