When blind dolphins become an analogy for the vulnerable
Just as Ninette's parents left an indelible imprint on her, she too shares the positive impact of protecting the environment and the marginalized.
Ninette Pajarillaga belongs to an uncommon species—a Filipino international staff in ADB.
However, the extent of that or any gravitas it has, is inconsequential to her. Ninette, a chemical engineer and environment specialist, is enthralled more by the work she gets to do. Specializing in both environment and social safeguards, she’s currently juggling 20 projects. It’s a crosscutting endeavor, she says, having to assess the situation of each proposed or ongoing urban and water infrastructure project. But it is imperative. An innovative water supply system may appear great in theory, for example, but will it be realistic or sound for the community? There are multiple considerations and the challenge is balancing these, according to Ninette. At the end of the day, though, she enjoys “laymanizing” or simplifying the project so not only governments but moreover communities can better understand how this will affect and/or improve their lives. To her, these projects are about the beneficiaries, the people.
In the following interview excerpt, she recounts a particular project in Bihar that dealt with the endemic Gangetic blind dolphins. The experience led the project team to analyse various project design options so as to minimise, if not avoid, negative impacts on these creatures – also regarded as the national aquatic animal of India. As she details the experience, more than the safeguards process, it becomes evident that protecting the dolphins can easily be thought of as other equally helpless stakeholders. And considering the importance of those left in the sidelines of society is a task she takes on willingly in and outside of the office.
“Safeguards work is not just compliance because we have a policy. It's about how do we build the capacities of our clients so that the project will be implemented in a sustainable, environmentally and socially inclusive manner. It's changing the mindset.”
Tell us more about yourself.
Ninette: I’m an environment specialist in the South Asia Urban and Water Division. I’ve been with the bank as a staff for three years, so since 2014. As a consultant in ADB, I started in 2006. I’m from Quezon City and have two grownup sons: one is 22 and the other is 20 years old. Both are studying in Brisbane, Australia. I visit them every four months and they come home every November. I’m very close to my sons and treat them as my friends.
I also do volunteer work at Love Yourself, an HIV awareness advocacy group. It’s all about preventing the spread of HIV/AIDS among the youth and other key segments of the society through awareness, counselling, and education. It’s entirely different from my work. I’m trained as a counselor, so I can do screening and counseling. This is my work-life balance.
You seem like an independent, progressive human. Where does this come from?
Ninette: My parents. They’re from Nueva Ecija. It’s a rural area, and back in the 1940s or 1950s, for you to improve your way of life, you needed an education. So that’s the value my parents taught us.
In fact, if there ever was a gender champion, even if there was no such term or it wasn’t popular then, I think my dad could be one. We’re five girls in the family, and all of us, my sisters and I are empowered. I took up engineering. One did geology, and my third sister is a civil sanitary engineer. The fourth went to business and the last is a veterinarian. My father wasn’t the typical protective father. At 12 years old, he let me stay in a dorm. He never said because you’re a girl you have to do this or do that. Maybe that’s why I’m like this. If I have a tagline of sorts, it’s that – values. And integrity. Because my parents were both foresters working for the Philippine government, and that’s where I really saw the meaning of the term public servant. I think they’re also the reason I do what I do.
How would you describe your work as an environment specialist?
Ninette: It’s about environmental protection and considering the welfare of the people, especially those that will be affected by the project. These considerations have to be integrated in the project, even at the design stage and come implementation and until completion. Incorporating safeguards is about reducing negative environmental and social impacts. Our projects should result in either maintaining the same livelihood or making it better.
Sounds like this work is what keeps ADB true to its vision.
Ninette: Yes, safeguards work is not just compliance because we have a policy. Like what we always say, the objective of safeguards is to avoid impacts and if this can’t be avoided, it should be mitigated and that means placing measures to address those impacts. However, if after mitigation measures there are impacts still, then there should be compensation or the impacts should be offset. Also, it’s about how do we help build the capacities of our clients so that the project will be implemented in a sustainable, environmentally, and socially inclusive manner? It’s changing the mindset. So it’s more than compliance.
For instance, if the plan is to build a water supply system, of course you’ll be able to provide many people with water, but is your source sustainable? Can it last for 30 years or so? And what about the people currently using the water? If we pursue this project, will there be water left for them?
Similarly, there’s an area where we can get water but are there biodiversity that could be affected? Perhaps there are critically endangered species. For example, one of the projects I’m involved in is developing a water supply system in Bihar, but their only source of water is a sanctuary of blind dolphins. These blind dolphins are only found in that area. Initially, the project site was to be right in the middle of that sanctuary. But given it was identified as a protected area with endangered species, not only the blind dolphins, how do you balance this knowing people have no other water source? So you proceed with an alternatives analysis. Because the project is to give water to the people, and that state is one of the poorest in the country. They badly need water supply.
This triggered an engineering approach. What are the options to avoid impact on the dolphins? First, can the system be transferred to a location outside the area? It turned out that would be very expensive. Now how about we still put it in the middle of the river because that’s the only feasible option? We then have to study the impact on the dolphins. What will happen to them if we have pumps running 24x7? Several studies were made and according to the studies the dolphins are found 500 meters away from the project site. Because of environmental safeguards we were able to identify these information that weren’t available before. So what if the project is feasible but it’s category A? However, the project for several reasons can no longer be delayed. This meant another iteration—maybe the water system and pumps can be put on the riverbank, which could avoid the impacts. The engineers said okay, and from category A it became category B. The project is approved and has recently gone past summary review.
It’s really all about balance, even when considering social impacts. Since projects are for the people, it’s important we consult them, seek their views, issues, and concerns, and address these.
How do you get an understanding of the local culture and the community?
Ninette: Empathy. You put yourself in their shoes. You have to address their needs and what are those needs? Water, air… and will my project worsen their air, for example. Also, the work is not based on location. It’s the same concept whichever country or region you go to. Plus, the passion is always there.