The endangered future of Senegal’s Pink Lake

The world-famous body of salt water, located some 30 kilometers from Dakar, has lost its lustre to the great dismay…

The world-famous body of salt water, located some 30 kilometers from Dakar, has lost its lustre to the great dismay of the communities living around this once breathtaking tourist attraction. By Ibrahima Dione

Papis Kebe, at full speed, experiments with leisure activities around the Pink Lake. 

Quad biking, jet skiing, canoeing, horseback riding, this 30-year-old Frenchman of Malian descent has had his fill of thrills. 

“It’s almost 3 p.m.,” whispers a lady wearing a dark tank top and shorts that expose her generous curves.

Far from the freezing cold, Papis is also in summer mode wearing sunglasses, short-sleeved shirt, shorts and white sneakers. 

“I am in Senegal for the first time in my life. I’ve been here for ten days. I’m discovering the lake, but unfortunately it’s not rosy,” he laments in a Parisian accent and with a hoarse voice.

Walking on the muddy bank, where birds of different species have landed, one notices that shades of green and blue have replaced the original scarlet pink. 

Lake Retba, its official name, is pink only in name and it is painful to look at by the end of January.

“The coloring is related to algae living in the lake and which have a pinkish pigment. However, we need wind so that these organisms capable of adapting to extreme environments can move and the sun to reflect the rays so that the water is pink,” says Dr. Cheikh Ibrahima Youm, teacher-researcher in Sedimentology at the Department of Geology of the Faculty of Science and Technology of Cheikh Anta Diop University in Dakar.

Only a dugout boat with a flag sails in this area now covering an area of about three square kilometers “because of the global effects of climate change,” against “16 square kilometers in the 15th century,” recalls Mr. Youm. 

Using a stick, touching the bottom, a boatman propels by force of arm a boat with three other people on board. 

But there is not a shadow of a salt worker in activity, even less mounds of salt whitening under the sun. 

The extraction is at a standstill.

It’s because the depth of the lake went from three to six meters during the last winter. 

A large breach has allowed an impressive amount of rainwater to flow in from surrounding areas, such as Keur Massar, Kounoune, Bambilor and Sangalkam.

A disrupted ecosystem

The Pink Lake then rose out of its bed, submerging huts and carrying salt deposited along the shore. 

“The water is too deep to harvest salt. The actors of the sector are all out of work,” says Maguette Ndiour, president of the salt farmers who depend on the lake for their livelihoods.  

With the flood, “the lake is no longer saturated, the solution is diluted. The concentration of salt becomes too low (80 to 350 grams per liter, in normal times). 

The salt is no longer deposited. It even dissolves. From then on, it is better to let nature do its work than to try to intervene. 

The heat of the dry season will cause the saltwater to evaporate. 

By April, conditions may change to allow the lake to regain its initial characteristics,” says the sedimentologist.

In the meantime, the craft village with nearly 70 souvenir stores receives few customers. 

“The waters have destroyed many goods. Craftsmen have still not reopened their businesses. Some have done so after costly embankment work. The lake is not pink and the salt is no longer exploited. It is no longer of great interest to the increasingly rare Western tourists,” says Mor Gueye, the president of the craftsmen of the Pink Lake.

The observation is just as bitter for Mor Fall. This manager of a restaurant offering local dishes has seen his turnover dwindle to zero earnings.

“I just came out of a meeting where we were talking about our future. The inhabitants of five traditional villages around the lake, Niangue Wolof, Niangue Peulh, Wayembam, Dene and Benoba, are anxious. Times are tough, we must act as quickly as possible,” this stocky man with a bushy beard explains.

Issaga Diallo had never experienced such a situation. Earning his living at the Pink Lake since 1990, the 63-year-old keeps himself busy by patching up a damaged canoe using carpentry tools. 

“In the past, there was plenty of salt all the time. It took an average of two hours to fill a boat with salt. In a day, I could do this operation twice. In recent years, it’s impossible. It will be worse with the rising waters,” laments the salt worker who, for the occasion, swaps his work clothes for a black and white cap, a gray sweater, beige khaki pants and blue sandals.

With the means at hand, a part of the production was saved. 

One day in September, despite the sweltering heat, a boy scrapes salt with a shovel to fill 25-kilogram bags. 

Mamadou Dieng, without any particular protection, sprays a liquid on the salt to make it iodized. 

“The inputs we use come from India,” he says.

At the same time, men and especially women carry basins to bring up salt that has not yet been packaged.

”This work brings me between 2,000 and 7,000 CFA francs per day. We receive 50 CFA francs for each basin. We go back and forth a lot until we get tired. It is an exhausting job. But I have no choice. I have small children to feed and life has become expensive in Senegal. When I manage to get enough money to cover my daily expenses, I can take one or two days off to regenerate my tired body,” Sawratou Barry says with a hint of stoicism.

A source of life

The active population of the lake can be estimated at 3,000 people. 

“For salt alone, 40,000 to 50,000 tons are harvested each year by Senegalese, Beninese, Guineans, Malians, Burkinabe, and Togolese… The price per ton is between 20,000 and 30,000 CFA francs, depending on supply and demand,” says Ndiour.

David Mendy, 19, left Guinea Bissau a year ago to try his luck. 

“I’m doing pretty well filling bags with salt and loading trucks,” he says in broken Wolof, the main language in Senegal.

On a rugged perimeter marked off with rudimentary means, a good-natured young man fetches fresh water from a well to water the soil full of shells. 

“It is my father who gave me this piece of land to grow parsley. I started last year. Due to a lack of experience in the field, the first seedlings did not yield much. But it’s getting better,” says Cheikh Dia, one of the many market gardeners at the pink lake. 

Here, there are dozens of small farms like his. 

“Market gardening is a threat to the lake. People use a lot of pesticides that are sometimes drained into the lake by rainwater. This causes chemical pollution,” laments Dr. Cheikh Ibrahima Youm.

On the way to the sea, which used to be connected to the lake, sand dunes shaped by the wind give the impression of being in the desert. This is where camels can be found. Abdoulaye Sow, in his late 30s, owns six of them. 

It costs 15,000 CFA francs for a 60-minute ride, 8,000 CFA francs for 30 minutes and 5,000 CFA francs for 15 minutes. 

For the shooting of a clip, one hour is charged at 50,000 CFA francs, 30 minutes at 30,000 CFA francs and 15 minutes at 25,000 CFA francs.

“I took over from my father as an adult. These days, business is slow. It’s very difficult to get 60,000 CFA francs after a day’s work. Before, I used to make 100,000 to 150,000 CFA francs a day,” he says as a quad bike speeds along the laterite track winding through the fine sand. 

It’s a track used by drivers of single or two-seater all-terrain 4-wheelers and touring cars.

“It was great. I rode the quad for 45 minutes. It allowed me to see the lake from every angle and take pictures. The ride was great,” says an energetic young woman. 

Mamadou Dieng, who 23 years ago put all his savings into this business, points out that without local tourism, he would not be able to make it. 

“I have four quads. The rental price varies between 15,000 and 25,000 CFA francs. A monitor accompanies the customer on the course. In reality, we only rub our hands during the vacations and feasts,” he adds.

This downward trend is nothing to write home about for Dieynaba Thiaw, a vendor of art objects, who knows all about it. 

“We are living from hand to mouth. The coronavirus had affected us a lot. Since the lake is not what it used to be, it is still complicated. I still thank God insofar as I manage to have a little money to help my husband in the management of the family,” she says in a shelter holding frugal comfort. 

Despite their struggles, the atmosphere is good-natured. They talk and laugh.

Most of the tourist guides have their hubs there. 

The elder Amadou Wone, in the background, narrates in English the history of the Pink Lake in front of a group of attentive whites. 

Before getting back into their minibus, some of them take a floating bath in the salt water, a scene so commonplace in the past but which is no longer frequent. 

“International tourism is dying at the lake. We are sometimes there from 8 to 19 hours for nothing,” says Boubou Gaye resignedly, having placed all his hopes in this profession “after he flunked the baccalaureate exam twice” in 2012 and 2013.

The threat of concrete

About an hour’s drive from Dakar, the area has long been the last stage of the Paris-Dakar Rally and more recently of the Eco Race. 

The contrast with the frenzied capital is striking. The area around the lake has a rustic look in many ways: wild grass, flourishing crops, donkeys and oxen roaming or grazing. In short, nature is a sight to behold, a bucolic setting, conducive to idleness, which attracts covetousness.

As a result, on the edge of the lake, there are construction sites scattered hither and thither. And hotels, vast houses, feet in the water, for the most affluent. To put an end to the anarchic hard constructions, sworn agents of the Direction of Surveillance and Control of Land Occupation (DSCOS) are on the lookout. 

Their inscriptions in red “DSCOS Decision”, as a warning, could not be missed because they are scrawled on the walls of the plots.

“The demographic pressure and the weight of human activity disrupt the natural functioning of the littoral space of Lake Retba, which does not have sufficient carrying capacity to adjust to demand,” six researchers in a study entitled “The Geosite of Lake Rose (NE Dakar, Senegal): Challenges of Preserving an Exceptional Geoheritage Threatened with Disappearance.” (a geosite is a place of geological interest) explain.

After Diamniadio, the government created the Pink Lake Urban Pole. 

Four districts covering an area of 400 to 500 hectares should eventually accommodate between 60,000 and 75,000 inhabitants. 

“This could be a very bad decision. It will increase the land pressure on the lake,” warns the teacher-researcher in sedimentology. 

Among the specific objectives pursued by the project, there is “the preservation, the enhancement of the Pink Lake and the promotion of a sustainable urban development of the area,” promises the General Delegation for the Promotion of the Urban Poles of Diamniadio and Pink Lake (DGPU).

At the end of November 2022, in a cabinet meeting President Macky Sall had asked the Minister in charge of the Environment to consider a special Regional Development Committee (dedicated to safeguarding the ecosystem of the Pink Lake).

This was in the presence of the ministers concerned, economic actors, territorial authorities and chiefs of polarised villages. 

”It is also necessary to involve in the reflection geologists, hydrogeologists, sedimentologists, environmentalists…” Dr. Cheikh Ibrahima Youm suggests.

As for now, the Pink Lake, whose candidacy as which a UNESCO World Heritage Site was submitted in 2005, is a gem that no longer shines.

It is feared that a disaster scenario is waiting to happen.

The academic warns: “The dunes separate the lake from the sea. When the water leaves the ocean, it infiltrates it to end up in the lake. Without this process, there will be no more salinity in the lake. But the filao trees (casuarinas) that hold the dunes in place are being removed. This means that the wind will carry the sand to the lowest points where the lake is. If this happens, there will be no more space available for salt and water. The lake will simply disappear. Worse, if we are not careful, the sea being six meters above the lake will tend to return to the mainland to occupy the current site of the lake”.

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