UN Enviroment Programme

Chapter 10. Status of soil pollution in Near East and North Africa

Main constraints in Near East and North Africa

The main limitations in addressing environmental problems in the NENA countries are weak legislation, insufficient environmental quality control mechanisms, and lack of technical and financial resources (Dahchour and Hajjaji, 2020b).

Often the main obstacle to effective risk mitigation and remediation contaminated sites is the lack of funding for adequate equipment and technology and for hiring appropriately qualified personnel. Convincing private investors of the economic benefits of such actions and promoting public investment could help reduce medical hospitalization bills and prevent loss of national income. Detecting and remediating soil pollution is often at the bottom of the national political agenda. With many other urgent local priorities and limited budgetary resources, the political preference is to address issues and problems that pay off quickly instead of investing in long-term technical and human capital to prevent and manage soil and food contamination. Improving infrastructure through increased self-development and partial support from international organizations and UN agencies through multilateral and bilateral capacity-building projects can help solve some of these problems. In this regard, it is essential to encourage private investors and industries to adopt greener practices and to establish an annual budget to successfully address soil pollution. Local industries must regularly pay sufficient taxes to finance remediation measures. The adoption of the “polluter-pay” principle, according to which the polluters should pay for damage and cover the cost of clean-up, is important for compliance and enforcement, as well as for sustainable resource development.

10.8.1. Lack of awareness

Despite numerous studies, surveys and reports on soil pollution in the NENA region, the public, and in particular farmers, may not be aware of the risks associated with trace elements, pesticides and some emerging contaminants. For example, we know little about the impact in the region of perfluoroalkyl and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS), including perfluorooctane sulfonic acid (PFOS) that was listed in the Stockholm Convention in the 2009. PFAS are synthetic chemicals found in products that resist sticking, heat, water, stains, and grease and that are released into the air, soil and water. Access to better alternatives is likely a constraint in many countries.

Despite the impact on human health and the environment, the use of plastics has increased in NENA countries. Plastics account for a significant percentage of solid waste that is disposed of in open dumps. In agricultural areas, plastic mulches and irrigation tubes can remain on the soil surface after the irrigation season and become incorporated into the soil during ploughing. Several initiatives are underway to improve the collection and recycling of agricultural plastic materials or to find fully biodegradable replacements.

To achieve national soil pollution prevention and remediation goals, it is necessary to improve farmers’ skills in implementing sustainable agricultural practices and increase consumer and public awareness.

Technical reports and their translation into awareness-raising communications using more accessible language would provide relevant information to policymakers, enabling them to make informed decisions and develop soil protection policies. The development of unified international standards for measuring progress in combating soil contamination could play an important role in assessing technical and political performance and its contribution to the Sustainable Development Goals.

10.8.2. Lack of political will and leadership

The Status of the World’s Soil Resources Report (FAO and ITPS, 2015) underlined the environmental and socio-economic functions of soils and highlighted the ecosystem services provided by healthy soils. The Sustainable Development Goal 15 addresses the protection, restoration and promotion of sustainable use of terrestrial ecosystems; sustainable management of forests; combatting desertification; and halting and reversing land degradation to stop biodiversity loss.

Few legislation frameworks focus specifically on soil pollution, and even when they are in place, effective implementation is not guaranteed. Weak enforcement of laws and decisions is another problem caused by the absence of political will and conflicts of interest. Some highly polluting industries have a vested interest in maintaining lax legislation and enforcement, and the continued use of the existing low-cost waste disposal and management systems. They can feel threatened by a shift towards more sustainable options and will seek to influence policy-makers to maintain the status quo.

10.8.3. Infrastructure and capacity gap

After reviewing the technical and analytical basis from the literature published in the NENA region, it appeared that most countries have qualified personnel and advanced technical infrastructure. Sophisticated laboratory instruments, such as Inductively Coupled Plasma, Atomic Absorption, Mass Spectroscopy, Gas Chromatography, and Ion Chromatography, is available for the analysis and interpretation of results on chemical and organic soil contaminants. Among the technical limitations in characterizing and remediating soil pollution, the most crucial factor is the availability of sufficient funds and the willingness to up-scale successful laboratory trials and pilots into full-scale remediation of contaminated soils. In many case such remediation could be undertaken using local expertise, technology and infrastructure. It is unclear how local and national authorities deal with the issue of land tenure, and the presence of orphan sites. Remediation of orphan polluted sites represents an economic and political burden for many countries.