The Pink Lake Of Senegal That's Saltier Than The Dead Sea

So we've all seen those "salt lamps," right? Glowing in a corner of a New Age-y aunt's house who dreams of retiring to Sedona and is really excited about her upcoming past life regression? Or at the very least, we've picked up a container of "pink salt" at Trader Joe's, idly wondered "why is this pink, again?" before chucking it in our cart and sucking up the $5 price tag because it includes one of the built-in grinders that makes people feel so special?

Well, most of those, to demonstrate their supposed authenticity (and, let's say "exoticism," to a super-keen Western consumer), typically have the word "Himalayan" affixed to the label. Of course — time to ruin the fun — the pink rocks in the little plastic tube aren't bestowed to humanity from mystical, monk-inhabited heights amorphously titled "the Himalayas." As NPR explains, they mostly come from Pakistan, specifically the "red-brick hills" of Khewra, about a two-and-a-half hour drive south of the country's capital, Islamabad. In fact, as Business Insider says, about 800 million pounds are mined every year. Red flag, folks: no resource is infinite.

There are, however, other similar places on the Earth that can be mined for the profit of the wellness industry. To be fair, such salty sites can impact local economies in extremely beneficial ways, especially when they're built solely by locals. Such is the case with Lake Retba in Senegal, a lesser-known, super saline lake the shade of pink lemonade. 

A natural formation 10 times saltier than the ocean

But really, don't go drinking the waters of Lake Retba thinking it'll taste like Crystal Light. To illustrate: the world's oceans contain 35 grams of salt per liter (per Science Daily). By contrast, the Dead Sea, known as one of the saltiest bodies of water on Earth, contains 250 grams of salt per liter (per Science Focus). Lake Retba? There are 380 grams per liter, over 10 times that of the ocean (per Sunday Somewhere). In fact, Lake Retba produces 60,000 tons of salt (over 130 million pounds) per year. We're talking literal hills of flowing, whitish-pinkish salt heaped and drying in the sun.

Located east of the Senegalese town of Dakar on the Cap-Vert Peninsula, only about 1 kilometer from the ocean (a 20-minute walk), Lake Retba — or "Lac Rose" in French ("Pink Lake") — is a UNESCO World Heritage Site and one of only a handful of pinkish-reddish lakes on Earth, per Tree Hugger. As a local-made documentary on Eater describes, the lake used to be connected to the ocean, but a series of droughts in the 1960s, combined with shifting desert dunes, left it dammed up and self-contained. By the late '80s, it had taken on its pink hue, which comes from Dunaliella salina microalgae that produce carotenoid pigments (the kind found in carrots).

The lake has become devoid of large life, but plays an integral role in local livelihoods and lifestyles, especially dishes such as salted fish and rice. 

An economy of backbreaking labor built by locals

As the BBC says, about 3,000 workers derive their employment from Lake Retba alone. Tourists are interested in it, sure; some even swim in it. But for divers and sellers such as Seydou Toure, as this documentary on Eater shows, the lake is understandably dangerous. He lacquers his body in shea butter to protect it from sores and welts, then rows out in a canoe and stands in the 3-meter-deep water on piles of salt on lifted, cage-like footwear. He stirs the salt around with a pole and collects it in a coconut branch-and-plastic basin (metals like iron wouldn't survive). Full basins weigh 30 kilograms (about 67 pounds) and are carried by others, on their heads in the blazing Senegalese sun, who climb mountains of salt and dump them on top. In this way, they can transport 200 basins every day. Every 45 days or so, the salt resettles and fully replenishes. 

And yet, such backbreaking labor only costs about $1.50 for 100 grams (about 3.5 ounces), as the organic food site Zoya shows. Such goods should be taken as a luxury. Lake Retba is situated at an ecological pinpoint, and in fact shrunk from 4 square kilometers to 3 from 1990 to 2005, per Wealth of the Commons. Salt divers started collecting the lake's salt under their own initiative, and the lake's Management Committee (MC) has thus far been able to stave off controlling interests in the Senegalese government and beyond.