Michael Wurmser



Western Sahara conflict shines light on world’s phosphate supply


With one of the largest reserves of ‘white gold’, news that conflict has broken out in the disputed Moroccan-occupied territory of Western Sahara has implications for the world’s phosphate supply. Norway, however, may soon be a friendlier frontline of phosphate production – as this article explains.

What may look like a vast swathe of desert in Western Sahara is, in fact, home to lucrative phosphate deposits. In its heyday, the Boucraa mine – run by the Moroccan state-owned OCP – would have produced a steady stream of the chalky rock. Taken along an automated conveyor belt – allegedly the longest in the world – the phosphate would then go on to the North African coast, where massive ships would transport its contents across the globe.

Morocco and the Moroccan-occupied territory of Western Sahara host by far the largest reserve, with China, Algeria and Syria the next biggest, together representing more than 80% of global rock phosphate. Morocco’s deposits have, therefore, been of huge importance to the world’s food production; as a critical fertiliser ingredient, phosphate underpins global food supply.

And yet, last week saw war declared on Morocco by the Polisario Front – a liberation movement of the Sahrawi people. This breaks a ceasefire in Western Sahara that’s lasted three decades. The arid, sparsely populated strip of land has been under Moroccan control since 1975, when occupying Spain pulled out its forces. Since then, the Polisario Front has sought independence. And the recent flare up in tensions will no doubt impact phosphate production in the region.

This is by no means the only volatility Morocco’s exports of phosphates have experienced in the disputed territory. It was reported that in 2019 they’d fallen to their lowest levels since at least 2012. Just 19 vessels allegedly exported a total volume of 1.03 million tonnes, worth an estimated $90.4 million last year – down from 33 shipments of 1.9 million tonnes the year before.

The reason this is so significant is that phosphate rock is a valuable, vital commodity. A necessary, environmentally-friendly component of fertiliser, it’s alleged we would not be able to feed our growing population without it. But it’s also a finite resource; there’s no way of manufacturing it. In the words of the US Geological Survey in its recent mineral resources report, “There are no substitutes for phosphorus in agriculture”. What’s more, as this latest news of West Sahara tensions is testament to, there is high risk associated with its supply. That’s why it’s on the European Union’s Critical Raw Material List.

What is perhaps less well known is that there is potentially a large untapped supply of phosphate in Europe. Norway is fast-evolving as a possible future global phosphate producer and could become strategically critical over the next few years. Norge Mining has been investigating phosphorus reserves in southern Norway for some time now, and the results of its explorations – including geophysical surveys and then drilling at depth – are hugely promising. In fact, some of the mineralised zones are somewhat wider than originally mapped. A ‘Mineral Resource Estimate’ process has now started, and the results of that will have significant implications for Norway, for Europe – and for the world.

The recent tensions in Western Sahara confirm that a stable supply of this strategically critical mineral has never been more important. Simultaneously, Norway is emerging as a potential solution to the EU’s – and the wider world’s – phosphate supply conundrum. With this in mind, it will be interesting to see whether this precious ‘white gold’ is still on its Critical Raw Material list in ten years’ time.