Living above a magma chamber is not without its hazards, and yet the Afar have done so for generations.
Nomadic people from Djibouti, they have made the unforgiving landscapes at the northern reaches of the Great Rift Valley their home, relying on the same extreme elements that endanger their lives.
The dangers they face are many: drought, volcanoes, and the ever-present possibility that the ground beneath their feet may split open. One commodity makes it worth it: salt.
End of an era?
Located 500 feet below sea level, Lake Assal – or what remains of it – is the lowest point on the African continent. Lying at the foot on a volcanic crater, it’s also one of the saltiest lakes in the world.
Receding water has left an expanse of crystal white salt that has become a lifeline for the area’s nomadic people. For centuries the Afar have dug and sold the salt, first to Ethiopia and now increasingly to tourists, says Hamadou Aleisse, who has harvested the plains since he was 15.
But Djibouti is in the midst of a major climatic and geological event.
“Climate change is killing the nomads,” argues geologist Abdourahman Omar Haga. “If you have no rains, you have no grass. Your goats, they (will) die.”
“Life is very difficult here because we have no water,” says Aleisse. “But this is where I live, and I cannot go anywhere else.”
One day even the salt may be gone.
The Republic of Djibouti, already one of the most volatile places in the world, sits at the meeting point of three of the earth’s tectonic plates – and they’re being pulled apart (albeit at a rate of two centimeters per year). At one hotspot, magma sits just two miles below ground.
Seismic activity, Haga believes, could one day create a new ocean, washing away the salt plains.
“This area should be under the sea,” he says. “If we have an earthquake now… this water is going there.”
Hope springs (from the ground)
Earthquakes might be beyond the control of scientists, but that doesn’t mean Djibouti’s landscape cannot be harnessed. In fact, Haga believes the harsh landscape could provide a sustainable future for the Afar nomads.
Where the three tectonic plates – the East Africa Rift, the Red Sea Rift and the Gulf of Aden – meet, fractures, fissures and volcanism occurs. The only other country in the world with comparable geological conditions is Iceland.
Seismic movement creates fissures where lava gathers, heating the earth and the water around it. Haga suggests this form of geothermal heat could change the lives of the Afar forever.
“Geothermal is very important,” he explains. “It could be the base load of energy for Djibouti… Solar energy (and) wind energy are temporary, but geothermal is constant.”
By tapping into steam or hot water reservoirs under the ground, engineers can generate electricity which could boost the Afar’s long-term prospects.
“Without energy there is no development,” says the geologist. According to Haga, Djibouti has enough areas of geothermal activity to power the entire country.