Paradise lost: How phosphate mining devastated island Nauru

Could Nauru recover from the environmental degradation caused by strip mining?
Maia Mulko
The barren and bankrupt island state of the Republic of Nauru.
The barren and bankrupt island state of the Republic of Nauru.


  • Nauru was once one of the wealthiest countries in the world but became one of the poorest after its phosphate reserves were depleted.
  • Strip mining degraded Nauru's environment to the point that there is no more fertile land in the country.
  • Loss of arable lands led Nauruans to consume mostly processed foods imported from the West, which increased rates of obesity and type 2 diabetes in the country.

Nauru is a small coral and limestone island in the southwestern Pacific Ocean, 25 miles (40 km) south of the equator and 200 miles (300 km) from its nearest neighbor (Banaba island, Kiribati). It was once a tropical paradise, not only because of its warm climate and beautiful beaches but also because of its rich resources.

In the 1970s and the 1980s, Nauru was, in fact, one of the world's wealthiest countries in terms of per capita income. The reason? Its vast phosphate deposits.

Paradise lost: How phosphate mining devastated island Nauru
Phosphate mining in Nauru, 2007

For several decades, the phosphate industry allowed Nauruans to access all essential services and maintain a high standard of living. Many landowners didn't even need to work because they received royalties from phosphate earnings.

However, by 2013, the Household Income and Expenditure Survey (HIES) reported that 24 percent of Nauruans lived below the national basic needs poverty line.

Today, the economy of Nauru is struggling severely and is heavily dependent on foreign aid, mainly from Australia and New Zealand. There are limited employment opportunities on the island, as well as a number of social and health issues, including high levels of obesity and non-communicable diseases such as diabetes.

Here's what happened.

Nauru's phosphate deposits and the "resource curse"

Nauru's phosphate deposits were created over thousands of years of birds stopping here and leaving their droppings — the island has a strategic location in the migratory path of a number of bird species and no native land mammals to present a threat. 

The accumulation of bird droppings, or guano, is rich in phosphates and other nutrients, such as potassium and nitrogen, that are essential for plant growth. That is why guano is primarily used in fertilizers, and in fact, Nauru's guano was used to fertilize pastures in Australia and New Zealand for a long time. 

Nauru's phosphate deposits were discovered by Australian prospector Albert Ellis at the beginning of the 20th century. According to some sources, phosphate deposits covered about four-fifths of the Nauruan territory.

Paradise lost: How phosphate mining devastated island Nauru
Railway lines with the bins containing phosphaste, Nauru

At the time, Nauru wasn't an independent country, though.

From 1888 to 1947, it was part of the German Marshall Islands protectorate, for which the rights to the phosphate were first distributed between German mining company Jaluit-Gesellschaft, the German government, the British government, and the British-owned Pacific Phosphate Company.

After World War I, Nauru became a League of Nations-mandated territory under the joint administration of Australia, the United Kingdom, and New Zealand, and the rights to the phosphates passed to the British Phosphate Commissioners, a board in which Australia, the United Kingdom, and New Zealand took part.

By the 1960s, around 80% of the island's surface had been mined, leaving a wasteland of jagged limestone and no fertile land. Only the coastal strip around the island was inhabitable. At one point, the government of Australia offered to relocate the entire population to an island off the coast of Queensland, but the Nauruans had opted for independence instead.

Nauru became an independent nation in 1968, and the government of the newly independent Nauru gained control of its phosphate operations in 1970. 

Only then was the Nauruan government able to earn money for itself by exporting phosphates. The money was used to invest in infrastructure, healthcare, and education, which greatly improved Nauru's population's quality of life. 

But it failed to invest in other areas that could provide national revenue for the day when Nauru ran out of phosphate reserves —something that was very likely to happen if we take into account that Nauru's phosphate deposits had already been strip-mined for several decades at this point.

What is strip mining, and how did it affect Nauru? 

Phosphate mining can be conducted either in strip mining or underground mining, depending on the location and type of deposit.

Underground mining consists of excavating tunnels and shafts to extract phosphate deposits that are buried deep below the surface of the Earth. 

Strip mining, on the other hand, is a method for retrieving minerals from the surface of the earth by removing the soil and rock above a mineral deposit. It is currently the most cost-effective way of exploiting large, shallow deposits of phosphate that are close to the surface, such as those on Nauru.

Paradise lost: How phosphate mining devastated island Nauru
The Lavender Pit is a former open pit copper mine in Arizona which shows the effects of strip mining on the soil.

Both strip and underground phosphate mining can have significant impacts on the environment, but phosphate rock is most commonly strip mined, as the process is cheaper, and most phosphate deposits are found near the surface anyway. 

Nauru's phosphate deposits weren't an exception. 

"Phosphate mining can leave a place uninhabitable because it leads to environmental degradation, especially without rehabilitation," said Collen Clark, a lawyer with expertise in toxic torts and toxic exposure.

"The impact of phosphate mining is being reflected in the form of water contamination, air pollution, and changes to landscapes and local hydrology. In Nauru, phosphate mining has affected vegetation as well."

Although the Nauruan government was accused of financial mismanagement and corruption, it is also true that Nauru's economy became over-reliant on the export of phosphates because strip mining's environmental effects made it difficult to develop other industries in the country, such as tourism and agriculture.

Effects on health 

Phosphate mining can also affect people's health. 

"Dust is also a common problem in terms of air quality. Mines usually produce large amounts of toxic and radioactive waste. The most common emissions associated with phosphate mining are fluoride and radon, acid fumes, and other heavy metals," explains Colleen Clark.

"These airborne emissions usually occur in the form of fine rock dust, which comes from the drying and grinding process of the phosphate rock."

He further adds that "this exposure to respiratory carcinogens is absolutely dangerous, especially for phosphate mine workers because it increases their risk of developing lung cancer, silicosis, and other dental issues, such as fluorosis, oral lesions, and teeth abrasion."

Although the long-term impact of phosphate mining on the health of Nauruans is not well documented, there is a direct relationship between strip mining, environmental degradation, and the fact that Nauru has the highest rate of obesity in the world, as well as the highest prevalence of type 2 diabetes in the world, with one out of ten Nauruans having the condition. 

Paradise lost: How phosphate mining devastated island Nauru
Participants of a walk against diabetes around Nauru airport, 2007

Strip mining led to the loss of most arable lands in Nauru — the only fertile areas are in a narrow coastal belt, and there is no formal commercial agriculture in the country.

There is also no reliable source of fresh water. As a result, Nauruans import most of their food from nearby countries such as Australia and New Zealand. 

However, due to the island's remote location, transporting fresh food is both difficult and expensive, which is why Nauruans rely on processed and packaged foods, which are believed to be responsible for these health issues.

The future of Nauru

Once the phosphate started running out, its price dropped. The country had gained around $1.7 billion in royalties from phosphate, but many of the investments made by the government proved to be poor choices.

These included Air Nauru, an airline operated by the government that could carry 10 percent of the country's population at one time and which ran at a huge loss and funding a London West End musical based on the life of Leonardo da Vinci that closed after one month.

In recent years, the Nauruan government has made efforts to diversify its economy and reduce its dependence on phosphate mining. 

For example, it has promoted the construction of new tourist facilities and the improvement of current infrastructure to boost the tourism industry, in spite of the limits imposed by the island's remote location.

Today, however, Nauru's economy is based on the sale of fishing rights and coconut products, as well as offshore banking and company registration services (although some of these were shut down after the US treasury designated Nauru as a money-laundering state). 

It also relies on expatriates from Australia and New Zealand to keep the legal and judicial systems running.

One of Nauru's main income sources is the controversial Regional Processing Center, an offshore immigration detention facility established by the Australian government in Nauru as part of its efforts to manage asylum seekers and refugees who arrive in Australia by boat. 

Paradise lost: How phosphate mining devastated island Nauru
Nauru regional processing facility

As for the environmental degradation problem, the Nauruan government is known to have reforestation, environmental education, and land rehabilitation plans. It is also working to restore the country's watersheds affected by phosphate mining. 

Reversing environmental degradation is, however, a slow and complex process.

Add Interesting Engineering to your Google News feed.
Add Interesting Engineering to your Google News feed.
message circleSHOW COMMENT (1)chevron
Job Board