How Has Phosphate Mining in Nauru Led to an Environmental Catastrophe?

Open pit phosphate mine.
Open pit phosphate mine.

Nauru is a small island nation located in the Pacific Ocean, which makes up part of Micronesia. Papua New Guinea sits to its southwest, and the Marshall Islands to its north. The country covers a small area of only 8.1 square miles, making it the third smallest nation by area in the world. Naura has a population size of approximately 11,347, and has been inhabited for roughly 3,000 years.

Prior to World War I, Nauru was a colony of the German Empire. However, after the war it came under control of the United Kingdom, Australia, and New Zealand, as result of the League of Nations Agreement. These governments oversaw the administration and exploitation of its natural resources. Records suggest that Australia took majority control. In 1966, the island's population began to govern the state independently, and its independence was formalized in 1968.

Discovery and Mining of Phosphate in Nauru

Nauru is most famous as a producer and exporter of phosphate. In 1899, an administrator from the Pacific Islands Company suspected a substance found on the island was phosphate. After testing, his suspicion was confirmed, and the company began to negotiate mining rights of the resources on Nauru, and by 1906 an agreement was reached.

Given this phosphate was of the highest quality known, mining activity began intensely. The first year of mining produced around 11,000 pounds, which were exported to Australia. Interest in phosphate grew significantly after World War I and the governments of the United Kingdom, Australia, and New Zealand created the British Phosphate Commissioners, and the company took over the resource rights.

After Nauru gained its independence, the new government purchased the resource rights and drastically increased its annual revenues. During the 1970s, island residents had the highest per capita income rates in the world. Since independence, the country has produced approximately 43 million tons of phosphate. Money from phosphate sales was previously deposited into a trust fund for residents of the island and at one point reached a 14% return. However, the government has mismanaged and ultimately lost the vast majority of the funds.

The Destruction of Nauru

Most of the phosphate in Nauru has been extracted through strip mining, which is the removal of large layers of earth in order to reach the minerals underneath. This practice leaves the earth largely barren, infertile, and unable to sustain plant life. Currently, about 90% of the island is covered in jagged and exposed heaps of petrified coral, which is unsuitabel for both building and agriculture. Additionally, runoff from mining sites has left the water in and around Nauru severly contaminated. Researchers estimate that approximately 40% of the marine life has been lost due to this pollution. Additionally, the only remaining phosphate on the island would not produce a profit if mined.

Effect on the Population

Damage in Nauru is so extensive that governments of various countries, as well as the residents of the island, became aware of its uninhabitability as early as the 1960s. By the 1990s, scientists declared the island uninhabitable for humans. Prior to that, the Australian government was working on a plan to help relocate the population of Nauru. Given that Australia, New Zealand, and the United Kingdom had benefited significantly from the phosphate industry here prior to Nauru’s independence, these governments felt obliged to ensure the future safety of island residents. Accordingly, the governments conducted studies on several neighboring islands, but were met with resistance from local communities.

Curtis Island was chosen as a destination for relocation, and the three governments agreed to pay for relocation and infrastructure development costs. However, the residents of Nauru chose not to accept the offer. In their opinion, leaving the island would cause them to lose their culture. Additionally, the island would have remained part of Australian territory and the Nauruans would become Australian citizens. A large percentage of the residents of Nauru believed the governments should work to rehabilitate the island instead.

Since the land in Nauru cannot sustain agricultural crops, the local population is dependent on a food supply that is composed of imported and highly processed foods. Given the lack of fresh food, Nauru's population has the highest rate of obesity in the world (94%), according to the World Health Organization. This problem of obesity has caused increased rates of diabetes and cardiovascular issues. In fact, more than 40% of the population has diabetes.

Currently, Nauru's population is also facing the reality of ranking highest on the Environmental Vulnerability Index.

Opportunity for Recovery?

In 1993, the government of Nauru won a legal case against the Australian government for its mismanagement of natural resources while serving as the colonial power. The government of Australia was forced to pay reparations for these damages. The funds were deposited into the Nauru Rehabilitation Corporation to be used for restoration projects, although experts believe the sum is insufficient. Some of the money has been used to restore an area for use as a correctional facility. This correctional facility, known as the Regional Processing Center, holds individuals waiting for refugee asylum in Australia, and employs approximately 10% of the local population.

Some experts believe the residents of the island have additional economic opportunities that have not yet been explored. For example, the limestone coral stacks that jut up out from the surface of the land throughout the island could be mined and exported as well. The UN Development Program (UNDP) supports extraction of this rock in order to process and extract dolomite, another mineral. According to the UNDP, this strategy is one way to help the country out of poverty.

Additionally, the United Arab Emirates has invested in a solar energy plant on the island. In this way, residents, who are already using solar power to purify drinking water, might be able to reduce their reliance on non-renewable sources of energy. The country is currently seeking international investment money in order to expand on some of these project ideas. Unfortunately, due to a history of corruption, many banks and investors are hesistant to invest in Nauru.


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