This content was published on April 28, 2021 – 11:49
With its turquoise waters and white sand, Lake Salda in southeastern Turkey holds secrets that could help unlock the mysteries of Mars, but its growing popularity also threatens its very existence.
This vast body of water became famous when NASA scientists began studying it a few years ago in preparation for the deployment of the Perseverance rover to Mars.
Before the device landed on the red planet in February, the US space agency shared, among other things, a photo of Lake Salda, which reveals its importance in preparing for the mission.
Taking advantage of this exposure, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has integrated the lake, with an area of 45 km2, into a vast program aimed at creating more green spaces that attract the public.
But faced with so much enthusiasm, local environmentalists fear that the dual interest of NASA and Erdogan will open the doors to mass tourism and pronounce the death sentence on this lake, destroying its ecosystem.
“The future of the lake is in danger if millions of tourists come,” warns Gazi Osmak Sakar, head of the Association for the Preservation of Lake Salda.
– Living lake… –
The lake is best known for its “Islas Blancas”, small, bright white islands, as well as its unique flora and fauna, including the Salda frogfish.
Rare minerals at the site have also caught NASA’s attention, including hydromagnesite, which resembles substances detected in Jezero Crater, where “Perseverance” landed.
Scientists believe that the hydromagnesite present along the shores of Lake Salda is a residue of groups of microbialites, rocks formed with the intervention of microbes.
This material is attracting the attention of researchers who wonder if life existed in microbial form on Mars billions of years ago.
But what is original in Lake Salda, explains geological engineer Servet Cevni, is its closed ecosystem.
“What makes it so special are the bacteria, the single-celled organisms that are there (…) very fragile to outside influences,” he told AFP.
But this influence is already materializing with the construction of nine hostels near a public garden near the lake.
“This project must be cancelled. The lake cannot be protected if it is exploited,” warned Sakar.
– … but “dying” –
While swimming is prohibited in the area of the “white islands”, visitors can treat themselves to a swim in other parts of the lake.
Its advocates believe swimming in the lake should be banned to protect its fragile ecosystem.
“If a single-celled organism disappears, Salda goes bankrupt,” warns Cevni. “The ‘white islands’ cannot be recreated,” he adds.
If action is taken now, the lake could regenerate in 150 to 200 years, Cevni continues. “Otherwise it will never recover,” he says.
But the task is difficult. The request of the association for the preservation of the lake was rejected by a court to which it addressed to stop the construction of the public garden.
Sakar is now asking UNESCO to classify the lake as a world heritage site, a promise of protection.
“Salda is dying,” he added.
– Tourism manager –
But this comes up against the economic interest aroused by its popularity, which many local residents hope to exploit.
Suleyman Kilickan, a waiter at a lakeside cafe, says visitors have increased exponentially after interest from NASA. “If there is tourism, there is life,” he says, noting that visitors are urged to be responsible. “It is forbidden to pick up sand or earth.”
Tourists have already begun to change the face of Salda.
“Our lake and our village were much cleaner years ago,” says Aysel Cig, a breeder based near Salda.
Aware of the danger, the Environment Ministry announced a month ago that it would limit annual visitors to 570,000.
In 2019, they were 1.5 million and 800,000 in 2020, despite the pandemic.