UN Enviroment Programme

Chapter 7. Status of soil pollution in Eastern Europe, Caucasus and Central Asia

Main constraints to tackle soil pollution in Eastern Europe, Caucasus and Central Asia

The lack of financial resources for soil remediation and environmentally sound waste management are common constraints in the Eurasian region. However, lack of investment is not the only barrier to development. In most countries, there are institutional and organizational weaknesses, often related to inherited public administration practices. Horizontal and vertical inter-institutional coordination has yet to develop. The environmental authorities face structural and political constraints. Some examples are the lack of strong drivers for remediating soil pollution, the low profile of environmental issues in national policy agendas, or the challenge of decentralizing responsibilities in a fiscally responsible manner. There are also concerns about competitiveness and social impacts of environmental policies, and a common perception among policy-makers that environmental protection is an obstacle to economic growth, rather than a necessary element in ensuring long-term socio-economic development (OECD, 2007).

Most Eurasian countries lack the drivers for environmental improvement that exist in developed countries, such as strict regulations and strong public awareness. The market demand of the European Union for high quality and sustainably produced goods can be a driver for businesses in Eastern European countries to raise environmental standards. This is particularly the case for Georgia, the Republic of Moldova and Ukraine that have free trade agreements with the European Union. Producers have been encouraged to improve the state of the soil and food processing to the highest environmental standards. However, the lack of investment in environment-related infrastructure, such as waste management, energy, and urban transport, continues to be a factor in soil pollution and environmental degradation.

7.8.1. Lack of awareness

Due to the significant cases of pollution that have affected this region in the past, the population is generally aware of the risks but their consumption decisions are limited by the availability of environmentally friendly and healthier alternatives. For example, in Ukraine, despite a potential consumer demand for certified organic food, it is only available in limited quantities in the large cities.

Ukraine is ranked 20th in the world in terms of agricultural land used for organic production. The rate growth of organic production in Ukraine is five times that of Europe, but almost all of its organic production is exported (Trofimtseva, 2019).

Raising awareness about alternative management practises and crop varieties in agriculture can also reduce soil pollution. For example, in Tajikistan, about 70 percent of the population lives in rural areas where one of the main crops is cotton. Despite advances in organic and other more sustainable cotton production methods (Ferrigno and Pershau, 2014), much of its cultivation still relies on the use of pesticides resulting in health impacts (ILRF and Tajikistan Social Institute for Youth and Civilization, 2007; Isac, Barbarasa and Mosanu, 2007), pollution of soil and water. However, the population has limited choice, as cotton cultivation is the only paid work available. However, in 2018-2019, a variety of crops was introduced through USAID’s “Feed for Future” project as an alternative to cotton production. This knowledge helped farmers, most of whom are women, to produce 1.5 million seedlings of improved varieties of tomatoes, cucumbers and sweet peppers, which in turn produced more than 20 000 tonnes of nutritious products (Chemonics International, 2018).

7.8.2. Lack of political will and leadership

Many waste management strategies have been formulated, but often, they are uncoordinated and lack clear financial plans and evaluation arrangements, with progress indicators that are too general. For example, the Ukrainian Waste Strategy aims to reduce the proportion of waste going to landfills but lacks clarity about its implementation. Strategies are often driven by donor support, which can influence its framing and ultimately lead to it not fully satisfying the country’s priorities.

In addition, legislative practices in the Eurasian region include extensive stakeholder consultations (Armenia, Georgia, Kazakhstan, Republic of Moldova and Ukraine) and more formal debate (Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan and Uzbekistan), which can delay the development of new regulations.

Fortunately, raising environmental quality standards to make them stricter has become politically acceptable in Armenia, Georgia, Kazakhstan, the Republic of Moldova, the Russian Federation and Ukraine. Some progress is being made with reductions in the permitted pollution levels for contaminants but this has not been implemented in environmental impact assessments. Some inspectorates have been strengthened (Kazakhstan, Georgia) and efforts are being made to promote compliance, but enforcement strategies remain unbalanced.

New strategies are also required to clean up polluted soils caused by military activities and armed conflicts. Azerbaijan, Georgia and the Republic of Moldova still have areas of land that are polluted after their conflicts. The situation is even more serious in the east of Ukraine, where the armed conflict continues and is causing further extensive pollution. This exacerbates the situation in the area, which already was suffering from high levels of pollution from its mining and industrial sites.

With intensive international support, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan and Uzbekistan have developed the Strategic Master Plan for the environmental remediation of their most dangerous uranium legacy sites. However lack of financial support has delayed implementation of the remediation activities (Chaer, 2019; EEAS, 2017).

Inadequacies in financial systems often lead to national and regional resources being spent ineffectively. The existing financial processes limit the public’s ability to influence decision-making and their access to budget information. Although public participation in decision-making on environmental issues has increased compared to the past, the influence of civil society on the implementation of legislation is still limited, especially in Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan and Turkmenistan.

7.8.3. Infrastructure and capacity gaps

In general, throughout the Eurasian region, there is a delay in the adoption of modern technologies for hazardous waste treatment, plastics conversion, waste minimization and product greening, including the circular economy and value chain approaches.

In Eurasian countries, there is limited access to modern recycling technologies that allow adequate waste treatment (especially plastic and medical waste). The lack of appropriately skilled professionals is a major weakness for Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan and Uzbekistan, which depend mainly on the support of international experts and donors for research and dissemination.

The Bioenergy Association of Ukraine promotes the conversion of municipal waste to energy (Matveev and Genetukha, 2019). However, the country has only one incineration plant, located in the capital (Kyiv), which was established in 1980. The regional administrations of L’viv, Khmelnitsky, and Mykolaiv have announced their intentions to build modern incineration plants, and between 2017 and 2019, several biogas stations have been established throughout the country using agricultural waste as raw material.

Higher education in the field of soil pollution, food production and waste management is well established particularly in Eastern Europe and the Caucasus, where many universities offer bachelor’s, master’s and doctoral degrees in related subjects and there are numerous research institutions. However, the level of implementation and scaling up of scientific advances is still very low (Nazarovets, 2019), as are the number of publications in prestigious scientific journals. Recently the index of international publications increased in the Russian Federation (Moed, Markusova and Akoev, 2018), Ukraine (Nazarovets, 2019), and Kazakhstan (Yessirkepov, Nurmashev and Anartayeva, 2015), thanks to international collaborations. However, many institutions are still lack modern equipment and national experts do not have many opportunities to share results with the international scientific community.

Non-formal education activities are mainly carried out by NGOs. The Ministries of Environment of Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, the Republic of Moldova, the Russian Federation and Ukraine have set up advisory boards with the participation of NGOs and have recently started to offer training programmes in solid waste management. The Republic of Moldova lacks adequate capacity in environmentally sound waste disposal, with waste collection and transportation services only partially available in urban settlements (60-80 percent); virtually no such services exist in rural areas (coverage is about 20 percent), and it has no treatment facilities for hazardous waste, including medical and e-waste.

In summary, the scarcity of financial resources available for soil remediation and proper waste management are common constraints in the Eurasian region. However, lack of investment is not the only obstacle to development. In most countries, the authorities suffer from severe institutional and organizational limitations often related to inherited public administration practices. Other weaknesses include a shortage of skills related to good management, frequent changes at the top-level of the authorities. The environmental authorities still face structural and political constraints.