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Senegal Salt Submerged by Floods

FILE: A worker carries a crate containing newly harvested salt from the edge of Lac Rose also known as Lake Retba as she walks past Female vendors, selling handcrafts for tourists in Niaga, near Dakar, Senegal. Taken Sept. 6, 2022.

Maguette Ndiour stands on the edge of Senegal's Lake Retba, famous for its pink-hued waters, and points to a mound of salt slowly being shoveled into bags by men toiling under the hot midday sun.

Widely known as the "Pink Lake," Retba is a magnet for tourists, lying 25 miles northeast of the capital, Dakar.

Separated from the Atlantic by a narrow dune, the shallow lake is so densely laden with salt that, as in the Dead Sea, bathers float like corks. Harvesting and selling the salt from its famed waters is a lucrative sideline.

At the height of the rainy season in August, water cascaded into the lake, nearly tripling its usual depth to around six meters, according to Ndiour and an environmental activist, Ibrahima Khalil Mbaye.

The influx washed away some 7,000 tons of salt that had been harvested, a financial hit of nearly a quarter of a million dollars, according to Ndiour.

In two months, he says, they will have sold all the salt they were able to rescue before the lake swallowed up the rest.

After that, it could take up to four years before the coveted mineral can be harvested again, he adds.

Worse, said Ndiour, the salt plays a key role in imbuing the lake with its signature tinge -- "so if there is no more salt, we can't have the pink."

That spells bad news for tourism.

On a clear October afternoon at the height of Senegal's hot season, Julien Heim, a 21-year-old French tourist, disembarked from a wooden fishing boat after a row around the lake.

"It was cool," he said. "It's just that there are no more terraces on the banks -- and the lake isn't pink."

Ousmane Ndiaye, director of meteorology at the National Agency for Civil Aviation and Meteorology, said this year's rainy season was "exceptional".

"The intense nature of the rain is consistent with the outcome of the latest IPCC report... (on) the frequency of extreme weather events," he said referring to the UN's expert panel on climate change.

Mbaye said the water had been pumped into the lake from the suburbs of Dakar, fuelling concern that it carried toxic residues.

"This water passed through streets, alleyways, petrol stations," he said.

Mamadou Alpha Sidibe, director of flood prevention and management at the ministry of water, denied that the water had been pumped.

No pipelines or drains had been installed and ditches that brought the water into the lake from the surrounding areas had been formed naturally, he said.

Sidibe blamed the rains for triggering the flooding but said it was aggravated by exponential urbanisation.