UN Enviroment Programme

Chapter 6. Status of soil pollution in Asia and the Pacific

International, regional and national legal frameworks addressing soil pollution in Asia and the Pacific

6.5.1. International legal frameworks addressing soil pollution

Most countries in the Asia–Pacific region pledged to tackle waste management and chemicals pollution, and are parties to the Basel, Rotterdam, Stockholm and Minamata Conventions. However, adherence to international conventions addressing soil pollution in the Asia–Pacific region varies greatly among countries.

Although only five Asian countries signed the Basel Convention, within the region, it is currently the most widely ratified and implemented of the four Conventions. All Asian countries ratified and implemented the Convention, except for Timor-Leste. Of the 23 countries that acceded the Basel Convention, 16 ratified and implemented the Convention prior to 2000. The first countries that implemented the Convention were China, India, Sri Lanka, and the Maldives in 1992. Myanmar is the most recent country to ratify and put it into force in 2015 (Table 8).

The ratification of the other three Conventions, namely Rotterdam, Stockholm and Minamata Conventions, is lower throughout the region. Aside from the Basel Convention, neither Bhutan nor Brunei Darussalam, for example, have ratified any of the other Conventions. In the case of Brunei Darussalam, this is despite signing the Stockholm Convention in 2002. Similarly, Malaysia signed the Stockholm Convention in 2002 and the Minamata Convention in 2014 but has not ratify them. Conversely, Myanmar acceded to the Stockholm Convention but did not sign or ratify the remaining Conventions. Out of the four Conventions, the Minamata Convention is the least widely ratified, with only half of Asian countries currently having ratified it. It is worth noting that Timor-Leste is the only country in Asia to have neither signed nor ratified any one of these four Conventions.

The situation is also diverse in the Pacific region, where the most widely ratified convention is the Stockholm Convention. Tokelau is the only Pacific Region country that has not ratified any of the Conventions. Most of the ratifications occurred prior to 2005, except for Tonga and Palau, which ratified the Stockholm Convention in 2009 and 2011, respectively. The ratification of the other conventions is lower in the Pacific region. Fiji, Niue, and the Solomon Islands, for example, all acceded to the Stockholm Convention but are not parties to the remaining Conventions.

Samoa, Marshall Islands, Tonga, and Vanuatu are currently the only countries that ratified all four Conventions. However, progress in the ratification of the Conventions has been made in the region, as 25 per cent of the ratification of the Basel Convention and nearly 30 per cent of the ratification of the Rotterdam Convention occurred within the 2010s. Similarly, since 2017 six countries have ratified the Minamata Convention.

Further details on the ratification and implementation of the Basel, Rotterdam, Stockholm, and Minamata Convention in the Asia–Pacific region are presented in Table 8. International legislation including year when adopted in the Asia Pacific region.

Source: Basel Convention, 2021; Minamata Convention, 2021; Rotterdam Convention, 2021; Stockholm Convention, 2021..

Table 8. International legislation including year when adopted in the Asia Pacific region.

Source: Basel Convention, 2021; Minamata Convention, 2021; Rotterdam Convention, 2021; Stockholm Convention, 2021.

6.5.2. Regional legal frameworks addressing soil pollution

Although no regional convention on soil protection or soil pollution prevention and control currently exists in Asia–Pacific, a series of regional environmental cooperation agreements may have a positive impact on soil pollution prevention.

In Southeast Asia, for example, cooperative efforts have been undertaken within the framework of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN). Since 1977, ASEAN has promoted environmental cooperation and coordination among its ten Member States. These include Brunei Darussalam, Cambodia, Indonesia, Lao People’s Democratic Republic, Malaysia, Myanmar, Philippines, Singapore, Thailand, and Viet Nam. ASEAN cooperation on the environment is divided into seven priorities for the region: chemicals and waste, sustainable cities, nature conservation, water resources management, coastal environment, climate change and environmental education. Although none of these priorities specifically addresses soil pollution, most of these priorities can support soil pollution prevention and help harmonize the response of countries through the sharing of knowledge and experience.

In addition, there is also some regional collaboration between Asia and the Pacific to mitigate soil pollution. Taiwan Environmental Protection Administration (Taiwan-EPA), for example, established an international working group on the Remediation for Soil and Groundwater Pollution of Asian and Pacific Regions in place since 2011 (Taiwan-EPA, 2019a). This working group is composed of representatives of the Ministries of Environmental Protection from 12 countries: Taiwan Province of China, the Republic of Korea, Japan, Philippines, Malaysia, Thailand, Viet Nam, Indonesia, Sri Lanka, India, Australia, and New Zealand. This Working Group has contributed to organizing international conferences, joint Taiwan-EPA and US EPA international workshops, training courses, bilateral cooperation between countries, newsletters, and international environmental exhibitions held in 2012 and 2014 in Taipei. The Taiwan-EPA cooperates with extension services on actions to prevent soil and groundwater pollution, providing support on the survey, evaluation, remediation, and risk assessment technologies for this region since 2011.

In the Pacific region, most of the regional legal frameworks addressing environmental protection focus on water and marine pollution. However, the Noumea Convention and the Waigani Convention may contribute to soil pollution prevention as they address the conservation of natural resources and waste management. Based on the Basel Convention, the Waigani Convention is a more specific instrument for the Pacific as it also deals with radioactive waste in addition to the control of hazardous waste. Most countries from the Pacific region have ratified or acceded to the Convention, with the exception of Vanuatu, Tokelau, and the Marshall Islands, while Nauru and Palau signed it but have yet to ratify (SPREP, 2020a). The Convention for the protection of natural resources and environment of the South Pacific Region, also called the Noumea Convention, focuses largely on marine and coastal environment conservation but also addresses waste management, chemicals storage and mining activities. It should be noted that soil is only briefly addressed within these conventions and are therefore not sufficient to provide an adequate level of protection for all soils in the Pacific. There are fewer ratifications of the Noumea Convention, with only 10 countries having ratified or acceded, namely: Australia, the Cook Islands, Fiji, Marshall Islands, the Federated States of Micronesia, Nauru, New Zealand, Papua New Guinea, Samoa and the Solomon Islands (SPREP, 2020b).

Further details on the regional agreements with impact on soil pollution prevention in the Asia–Pacific region can be found in Table 9.

Table 9. Regional agreements related to soil pollution prevention in the Asia–Pacific region.

6.5.3. National legal frameworks addressing soil pollution

National frameworks for addressing soil pollution vary significantly amongst countries depending on regional or in-country circumstances. Most countries in the Asia–Pacific region do not have legislation that was drafted to specifically address soil pollution. In these countries soil pollution tends only to be addressed in other sector-specific legislation.

While laws have been adopted to specifically address air and water pollution, soil pollution remains a neglected issue in most Asian countries (). Only a quarter of Asian countries currently have specific legislation addressing soil pollution prevention and control. Among these countries are China, Indonesia, Japan, Mongolia, Nepal, Sri Lanka and the Republic of Korea. Although Sri Lanka already has a Soil Conservation Act since 1951 and Japan an Act to Prevent Soil Contamination on Agricultural Land since 1970, most of these countries have adopted specific legislation on soil pollution prevention in recent years. China, for example, has issued multiple decrees addressing soil pollution prevention and remediation in the 2010s, before establishing its first national law on soil pollution in 2019 (Zhao, 2019). In addition to creating new obligations and liabilities in China, it also establishes a special fund for soil remediation costs (Li et al., 2019).

In 2016, the Taiwan-EPA developed a health risk assessment committee to review all the soil remediation projects that used risk-based approaches, such as very large pollution sites, harbours, illegal dumping sites, natural geogenic sites, or historic brownfields near cities (Taiwan-EPA, 2019c). This is a very important starting point to address the communication gaps between scientists, policymakers, and regulators.

Although other Asian countries do not have a specific instrument focusing exclusively on soil pollution, they all have legal instruments addressing soil pollution as part of broader legislation on environmental protection (). Furthermore, most countries have legal instruments addressing waste management, agrochemicals, and water pollution, which can contribute to soil pollution prevention. While most waste legislation were focusing on the wastes’ toxicity, an increasing number of Asian countries are now adopting waste management legislation to also control the quantity of waste. Waste reduction is becoming one of the main priorities in the region (Terazono et al., 2005). Consequently, countries such as Indonesia and Malaysia that used to control hazardous waste under toxic substances regulations now have legal instruments to address waste management (Terazono et al., 2005). It should be noted that while soil pollution prevention is considered, very little attention is currently given to soil remediation.

Similar to Asian countries, almost all countries in the Pacific region address soil pollution as part of broader instruments that aim to prevent environmental pollution. The larger countries with prominent industrial activities have more legislation and policies that address soil pollution. Nauru and Tokelau do not have a legal instrument to prevent soil or environmental pollution. Palau, the Marshall Islands, and New Zealand were the first countries in the region to implement an Environment Act in 1981, 1984 and 1986, respectively.

In 1999, Australia established comprehensive guidelines for the assessment of contaminated sites, the National Environment Protection (Assessment of Site Contamination) Measure 2009, using a risk-based approach. This legislative instrument was revised in 2013 and provides detailed guidance on sampling and data objectives, numerical site investigation levels, ecological and human health risk assessments and stakeholder consultation. In 2019, Australia developed a National Remediation Framework which focuses on remediation elements. While this framework has acceptance among regulators in Australia, it does not, however, share the same legislative status as the National Environment Protection Measure 2009. This makes it a flexible framework that can be continually updated. Its supporting guidelines include those for the development of remediation plans, their implementation, and the closure of a site following remediation works. Together, the frameworks and its supporting guidelines supplement detailed jurisdictional environmental legislation and policy already available in Australia. Very few countries within the Pacific region have legislation on remediation of contaminated sites.

In New Zealand, the Resource Management (National Environmental Standard for Assessing and Managing Contaminants in Soil to Protect Human Health) Regulations, 2011 provides a comprehensive national standard for soil pollution for the protection of human health. Stewart et al. (2016) reported that New Zealand’s EPA had the capability and legal framework to assess emerging organic contaminants (EOCs), such as flame retardants, phthalate, PFAS and restrict or ban their usage. For example, New Zealand’s EPA had revoked approval of a few of EOCs, including irgarol and chlorothalonil (used as biocidal agents), some pesticides (e.g. carbaryl, chlorpyrifos and diazinon) (Stewart et al., 2016). Some Pacific countries have a special focus on regulating POPs, such as Tonga and Marshal Islands, with a focus on trade and importation, and banning or restricting use.

In addition to environmental protection legislation, an increasing number of countries in the Pacific region are also adopting legislation on waste management. Samoa and Vanuatu are the latest countries within the region to adopt a Waste Management Act in 2010 and 2014, respectively. Australia developed the National Waste Policy in 2018 focusing on waste and resource recovery, underpinning the principles of a circular economy.

Further details on the national legislation addressing soil pollution prevention and management are presented in Table 10.

Table 10. National legislation to prevent and combat soil pollution in the Asia–Pacific region.

Source: FAOLEX, 2019; UNSTAT, 2011.