UN Enviroment Programme

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

Main constraints to tackle soil pollution in Asia and the Pacific

6.8.1. Lack of awareness

Awareness of pollution depends on the understanding and engagement of the general population regarding environmental pollution and its impact. For example, in a survey conducted in Bangladesh, more than 68 percent of Bangladeshis were unaware of the hazards of e-waste, while another 12 percent of the total respondents believed that e-waste did not have negative effects (Islam et al., 2016). The dissemination of scientific knowledge to the general public is therefore significantly lacking.

In this region, the following reasons can be listed to illustrate the lack of public involvement in knowledge-sharing and understanding of soil pollution:

  • Socio-economic limitations further exacerbate lifestyle choices and consumer behaviour;
  • Lack of national and local campaigns on current and emerging soil pollution; and
  • Lack of detailed studies to quantify actual levels of risk of potentially contaminated sites and the extent of polluting activities.

At the national level, there is a lack of financial and technical resources to combat soil pollution. Regional and national action is needed to prioritize research and data gaps.

Real-time mapping of polluted soils and their key natures, identification of (potential) contaminant(s), sources, site management authority, guidelines for the public on accessibility and site management are rare in many countries in the Asia–Pacific region. Such interactive maps are only available in a very few countries in the region. Where available, they are often organized by non-governmental organizations (e.g. Friends of the Earth, https://www.foe.org.au/).

6.8.2. Lack of political will and leadership and illegal waste disposal

The political will to address soil pollution in the region is often lacking. Political pressures from other sectors such as industry and mining, and the possible economic impact of control measures are key factors that impede decisions on drafting and enacting regulations, strengthening capacity for enforcement, and providing adequate resources that would allow countries to adequately address soil degradation and pollution. For example, PNG is targeting the management of DDT, a POP that is banned under the Stockholm Convention but is still being used nationally. Samoa has focussed on e-waste. While such programs are indeed useful, there are still a wide range of soil polluting issues that remain to be prioritised and for which political will needs to be generated.

Illegal dumping and import of toxic wastes from other countries are examples of cases where government may obtain benefits in exchange for environmental damage (Ridzuan et al., 2019). In Bangladesh, the recent report published by Transparency International (Rahman, 2019) categorized corruption related to “waste disposal” in the service delivery sector. In countries such as Bangladesh, the municipal corporation or any local council is headed by political leaders and, therefore, corruption or the fight against corruption related to waste disposal or environmental clean-up depends largely on them. Illegal storage and disposal and waste-related crime have even been observed in relatively more regulated countries, such as Australia. In a waste census report for Australia, Latimer (2019) identified waste management non-compliance as “high”, resulting in leakages, in particular, from storage facilities for VOCs and painting chemicals.

6.8.3. Infrastructure and capacity gaps

The Asia–Pacific region is very heterogeneous, with each country having different infrastructures (e.g. research facilities, risk assessment laboratories) and capacities (e.g. human resources, implementation, monitoring) for soil pollution management. These constraints often result in a technical inability to create and improve regional or global contaminant inventories. For example, there is an increasing number of partnerships aimed at improving the mapping of contaminated sites. Pure Earth, as the Secretariat of the Global Alliance on Health and Pollution (GAHP), is currently producing such a map with the support, in terms of content, of various government agencies, universities and non-governmental organizations. However, there is a huge limitation in interacting with data from all countries in this region, mainly due to the insufficient data and limited access to it.

In a few of the countries there are government-supported initiatives to make science and policy data available to the public. For example, in New Zealand, the Land Resource Information Systems Portal has launched a publicly accessible interactive mapping of trace elements soil pollution (LRIS, 2019) (Figure 17). The Australian National Pollutant Inventory is another example that grants access to interactive data on emitted contaminants, their deposited sites (e.g. land, air or water), quantity and year of emission (NPI, 2020).

Figure 17. The interactive map can provide a means of monitoring the presence of trace elements in New Zealand.

Source: reproduced with permission from LRIS, 2019.

In addition to the dispersal of geogenic chemicals, humans have synthesized more than 140 000 chemical substances (UNEP, 2019), many of which did not previously exist. In 2002 new synthetic chemicals were being developed at a rate of 2 000 to 3 000 substances per year (Landrigan et al., 2002). In the region, especially since Asia–Pacific is very heterogeneous in terms of pollution status, management and remediation, newly added or emerging contaminants remain the greatest analytical constraint for the development of any effective assessment and remediation strategy. For example, PFASs, an emerging group of soil contaminants, are still in the early stages of identification, toxicological assessment and remediation. In 2019, Australia and New Zealand jointly developed a draft plan to address PFAS issues under the common guidelines, called “PFAS NEMP 2.0”. This is the revised version of its first PFAS NEMP that was released in 2018. This revised draft provides guidelines for the key urgent issues:

  • Environmental guideline values
  • Soil reuse
  • Wastewater management
  • On-site containment

In addition, due to the isolation of some of the PICs, they often face a lack of technical capability in pollution risk assessment and remediation, such as contaminated site inventories. The isolation of several PICs in the Pacific Ocean makes it challenging for advanced countries to transfer expertise and technology, and there is a risk of abandonment of sites that are difficult to clean up.

The region also faces emerging issues and lack of timely actions such as the inadequate response to the crisis of end-of-life solar panels and batteries in Australia. In an interview, the New South Wales Environment Protection Authority emphasized the need for research on this issue. It also commented that solar panels may not be common e-waste because of their long life span. However, Queensland, another Australian state is reportedly preparing to implement a spent solar panel battery waste management strategy (Hasham, 2019).

In the Republic of Korea, approximately 1 200 polluted sites currently remain to be managed, with the exception of burial sites, which have been managed by the authorities. Livestock burial has always been a major social issue whenever it occurs, due to concerns about health threats from polluted soil and groundwater caused by the leaching of pathogens and antimicrobials. However, such wastes are complicated to manage because they occur irregularly and infrequently but on a large scale over a short period of time. The rate of disposal has to be high to avoid creating stockpiles of such wastes. Developing, maintaining and financing such disposal technologies is difficult because of need to have such large capacity that remains idle most of the time while there are no animal disease outbreaks.