Life no longer rosy around Senegal’s Pink Lake after floods

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The pink hue of Western Senegal’s Lac Rose once drew thousands of tourists from all over the world to its salt-laden shores.

But today, a new wide channel spews brownish-green water into the lake whose shore is dotted with dead fish.

Pape Sira Ba and a dozen other salt farmers bag up what may be their last harvest, after extreme floods contaminated the lake and turned its famous waters green, threatening thousands who depend on it for their livelihoods.

Officially known as Retba, the lake’s high salinity and rare microbiome long-fostered an algae that turned it pinkish in the right season, making it one of the country’s most visited attractions and under consideration as a UNESCO World Heritage site.

Everything changed last September when torrential rains hit the nearby capital Dakar and swept flood waters towards the lake, tearing a wide channel in its bank.

The deluge washed away countless carefully tended salt mounds and submerged tourist businesses on the shoreline.

“This is the first time we’ve seen so much water flow in here,” says Ba in December, as he and others hacked at a salt pile with pickaxes.

“What happened is unprecedented,” he says, as mud-coloured waves lapped the shore behind him.

The flooding destroyed 7 000 tonnes of salt worth around 1 billion CFA francs ($1.7 million), according to the salt extractors association.

Ba now fears the changed composition of the lake will make further harvests impossible.

The salt farmers are just some of the 3 000 people who lived off the lake. Boatmen and souvenir-sellers also fear for the future if the waters remain the current unremarkable hue.

“It was the pink colour that brought the visitors,” says student Abdou Dieng, whose small campsite remains under water. “The over-salinisation of the water also allowed visitors to float on top of the lake like in the Dead Sea. Currently, we have no customers.”

It’s peak tourist season in Senegal, but he and others have been waiting in vain beside their pink flat-bottomed boats.

The ongoing influx of sediment-heavy water could permanently change the lake’s unusual ecosystem, hydrologist Cheikh Youm told Reuters.

“The elements that live there and are responsible for the pink colour are linked to this extreme environment. If the environment is diluted, these elements will disappear,” he says.

“This would amount to a death warrant for the lake.”

The flood waters are slowly receding around the souvenir and crafts market at the lake, but vendors are still worried.

“We really don’t have any hope that this place will become like it used to be,” says Ndeye Thiam, who was hawking bracelets, fans and trinkets in a line of unfrequented stalls.