Older engineers remember with nostalgia the days when energy and irrigation planners marked out on a map where a dam and its lake were to be built – and lo, it was quickly constructed.

Nowadays, that marking out on a map is just the beginning of what can be a long and frustrating consultation and approval process involving economists, environmentalists and sociologists.

Numerous NGOs pushing various barrows also get involved and then, in more recent times, the people directly affected by the proposal feel empowered to have their say – which is usually to say ‘no’. Even those paying for the project take an interest!

In initiating the process of gaining public acceptance of dams for hydro power and irrigation projects, there are some principles that can be usefully established.

In New Zealand, these principles have been developed and put into action in a political, economic, social and cultural environment that is largely shared with both developed and so-called developing nations.

Here, the state has the very rarely exercised ultimate power to ensure an infrastructure project proceeds. But in the ordinary course a project owner has to jump over stiff statutory and regulatory hurdles to gain project approval from independent regulatory authorities.

For large infrastructure projects involving a dam, the project owner applies for permission to proceed to the local city or district council in whose area the project is proposed. For large and complex projects, the council will almost certainly devolve its responsibilities to independent commissioners, who initiate a public hearing to hear both the project owner’s case, and submissions from anyone who feels they are affected. The ordinary citizen, lobby groups, NGOs, the indigenous people (the Maori) and government departments are all therefore in a powerful position at these hearings.

Often, the project’s technical and other experts are challenged by other experts appearing for parties at the hearing who might be opposed to the project, or who want major changes to it. The Commissioners’ initial decision can be appealed by anyone to the Environment Court, where the case is reheard in front of a judge, and the judge’s decision can then be appealed – on points of law only – to the High Court.

The statute which governs this process is the Resource Management Act 1991 (the RMA). The overriding purpose of the RMA is ‘to promote the sustainable management of natural and physical resources’. This means ‘managing the use, development, and protection of natural and physical resources in a way, or at a rate, which enables people and communities to provide for their social, economic, and cultural wellbeing and for their health and safety’.

Given the considerable cost to the project owner of getting the legal case together to support the application for what’s called resource consent, avoiding community opposition towards the project – or even gaining community support – is very much in the project owner’s interests.

Communication issue

In the past, engineer-driven projects have adopted a kind of force-majeure approach towards dealing with communities and others affected by major infrastructure projects, and regrettably some continue to do so. This approach is based on ‘trust us – we are the experts, we have all the knowledge and experience and anyone who disagrees with us is just uneducated or ignorant’.

Any person or group who has the temerity to question, for instance, the safety of a proposed dam is dismissed as a scaremonger – even as headlines might appear in the local newspaper of another dam collapse somewhere in the world. (For a chastening experience, type ‘dam collapse’ into google).

Against this background of growing citizen power, scepticism and easy internet access to technical information (some of it correct and a lot of it not), project owners have increasingly turned to communication professionals to help put their case to regulators and communities.

Unfortunately most of these communication professionals adopt public relations tactics that are designed or intended to try to ‘sell’ the project. They fail to understand that very few people – if any – want a dam, landfill, coal-fired power station, sewage treatment plant or similar useful piece of infrastructure in their backyard – or even in their county. So extolling the project’s usefulness or necessity, the fact it will employ local people or provide a wonderful new lake for boating, simply upsets or even enrages a community. This means they are more likely to mount or join campaigns against the project or contribute funds to oppose the project in the legal arena.

Earning community support

The small New Zealand, community-owned generation company Pioneer Generation Limited is one that depends on community support to achieve its infrastructure projects.

Realising that engineers are not perhaps the greatest of communicators, Pioneer Generation some years ago teamed up with infrastructure communication specialists Carter Price Rennie Ltd to ensure that its community is well-informed in the period before resource consents are formally applied for in terms of the RMA.

Basically, says Pioneer Generation’s asset manager Peter Mulvihill, if a project receives ongoing and widespread community opposition, then it becomes increasingly difficult to gain the required consents with reasonable conditions, which in turn impacts on the total viability and long term operation.

Mulvihill says the company has evolved guiding principles as it brings forward a project for community scrutiny. Once the broad engineering options and environmental and social impacts are defined, it is then necessary to provide a clear picture of the likely effects the project will have on the community, and continuously communicate these to all interested parties. You need to:

• Actively consult with stakeholders. Identify the likely concerns the project will raise among all interest groups and ensure they are acknowledged and addressed with courtesy and respect at every opportunity. Prior to this stage do not assume that you identified all of these issues.

• Clearly explain how any negative effects are going to be addressed and/or mitigated.

• Help the project manager build a high level of community trust in the company.

• Ensure the project avoids any hint of the ‘we are right and you are wrong’, ‘we know best’, ‘fact and fiction’, ‘it has to go somewhere’, ‘the benefits outweigh the costs’ sentiments in any communication.

• Ensure that anyone opposed to the project is treated with courtesy and respect, and that information they ask for is promptly provided.

• Ensure good relations between the project manager and the media, by being open, honest and upfront about the project and its effects.

• Ensure that summaries of technical and other information are easily accessible to anyone in the community and that they are written or displayed in plain language.

• Ensure the project manager is available to speak about the project to community gatherings, kitchen meetings, talkback radio, public meetings, lobby groups.

• Invite suggestions and ideas from the community on how the project can be made more acceptable and if they can be implemented do so. If they can’t, clearly explain why.

Since adopting these principles and putting them into effect, Pioneer Generation has successfully completed two new hydroelectric projects, re-consented two existing projects and received consent for a small wind power project.

For Carter Price Rennie, this approach has also been successful for clients involved in more major and controversial projects – to date nearly NZ$1B (US$) worth of projects have been successfully completed with the minimum of legal costs. They include quarries, landfills, windfarms, major residential subdivisions, alterations to heritage buildings and irrigation schemes.

‘Pioneer Generation is simply determined to do the right thing for its community and we’re pleased to help them achieve it,’ says Carter Price Rennie principal Chris Rennie. ‘The biggest mistake project managers make – especially those who are engineers – is to try sell the project to their community. This just falls flat. But most communities are remarkably accepting of an infrastructure project when they’re treated with courtesy and respect, get to understand what the project is about and are invited to make suggestions on how it can be improved.

‘I don’t agree with what you’re doing, but I can understand why you’re doing it is a common reaction from such communities. They might not support it, but they’re not going to oppose it,’ adds Rennie.

Peter Mulvihull, Asset Manager, Pioneer Generation Ltd, Ellis Street, PO Box 275, Alexandra 9340, New Zealand. Email: ptm@pioneergen.co.nz

Chris Rennie, Carter Price Rennie, PO Box 4595, Christchurch 8140 , New Zealand. Email: Chris@cprpr.co.nz

Peter Mulvihull is chair of icold’s Public Awareness Committee but the views expressed in this article are not necessarily the views of ICOLD