Nauru: Stuck Between a Rock… and the Unforgiving Ocean

If more land is not made habitable for humans, Nauru will cease to exist.
If more land is not made habitable for humans, Nauru will cease to exist.

By Branessa Tsiode

The future of Nauru depends on the complex task of rehabilitating the land on the inner plateau of this Pacific island nation.

More than a century of phosphate mining, rapid population growth, and the increasing frequency and intensity of climate change impacts have brought about a very dire situation for Nauru – there is just no more space for people to live.

With a land area of only 21 km2 and a population of approximately 12,000, Nauru is one of the smallest states in the world yet very densely populated for the Pacific region. Lack of available land means lack of a sustainable future, as land is a basic prerequisite for almost all national development activities and projects.

Around 80% of Nauru’s land consists of a vast expanse of coral pinnacles left behind after phosphate was extracted, and unsuitable for development. This huge expanse of barren terrain is situated on the inner plateau of the island at approximately 40-60 meters above sea level, while the inhabitable area is along the low-lying shoreline.

As our population increases, the demand for land also increases. The residential settlement within Denigmodu district is already presenting some of the social and economic challenges common with unplanned, crowded informal settlements. A recent unpublished population projection by the Nauru Bureau of Statistics expects growth of up to 40% within the next 10 to 15 years.

Where will these people live, go to school, and where will their water and power come from?

Lying just 53 km south of the equator, Nauru has been fortunate not to suffer cyclones or tsunamis like other Pacific island nations are prone to. But the country is not immune to the increasingly devastating and unpredictable impacts of climate change.

The frequency and intensity of king tides amplify each year, while the shoreline disappears and the sea level rises. This means the little available land that Nauruans require to live and develop is shrinking further.

 Land rehabilitation is inevitable due to climate change in Nauru

So, what is the solution to Nauru’s predicament? Thus far two possible solutions have been brought forward: urgent land rehabilitation and population transfer.

Population transfer ranges from the extreme variation of transferring the whole population to another country, to softer measures like voluntary migration and facilitating mobility. In the immediate future, however urgent land rehabilitation is the only viable way to relocate the population to higher ground inland, away from the water.

Rehabilitating the ghostly sea of pinnacles involves blasting them, flattening the land, and refilling the holes. The Nauru Rehabilitation Corporation is mandated with this task, which is very expensive (around $AU20 million or $14.63 per km2).

And that's just the tip of the iceberg of the challenges the country faces to make the barren terrain adequate for humans to live there.

Nauru’s economy is weak and volatile due to its shallow revenue base and high cost structure, so there is not much appetite to accommodate the cost of required land rehabilitation. Land rehabilitation is very taxing on such a fragile economy, and the Nauru Rehabilitation Corporation lacks sufficient technical capacity to implement their rehabilitation mandate.

Since phosphate mining has traditionally been the primary contributor to national income, some Nauruans favor delaying rehabilitation to allow secondary phosphate mining once the impending exhaustion of primary mining is reached. Others believe that secondary mining and rehabilitation can be pursued simultaneously, and would be more cost-effective.

The Nauruan land management system is a major roadblock for any development activity because the government cannot own land and only lease it for public interest and national development purposes. This favors the private landowners, and national development plans are often undermined by politics and personal relationships.

 In Nauru, land rehabilitation efforts face multiple challenges

Furthermore, most land plots are co-owned by many members of a clan, so reaching a consensus to lease can be an uphill battle. There is simply no way the government can guarantee leasing suitable amounts of rehabilitated land to allow for public housing and to develop social and economic infrastructure.

Nauru’s capacity for national planning is weak. The current national goals, targets and practices for land rehabilitation are unclear, poorly supported, and not well harmonized with other goals and practices established in the 2009 update of the 2005-2025 Nauru Sustainable Development Strategy. The country has no national land management strategy.

Undoubtedly, the intention to rehabilitate the land on the inner plateau of Nauru is a complex aspiration. However, the very future of our country depends on it.

If the land is not made habitable for humans, then my Nauru will cease to exist, with relocation becoming the only option. This has been proposed in the past, but the people did not accept it.

It is not a simple decision. Where will we move? What will it mean for us as a people, as a sovereign nation? What will be the emotional, mental, economic, and cultural impacts of relocation?

Land rehabilitation most probably will become an inevitable reality due to climate change. Our options for the future are limited.

As a mother and a public servant in national development, I consider the prospects for Nauru’s future, and fear the uncertainty of my child’s future.