DjiboutiEast Africa

Lake Assal in Djibouti’ The World’s Largest Salt Reserve

Story Highlights

  • Salt Reserve Also Known As The White Gold
  • Populace

Lake Assal in Djibouti, is the lowest point in Africa. It is is 150m (492ft) below sea level, third lowest in the world and comes third after the Sea of Galilee and the Dead Sea (-427m, or -1,400 ft). It is also the world’s largest salt reserve and also an aquatic wilderness surrounded by dormant volcanoes and black lava fields.

Lake Assal in Djibouti' The World's Largest Salt Reserve

Lac Assal’s waters can be used to cleanse, soothe and revitalise the skin, as well as treat ailments like muscle pain and rheumatoid arthritis.

About Lake Assal

Lake Assal is undoubtedly the most amazing place you will see in Djibouti. And all that you will experience there can only be described as mind-blowing, especially the wind, the sun and the landscape’s breathtaking beauty.

Lake Assal is located in the middle of Djibouti, in a closed depression at the northern end of the Great Rift Valley. Situated in the Danakil Desert, it is bounded by hills on the western region.

The lake is characterized by two parts. The dry part of the lake, resulting from evaporation of the lake waters, is a white plain dry lake bed on the west/northwest side, which is a large expanse of salt. The second part is the highly saline water body. The watershed area of the lake is 900 km2 (350 sq mi).

 

Salt Reserve Also Known As The White Gold

Home to the world’s largest salt reserve and surrounded by visible salt pans, it has a solid salt bed with a thickness record of about 40cm (15.75 inches), depending on how far you can dip into the lake.

Thanks to high rates of evaporation, Lake Assal has an average salt concentration of 34.8% (which climbs to as much as 40% at a depth of 20m), around 10 times saltier than seawater. It is the second saltiest body of water on Earth after Don Juan Pond in Antarctica, which has a salinity level of more than 47%. The Dead Sea has an average salt concentration of 33.7%.

When the Eritrean-Ethiopian War broke out in 1998, Djibouti replaced Eritrea as Ethiopia’s primary salt supplier. The demands of Ethiopia’s population (around 62 million at the time) kept prices high. Thus, the salt from Lac Assal became known as ‘white gold’.

Traditionally, the majority of Lac Assal’s salt extraction took place on shore by hand. However, with higher demand came the need for faster and more modern extraction processes. Heavier machinery was used to extract much larger pans of salt from the water instead, where it is softer and easier to mine.

Salt production in Lac Assal rocketed from thousands to hundreds of thousands of tonnes per year, leading Djibouti’s government to expand the extraction process, further utilising modern methods in order to export the salt all around the world.

For centuries, Lake Assal has been at the centre of the salt trade in the Horn of Africa & the world’s largest salt reserve. Not so long ago, it was quite common to see the salt caravans travelling back and forth from the lake to the Ethiopian Highlands through the Danakil Desert.

The proposed Lake Assal Salt Project and a new Chinese-funded industrial plant are poised to further commodify the lake. The projects will develop a much larger salt storage and shipping site nearer to the lake, so Djibouti’s ‘white gold’ can be exported directly from the area instead of through the port in the capital.

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Populace

The Afar and Issa people have long lived and worked in the area, with salt fuelling bountiful trade for centuries. The Afar tribes, one of the poorest populations in the world, still harvest and sell the salt crystals, and have made this trade their main source of income.

Members of the communities scrape and dig the salt from the lake’s shore to be transported along ancient caravan routes to Ethiopia in exchange for coal, coffee and other commodities. Historically, ivory and even slaves were traded for Lac Assal salt.

Trains of camels and donkeys can still be seen carrying up to 120kg of salt each to Berhale in Ethiopia, a journey that can take up to five weeks. There, the salt is unloaded and taken by truck to Ethiopia’s larger cities for wider distribution.

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Location

Although easily accessible, it is advisable to visit Lake Assal on weekends. The national road 1 that leads there can be extremely busy with trucks loaded with fresh vegetables and fruits travelling from Ethiopia towards Djibouti City. A caution: the traffic can be exhausting under the sun and in some spots it can be less safe.

You  will also  encounter breathtaking views of rocky mountains as you leave the city behind you. As you immerse yourself in this harsh scenery, beware of the herds of camels that cross in all directions, truck drivers and difficult paths.

After about a two-hour drive, on your left you will pass some gorgeous geological formations and extremely hot springs. On the right, the magnificent Lake Assal unfolds under the blazing sun of Djibouti.

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