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Some Terminology & Definitions: Sustainability, Land Use & Impact Assessment

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Submitted by: Karl Ramjohn

  • Adverse Effects

Any reduction in environmental quality of a system, or other depletion of the environmental resource capital. Defined in terms of, and measured by, environmental impacts.

  • Alternatives

A possible course of action, in place of another, that would meet the same purpose and need (of the proposal).

  • Aquifer

A subsurface geological rock formation that has a high-to-moderate permeability and can yield an economically significant amount of water.

  • Biodiversity

The variability among living organisms from all sources including inter alia, terrestrial, marine and other aquatic ecosystems. Generally considered at three levels: genetic, species and ecosystem diversity.

  • Biological Resources

Include genetic resources, organisms or parts thereof, populations or other biotic components of ecosystems, with actual or potential use for humanity (or other living organisms).

  • Biophysical

Environmental processes, ecological functions and natural resource components (biological, physical and geochemical) not directly controlled by, or dependent upon, human activities.

  • Cumulative Impacts

Progressive environmental degradation over time resulting from a range of activities throughout an area or region, each of which when considered in isolation may not be regarded as a significant contributor. The solution is better regional planning and control.

  • Data Quality

Measure of the level of validity required for interpretation and decision-making. Depends on the accuracy of the analytical methodology used, and reliability of environmental data generated.

  • dB(A)

Decibel (A-Scale): An international weighted scale of sound pressure levels or environmental noise, used to provide a good correlation with subjective impressions by individuals (in most cases, of loudness and sense of annoyance). The B, C and D scales are used for more specialized noise measurements.

  • Development

The act of altering and modifying resources in order to obtain potential benefits.

  • Development Proposals

Consist of a wide range of human activities which provide (a) favourable conditions for an increase in the transformation of the natural, biophysical environment to provide goods and services available to society and (b) actions which directly produce the goods and services.

  • Ecological Processes

Changes or reactions which occur naturally within ecosystems. They may be physical, chemical or biological

  • Ecological Risk

The risk that plant, animal and microorganism communities are subjected to a hazard. Considers toxicology, and the probability of environmental dispersal (e.g., exposure pathways or bioaccumulation through food webs), or other potential causation for environmental damages and losses (e.g., ecological resilience or biological diversity)

  • Economic Sustainability

Occurs when development, which moves toward social and environmental sustainability, is financially feasible.

  • Ecosystem

Dynamic complex of human, plant, animal and micro-organism communities and associated abiotic (non-living) environment interacting as a functional unit.

  • Ecosystem Structure & Function

Ecosystem structure is defined by the interactions between abiotic factors and biotic components of the system. Functions are activities or actions which occur naturally as a product of the interactions between ecosystem structure and processes which, taken together with the functions of other ecosystems, collectively provide “services” upon which all life on earth depends, including maintaining the balance of atmospheric gases, recycling of nutrients, regulating climate, maintaining hydrological cycles, and creating soils.

  • Effluents

Aqueous or suspended particulate waste streams discharged to the environment as industrial facility process residues.

  • Emissions

Gaseous or aerosol waste streams discharged to the environment as industrial facility process residues.

  • Environment

The combined features and resource capital, that provide the basis for development, environmental management and conservation. Includes the processes and components of, and services provided by, atmospheric, hydrological, geophysical, biotic, human and landscape factors.

  • Environmental Data

Raw facts about environmental quality. Obtained by analytical processes that convert environmental samples to numerical estimates (within error limits) of environmental quality characteristics.

  • Environmental Degradation

Adverse effects (reversible or permanent) on biophysical, social and economic resources, or any other reduction in the “set of options” available to future generations.

  • Environmental Impact

Changes in environmental quality due to external disturbance to a system. Includes beneficial and adverse, primary and secondary, cumulative, synergistic, short, medium and long-term, reversible and irreversible. Described in terms of magnitude (of effect), direction (of change) and probability (of occurrence), with or without mitigation.

  • Environmental Impact Detection

Test and confirmation of environmental impact hypothesis.

  • Environmental Impact Hypothesis

Formally stated, testable conjecture of predicted change in environmental quality associated with development actions. Can be defined in terms of environmental quality indicators, to facilitate testing (at appropriate levels of confidence).

  • Environmental Management System

A system which provides a structured process for continual improvement and which enables an organization to achieve and systematically control the level of environmental performance that it sets itself. In general, this is based on a dynamic cyclical process of “plan, implement, check and review”.

  • Environmental Quality

The status or value of the natural resource capital at a particular location at a specified time, relative to development, environmental management and conservation.

  • Environmental Quality Indicators

Measurable parameters that describe environmental quality and related human actions, in a summarized format.

  • Environmental Sampling

Physical collection of a representative portion of the environment, using techniques which facilitate accurate generation of reliable data.

  • Environmental Sustainability

Practices to ensure that the natural resource capital remains intact; i.e., that the source and sink functions of the environment should not be degraded. Therefore, the extraction of renewable resources should not exceed the rate at which they are renewed, and the absorptive capacity of the environment to assimilate wastes should not be exceeded. Furthermore, the extraction of non-renewable resources should be minimized and should not exceed agreed minimum strategic levels.

  • Habitat

Living space – all the elements which collectively define and constitute the locality or nature of the spatial and temporal “frame of reference” within the biosphere in which plants, animals and humans live. Includes non-living influences such as soil, light, temperature, moisture, humidity and other abiotic factors, as well as biotic (living) components which influence, or are influenced by, the activities of organisms, individuals, communities and organizations, all of which integratively determine the “quality of life” conditions.

  • Health

The physical, mental and social well-being of individuals or communities, and not merely the absence of disease or infirmity.

  • Human Environment

The physical, social, and economic components, conditions and factors that interactively determine the state, condition, and quality of living conditions, employment, and health of those affected directly or indirectly by resource development activities in a given area.

  • Individual Risk

The risk level for a specific individual (e.g., potentially exposed personnel in facility). Measured in terms of probability that a particular individual will be exposed, injured or suffer other losses.

  • Inland surface waters

Waters that flow over or rest upon the surface of the lithosphere, in the interior of a land mass, and in dry weather conditions, includes the area over which such waters are seasonally present. Includes rivers, streams, tidal waters, swamps, ponds and impounded reservoirs.

  • Land

An area of the earth’s surface, including all elements of the physical and biological environment that influence land use. Refers not only to soil, but also landforms, climate, hydrology, vegetation and fauna, together with land improvements such as terraces and drainage works.

  • Land Degradation

The temporary or permanent lowering of the productive capacity of the land, or its potential for environmental management. Includes air, water and soil pollution, loss of aquatic or soil bio-activity, increased surface run-off and erosion, bio-accumulation of toxic substances, soil fertility decline, salinisation, waterlogging, contamination or lowering of water table, increased surface albedo, and deforestation, forest degradation or other habitat loss.

  • Land Quality

The condition of land relative to land use, including agriculture forestry, industry, conservation and environmental management.

  • Land Use

The management of land to meet specified socio-economic objectives. Land use is described by the purposes for which the land is used, and the types and sequences of development, conservation and environmental management activities carried out upon the land.

  • Mitigation

The purposeful planning, design and implementation of decisions, activities, engineering solutions or management systems that are intended to reduce the undesirable impacts of proposed development actions on the affected environment.

  • Natural Resource Assets: Products & Attributes

Products generated by ecosystems include: forest resources, wildlife resources, forage resources, fisheries, agricultural resources and water supply, and represent the good and services generated by the interactions between the biological, chemical and physical components of an ecosystem. Attributes of an ecosystem include biological diversity and unique landscape, heritage and cultural features, which may lead to certain uses or the derivation of particular products, but they may also have intrinsic, unquantifiable importance.

  • Noise

Sound pressure emissions of sufficient magnitude, intensity or continuity to be regarded as a form of pollution. Unlike chemical pollutants, noise emissions dissipate relatively rapidly over distance and time and can be regarded as a localized environmental problem.

  • Point Source

Discernable, confined and discrete conveyance source, including (but not limited to) any pipe, ditch, channel, conduit, well, discrete fissure, container, drilling rig, oil and gas platform, vent or vehicle, from which pollutants can potentially be discharged to the environment.

  • Pollution

The release of any material, surplus energy or other waste stream into the environment in sufficient quantities to exceed thresholds, and adversely affect environmental quality in the short, medium or long-term.

  • Precautionary Principle

Sustainability principle which states that if there are threats of serious irreversible environmental damage, lack of full scientific certainty will not be used as a reason for postponing measures to prevent environmental degradation.

  • Proponent

Organisation (private or public sector) or individual seeking environmental clearance for implementation of development proposal.

  • Quality of Life

Socio-economic environmental concept embracing a diversity of values not always recognized, or adequately addressed, in marketplace analysis. Includes factors such as real income, housing, working conditions, health, educational services and recreational opportunities, which may be regarded as the general standard of living.

  • Risk Analysis

Technique used to determine the likelihood or chance of hazardous events occurring and the likely consequences. Originally developed for nuclear and chemical industry, where low probability events potentially have extremely serious results. Probabilistic risk analysis can be used to characterise environmental impacts, whose occurrence and nature are difficult to predict with any degree of accuracy.

  • Run-off

The component of precipitation or irrigation water that flows from the land-surface into streams or other surface-water. Run-off can transport pollutants from the air and soil into surface water. Flooding occurs when surface run-off exceeds stream channel capacities.

  • Scoping

A procedure for narrowing the scope of an assessment and ensuring that the assessment remains focussed on the truly significant issues or impacts.

  • Social Impact Assessment

The component of EIA concerned with changes in the structure and functioning of social orderings. In particular, the changes that a development would create in: social relationships; community (population, structure, stability, etc); quality and way of life; language; ritual; political/economic processes; attitudes/values; health impacts.

  • Social Sustainability

Practices to ensure that the cohesion of society and its ability to work towards common goals are maintained. Individual needs such as those for health and well-being, nutrition, shelter, education and cultural expression should be met.

  • Societal Risk

The risk to society as a whole. Considers both the probability of impact on individuals, and the number of people (e.g., in adjacent communities) that could be subject to risk

  • Stakeholders

Individuals or entities potentially affected by development proposal, e.g., local populations, government agencies, developers, workforce, customers and consumers, and others.

  • Standard

Value or state of an environmental variable, considered to be desirable to achieve, and undesirable or illegal to exceed. Standards can act as either as targets (ambient characteristics for specified uses) or limits (quantities of potential pollutants released to environment), which should not be transgressed.

  • Synergistic Effects

Circumstances in which (by acting together) separate elements (e.g., environmental pollutants) produce a greater effect than would be produced if they acted separately.

  • Threshold

Critical value or state of a variable (e.g. ecological resilience) beyond which rapid, often exponential, negative changes to environmental quality occur. Beyond threshold levels, changes are frequently irreversible or very slowly reversible.


1. Ramjohn, Karl. 2000. Development of Methodology for Impact Detection and Monitoring in Accordance with The Certificate of Environmental Clearace Rules, Rule 10. M.Sc. Thesis, Science and Management of Tropical Environments. Faculty of Agriculture & Natural Sciences, University of the West Indies, St. Augustine, Trinidad & Tobago. September 2000; 117 pp.

2. DEAT 2000. Guideline Document: Strategic Environmental Assessment in South Africa. Department of Environmental Affairs and Tourism, Pretoria, Republic of South Africa. May 2000; 36 pp.

3. EMA 1999. Trinidad & Tobago: State of the Environment 1998 Report. Environmental Management Authority, Republic of Trinidad & Tobago; 66 pp.

4. Glowka, L., Burhenne-Guilmin, F. & Synge, H. 1994. A Guide to the Convention on Biological Diversity. IUCN Policy & Law Paper, No. 30; 161 pp.

5. Gilpin, A. 1995. Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA): Cutting-edge for the 21st Century. Cambridge University Press; 182 pp

6. Bisset, R. 1996. Environmental Impact Assessment: Issues, Trends and Practice. Environment & Economics Unit, United Nations Environment Program. June 1996; 96 pp.

7. Gilbert, R., Stevenson, R., Girardet, H. & Stren, R. 1996. Making Cities Work. Earthscan Publication Limited, United Kingdom.

8. Interorganizational Committee on Guidelines and Principles for Social Impact Assessment 1994. Guidelines and Principles for Social Impact Assessment. US Department of Commerce / National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration / National Marine Fisheries Service. May 1994; 33 pp.

9. Pieri, C., Dumanski, J., Hamblin, A. & Young, A. 1995. Land Quality Indicators. World Bank Discussion Paper No. 315. The World Bank, Washington, DC; 63 pp.

10. TTBS 1998. Specification for the Effluent from Industrial Processes Discharged to the Environment. TTS 547:1998. Trinidad & Tobago Bureau of Standards.