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One of the world’s largest sources of phosphorus, the Bou Craa mine in occupied Western Sahara. Pictured: rail line from the Bou Craa mine to the coast: Google Earth / linkOne of the world’s largest sources of phosphorus, the Bou Craa mine in occupied Western Sahara. Pictured: rail line from the Bou Craa mine to the coast: Google Earth / link

The Bou Craa mine in occupied Western Sahara is one of the world’s largest sources of phosphorus, a vital component of the fertilisers on which much of the world’s agriculture, and global food production and food security, depends. For some time there has been concern about our reliance on a finite supply of phosphorus, and the implications of this for agricultural productivity, food prices and nutrition, particularly in developing countries. The term “peak phosphorus” has joined the term “peak oil” in the lexicon of 21st century scarcity.

An article in this week’s Nature journal (Elser and Bennett, 2011) addresses the phosphorus problem, tackling issues of demand, supply, pollution resulting from our profligate use of phosphorus, and waste of this valuable resource (of which there is a lot, related in no small part to the pollution).

The Nature article has this to say about Morocco’s control of a sizable chunk of the world’s phosphorus supply:

“Overall, three countries control more than 85% of the known global phosphorus reserves, with Morocco clearly in the driver’s seat. … Such a power imbalance is a potential source of tension, given the political turmoil in northern Africa and the fact that developing-world farmers cannot afford phosphate fertilizers even at today’s non-monopoly prices. Many of the world’s food producers are in danger of becoming completely dependent on trade with Morocco, where press reports have emerged of Dubai-style luxury developments being planned in anticipation of phosphorus windfalls.”

Bou Craa mine: Google Earth / linkBou Craa mine: Google Earth / link

Morocco’s control of Western Sahara’s phosphorus resources gives it another political string to pull, particularly when it comes to tying trade to political support, for example by putting pressure on countries not to recognise the Sahrawi Arab Democratic Republic (SADR), the state proclaimed in disputed Western Sahara by the Polisario Independence Movement, or to withdraw recognition already given. The SADR is recognised by dozens of countries and is a member of the African Union, but some countries have withdrawn recognition in recent years (1), presumably as a result of political pressure, bribery or blackmail by Morocco. Recent culprits include Malawi, Zambia, Papua New Guinea and (earlier, in 2000) India, as well as a number of small-island states (watch out guys – you might be dispossessed soon too, with those rising sea-levels).

The extent to which access to phosphorus has played any direct or overt role in the politics of occupation, appeasement and recognition to date is unclear (if anyone has specific information I’d be interested). However, the “phosphorus problem” is likely to become more prominent in the foreseeable future (a study by Cordell et al. (2009), cited in the Nature article, projects a peak in production around 2030), and is another string to Morocco’s political bow.

The figures provided by Elser and Bennett (2011) are indicative of shocking levels of waste in our use of phosphorus. Citing Cordell et al. (2009) they report that of the 17.5 million tonnes of phosphorus mined globally in 2005, some 14 million tonnes were used in fertliser, but only about 3 million tonnes actually made their way into food. Around 8 million tonnes of phosphorus were lost through soil leaching and erosion due to sloppy application (e.g. not being targeted at the right locations or applied at the best times). A further 1 million tonnes of phosphorus is lost every year in wasted food – food that is simply thrown away.

Close-up of track showing wind-blown material from the phosphorus trains on the south-west of the track.: Google Earth / linkClose-up of track showing wind-blown material from the phosphorus trains on the south-west of the track.: Google Earth / link

Our profligacy with and waste of phosphorus causes substantial environmental pollution, helping to create “dead zones” in coastal waters and degrading freshwater ecosystems. It also helps to give Morocco political leverage over other nations, making its partial occupation of Western Sahara more secure (the United States, an enthusiastic support of the occupation, has included phosphorus in its list of rare elements crucial to its national security, according to Elser and Bennett).

Better use of this valuable resource would help not only the environment and global food security, but also the cause of justice and regional stability, by making the world just a little less desperately dependent on a resource controlled in large part by an aggressive expansionist power whose occupation of a neighbouring territory is an obstacle to peace and development in the Maghreb.

The discarding of food in supply chains and by consumers needlessly accelerates the depletion of the world’s phosphorus reserves, helping to consolidate Morocco’s control over this key resource and ensuring that the Moroccan regime and its cronies benefit even more from rising commodity prices. This is particularly ironic and unjust, given that Morocco’s occupation of Western Sahara has created a refugee population living of sparse food aid and suffering from widespread malnutrition.


Elser, J. and Bennett, E. 2011. A broken geochemical cycle. Nature 478: 29-31.

Cordell, D., Drangert, J.-O. & White, S. Global Environ. Change 19, 292–305 (2009).

(1) The sometimes reliable Wikipedia lists all the countries that have recognised the SADR, with details of those that have withdrawn or frozen recognition. It places the number of countries currently recognising the SADR as 48, out of 84 that have recognised the Sahrawi state at some point. 32 countries currently have ambassadorial level relations with the SADR, with Sahrawi embassies in 17 countries.

Imagery from Google Earth.

Nick Brooks is a climate scientist who currently does a lot of work on “adaptation”, addressing how people have responded to climate change in the past and how we might respond to further changes in climate in the future. A lot of his current work is with bodies such as the United Nations Development Programme, addressing how developing countries can increase their resilience to emerging and anticipated changes in climate.

Editorial Notes: Sand & Dust is a website covering "Climate change, civilisation, the Sahara" "Phosphorus cycle: A broken biogeochemical cycle" by James Elser & Elena Bennett was published Oct ober 5, 2011 in Nature with the abstract: "Excess phosphorus is polluting our environment while, ironically, mineable resources of this essential nutrient are limited. James Elser and Elena Bennett argue that recycling programmes are urgently needed." Unfortunately, the article is behind a paywall. Energy Bulletin was one of the first sites to cover peak phosphorus. See Peak Phosphorus by Déry and Anderson (2007). UPDATE: Changed "phosphorous" to "phosphorus" throughout the article at the author's request. "Phosphorus" is the proper way to spell the noun form. "Phosphorous" is the spelling for the adjectival form of the P3+ valence, e.g., "phosphorous compounds." (Wikipedia) -BA

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