Situated in the Pacific Ocean to the northeast of Australia, the Republic of Nauru is the smallest island nation in the world. Phosphate mining has rendered 80 percent of the island unhabitable and devoid of arable land. Phosphate deposits depleted in the 1980s and Nauru’s economy stagnated, transitioning the country from fiscally self-sustaining to externally dependent. The country’s history, economy and foreign relationships interlace with—and have shaped many aspects of—Nauruan life, as evidenced by the top 10 facts about living conditions in Nauru.
Top 10 Facts About Living Conditions in Nauru
- Population: Nauru’s population is approximately 11,000. Ninety percent are indigenous to the island, almost half of the population are under the age of 24 and 3.5 percent are 65 and older. Although the country’s landmass is only eight square miles, Nauru is one of the world’s most densely populated countries.
- Colonialism: Nauru remained under colonial authority until gaining independence in 1968. For example, Germany annexed it in 1888, Japan occupied it in WWII and the United Nations (U.N.) subsequently placed Nauru under Australian administration. The nation only became of economic interest to colonial powers after the discovery of phosphate deposits in the late 19th century.
- Australian-Nauru Relations: Nauru sought damages from Australia in 1989 for “rehabilitation of the phosphate lands.” Before WWII, Germany and the United Kingdom split mining profits, and following the war, Australia and the United Kingdom divided revenues. The Hague sided with Nauru and the two countries settled in 1993 with Australia agreeing to pay $56 million AUD that year and another $50 million AUD over the next two decades. Australia continues to be Nauru’s greatest source of economic stimulus, its contributions making up 20 percent of the national GDP.
- Economy: Phosphate mining and production is integral to Nauru’s economy and continues to be the country’s most valuable resource. Phosphate is one of the key plant nutrients to make food crop fertilizer. Additionally, phosphate mines are an essential source of employment. A national economic crisis occurred in the 80s when Nauru exhausted existing deposits. Secondary mining did resume in 2005, but Nauru’s government estimates that reservoirs will be barren by 2030. Other niche industries have recently emerged, including immigration taxation and licensing commercial fishing. The Republic of China (ROC) and Nauru signed a fishing cooperation accord in 2004 to strengthen trade relations between the two countries. Renewed in 2016, the cooperation accord provides funds to improve Nauru’s fishing industry and promotes sustainable fishing practices.
- The Pacific Solution Policy: In 2001, Nauru became one of two Australian off-shore regional processing centers for refugees and asylum-seekers in an arrangement called the Pacific Solution policy. In exchange, the Australian Government would provide $1 million AUD annually for its operation, immediately pay $16.5 million AUD for infrastructure and provide increased access to Australian education and additional maritime security. Facilities closed from 2007 to 2012 due to international objections, including indefinite detention times and evidence of abuse; however, despite criticism, operations have since recommenced.
- Employment: Following the economic downturn in the 1980s, Nauru did not significantly diversify its industries, unemployment levels increased and the country became heavily dependent on external economic stimulus. For example, the uptick in employment levels in 2012 was the result of regional processing centers reopening. Facilities directly provided 500 jobs, and indirectly generated substantial ancillary employment opportunities; next to Nauru’s government, Australia is the country’s second-largest source of employment.
- Health Care: Nauru was one of seventeen countries in 2016 that, proportionate to its economy, spent over 10 percent of its GDP on health care. The Marshall Islands spent the most at 23.3 percent and Monaco spent the least at 1.7 percent. Despite this, many Nauruan’s develop noncommunicable diseases, specifically, obesity, diabetes and cardiovascular disease. Although obesity remains an issue in Nauru, it has made progress as male diabetes rates have declined 1 percent over the past decade and high blood pressure levels have decreased for both genders by 6 percent.
- Poverty: Nauru is officially a middle-upper-income nation, and previously, it was the wealthiest country per capita. However, a 2018 U.N. report showed that a quarter of Nauruans live in “basic need” poverty, too poor for the cost of food and access to necessities such as clean water, health care and education. The same 2018 report noted that Nauru had no instances of food insecurity, however.
- Education: Education in Nauru is free and mandatory until the age of 18. Eighty percent of Nauruan children enrolled in early and primary education in 2015, but only half that number attended secondary school. The Government addressed truancy in 2016, an ongoing concern for students in Nauru, by enacting the Nauru Education Assistance Trust Scheme (NEATS). NEATS incentivizes students to attend school by providing them with $5 a day to set aside for adulthood and help them establish businesses or purchase homes when they graduate. Following NEAT, school attendance increased by 11 percent from 2016 to 2018.
- National Sustainability: Nauru is confronting the significant damage that phosphate mining caused. The government acknowledges that it is an economically volatile and diminishing commodity. For example, the ROC and Nauru’s 360 Project is an initiative that encourages national self-sufficiency in areas such as vocational training, transitioning to solar energy and specialized forms of agriculture; the latter is to mitigate reliance on imported goods. The United Arab Emirates has aligned with Nauru to achieve similar efforts, providing financial aid for Nauru to establish its first solar energy plant, which opened in 2016.
These top 10 facts about living conditions in Nauru reveal that its history is complex. The country’s remote location, limited economic opportunities and increasing dependence on foreign investment—usually politically contingent for all countries—continue to impact the Nauruan population. However, ongoing U.N. involvement and foreign relationships with countries like Australia and the ROC, are working to address Nauru’s long-term social issues.
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