Plane & Pilot
Sunday, June 1, 2008

Nauru—For The Birds

This island nation once operated the world’s hardest-working 737

I'd overflown Nauru perhaps a dozen times. It's almost directly between Majuro, capital of the Marshall Islands, and the famous Henderson Field at Honiara, Solomon Islands. When I was regularly delivering airplanes to Australia in the '80s and '90s, I often looked down on the small, oval-shaped island, which is 26 miles south of the equator. Its interior looked moonscaped and jagged, like something out of a science-fiction movie. I wondered why on earth (or more accurately, water) anyone would want to live there.

Nauru is a relatively tiny dot in the Pacific. It's only eight miles across and, because of its proximity to the equator, is subject to the vagaries of weather peculiar to the intertropical convergence zone. The world's smallest island nation has a population of just 9,000, one airport, a single 12-mile, coastal highway and, until recently, an economy totally dependent upon, well, bird droppings.

Technically, the mining product is called phosphate, and it's used all over the world as fertilizer. Nice to be known for something, I guess. At one time, phosphate mining provided Nauruans with the Pacific's highest per capita income, along with the world's highest obesity rate (more than 90%). More than coincidentally, Nauru also suffers from the world's highest type 2 diabetes rate, with 40% of the population affected.

For years, when phosphate mining was proceeding apace, the otherwise inconspicuous island was known as the "Kuwait of the South Pacific." There was no income tax, most government services were free and virtually everyone was rich, all thanks to those obliging sea birds.

Trouble was, phosphate was the island country's only resource. The beaches were only fair, so tourism was unlikely; there wasn't much vegetation; and the limited fresh water was provided by an aging desalination plant. In short, there was little reason to visit Nauru unless you were in the guano business.

Mining experts had long warned the government that the supply of phosphate was finite and that it would run out quickly if the country didn't manage it properly. Nauru's succession of administrations ignored the advice and continued to plunder the island's interior, stripping away all vegetation and leaving an uninhabitable volcano-like surface over 80% of the 12-square-mile country.

A combination of corruption, government malfeasance and bad business decisions caused the phosphate to be depleted by the beginning of this century. Today, Nauru is an economic and environmental disaster area. Unemployment is around 90%, and of the 10% who do work, nine out of 10 are employed by the government.

When the country was riding high, it had the obligatory international airline consisting of a number of Boeing 737s. Gradually, as the economy scaled back, Air Nauru (now renamed Our Airline) sold off its jets until there was only one remaining. That one was a 737-300 (VH-RON), and it was famous in the South Pacific. In those days, it flew all over the region, from Hong Kong, Manila and Guam to Nadi (Fiji), Brisbane, Pago Pago and Apia (Samoa), and Honiara.

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