Nauru_ the smallest island in the world that is in danger of disappearing

Nauru_ the smallest island in the world that is in danger of disappearing


Nauru, the smallest republic in the world that is in danger of disappearing

Geographic map of the island (note 1)

In Micronesia, in the middle of the Pacific, just below the equator, there is the smallest republic in the world: the island of Nauru (official name Republic of Nauru).

Nauru is located approximately 42km southeast of the equator (longitude 166 ° 55 'east from Greenwich) and the closest island is Ocean 305km away. It is 21.3 sq km large, with a coastline of 30 km and has just over 14,540 (2007 data) inhabitants (of which about 35% are under 15 years old). It does not have a capital but a more populated center which is the district of Yaren, where the government is based.

Geographic map (note 1)

Thanks to the work of man, its appearance has gradually transformed from that of a lush tropical island to a desolate lunar land: large and small craters scattered here and there, very little vegetation, no source of fresh water, impracticable agriculture, unthinkable tourism: an open pit phosphate mine that less than a century of exploitation led the island to destruction.The fertile areas are in fact reduced to the narrow coastal strip where there are coconut palms, pandanus trees, banana trees and some vegetable gardens . The local fauna is very scarce as, following environmental changes, birds such as the Black Noddy (Anous minutus - fam. Sternidae) have disappeared. As a consequence of the fact that the vast wooded areas have been destroyed to make room for the open pit mines of phosphates, the climate has also undergone dramatic changes from a typically tropical climate to an area with a climate characterized by long periods of drought.

But let's see how this happened.

All that is known about this island, before the arrival of the Westerners, is that it was colonized by people who came from Polynesia and Melanesia and lived mainly on fishing. In 1798 Captain John Fearn, a whale hunter, happened upon the island and called it Pleasant Island (= Pleasant Island).

Starting in the 1830s, other whale hunters and even traders began to arrive with the easily imaginable consequences as their lifestyle was very different from that of the natives. They made known firearms, alcohol and above all diseases. All this led over the years to a series of internal struggles in the population that lasted ten years and led to a reduction of the inhabitants from 1400 to 900.

In the late 1800s, both Germany and Great Britain claimed ownership of the island. As a result of this dispute, an agreement was signed which provided for the island to be divided into two large spheres of influence: one German and one British. The new arrivals began to exploit the large deposits of guano present on the island which continued until the end of the nineteenth century the New Zealander Albert Ellis, discovered that the rocks of Nauru were rich in pure phosphates (his estimate was 41 million tons, very far from reality as they were almost double), formed by the contact between the bird's guano with the coral. A process that lasted thousands and thousands of years thanks to a very particular, almost unique condition.

Thus in the very first years of the twentieth (1906) mining began. The Naurans were initially paid half a penny per ton (!).

In the 1920s, mining began to move forward at the rate of two million tons per year: every year two million tons disappeared from an island measuring 21 square kilometers. The compensation for the naurans had risen to 3%, the ecological decompensation was starting to be serious.

In 1914 at the beginning of the First World War the Australians took possession of the island until 1920 when, at the end of the war, the League of Nations placed the island of Nauru under the British, Australian and New Zealand protectorate with the rights of exploitation of the phosphate mines.

Photo of the island of Nauru under attack by Liberator 7th Air Force bombers (note 2)

But it was not over yet for this remote island as it also had to experience the Second World War. In fact, from 1942 to 1945 Nauru was occupied by the Japanese who deported 1200 Naurans to work as workers in the Caroline Islands (it was for them an important military base for war operations). Of the 1200 Naurans, only about 700 returned to their island in 1946.

In 1947, after the end of the war, by decision of the United Nations, the island passed under the Australian mandate and remained so until its independence. In fact, starting from 1950 the inhabitants began to ask for the independence which they obtained in 1968 becoming an independent republic and became part of the Commonwealth in 1999.

In June 1970 the people of Nauru bought the assets of the British Phosphate Commissioners (the company made up of Australia, Great Britain and New Zealand that managed the extraction of phosphates on Christmas Island, Nauru and Ocean Island since 1920) becoming the Nauru Phosphate Corporation with mining rights.

Having obtained independence, the inhabitants of Nauru found themselves at a crossroads: to abandon the economy that was killing their own island or not? To switch or not to an economy based on something more sustainable, such as tourism, fishing or other things compatible with a Polynesian island?

It was decided to go on for another 40 years digging for phosphates, such were the estimates of availability, which turned out to be correct. Today (despite the ecological disaster forty years ago it was evident) that the mines are practically exhausted, the smallest republic in the world is a sieve without raw materials, without vegetation, without hope of attracting tourists, without a sea around worthy of a island in the middle of the Pacific.

Having acknowledged the situation, the government of Nauru in 1989 sues Australia at the international court of justice in The Hague for the damage caused to the territory by the exploitation of phosphate mines while the island was under its protectorate. The court of justice in 1993 ruled that Australia has not fulfilled its fiduciary obligations (before the declaration of independence) and the same agrees to pay a lump sum of 85.6 million US dollars and an annual amount of 2, $ 5 million for environmental remediation.

The Naurans have tried to transform themselves into a tax haven, but the proposed sanctions, combined with their weakness (they have to import practically everything, even drinking water and energy) have made them desist. Among other things, if we consider the rise in ocean waters (due to global warming), which is combined with an island where millions of tons of rocks have been extracted and transferred elsewhere and considering that the highest part the island today is about 67 m asl, there are serious concerns that the island may disappear.

From a situation where no taxes were paid and most services were free, the Naurans now import 97% of what they consume, are full of debt and do not have the strength to return their island to an ecologically acceptable condition. . Once among the richest nations in the world, it is now in dire financial straits: with phosphate mining ceased, the nation has not yet found a different way to generate enough income to support itself.

Nauru today is the most densely populated area in the Pacific with 10 people per family unit and with a density of about 680 people per square kilometer and the only habitable areas of this handful of land or in any case suitable for any sustainable use, are the coastal areas ( 150-300 m wide) which represent 1/5 of the island as the rest is an open pit mine.

Nauru, year 2002, seen from the satellite (note 2)
(Courtesy: U.S. Department of Energy's Atmospheric Radiation Measurement Program)

In recent years they have been providing hospitality to people seeking political asylum from Australia and in return the Australian government has given financial aid to the island. But this activity also ceased in February 2008 due to a change in Australian policy.

According to the WHO 40% of Nauru's population suffers from type two diabetes so kidney and heart disease are widespread with a life expectancy for women of 62 and men of 58, due to their very sedentary lifestyle.

The country, already heavily dependent on foreigners for its survival, especially from Australia and Taiwan (China), has an even more serious situation due to its isolation as only one plane operates and there is also no safe harbor for ships beyond of container ships for the transport of phosphates.

Nauru has expressed the need for help to the United Nations. In the national evaluation report of the United Nations (Development strategies for sustainable development) the actions that must be implemented for environmental and human sustainability are highlighted. It is highlighted that starting from 1990 there was a collapse of the country's economy due to the collapse of phosphate production with an increase in public debt (also due to bad investments) which brought the economy to the brink of collapse. It highlights how the primary objective is: "A future in which individuals, the community, businesses and the government contribute to a sustainable quality of life for all naurans". This reform plan concerns the country at 360 ° going not only from environmental remediation but also and above all to the strategies to be adopted to make the country autonomous from an economic, health, educational, agricultural, social point of view, in short, practically rebuilding a country to be zero and make it worthy of being called such.

What happens on this island is a warning and an example of how senselessness and profit can destroy a natural environment and how its destruction results in the destruction of all its life forms, including man. We are talking about 21 sq km but the substance does not change if we compare it to the 510 million sq km of the planet, the result could be the same (and without anyone to bring us drinking water!).

We insert this video, although not of excellent quality, which still makes us understand the ecological disaster of the island of Nauru.


It is really true what a great writer said: "Not even the gods can fight successfully against human stupidity (and greed)."

Gian Marco Calvini and Maria Giovanna Davoli

Online bibliographic sources

  • Republic of Nauru (en) from which the indicated photos were taken
  • The Voice (en)
  • Wikipedia (it)
  • U.S. Department of State Diplomacy in Action (en)
  • Hickman Air Force Base (en)
  • World Health Organization (regional Office for the Western Pacific) (en)


  • The maps are taken from The brand new De Agostini geographical atlas for the family, De Agostini Geographic Institute Novara, 1986 edition;
  • These images being taken from the Archives of the United States Department of Defense are in the public domain and are not subject to any copyright.

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