With their turquoise waters and its white sand, the lake Salda, in the southeast of Turkey, holds secrets that could help understand the mysteries of Mars, but its growing popularity also threatens its existence.
This vast expanse of water was made famous when NASA scientists began studying it a few years ago to prepare for the deployment of the ‘Perseverance’ rover on Mars.
Before the device landed on the red planet, in February 2021, the US space agency shared among others a photo of Lake Salda, which reveals its importance in preparing for the mission.
An increasingly popular destination. Photo EFE / EPA / TOLGA BOZOGLU
Taking advantage of this exhibition, the Turkish president, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, integrated the lake – with an area of 45 km2 – in an extensive program to create more green spaces that attract the public.
But in the face of so much enthusiasm, local ecologists fear that the dual interests of NASA and Erdogan will open the doors to mass tourism and dictate the death sentence of this lake, destroying its ecosystem.
“The future of the lake is in danger if millions of tourists arrive,” warns Gazi Osmak Sakar, leader of the Association for the Preservation of Lake Salda.
The lake is known above all for its “White Islands”, small islands of a brilliant white, as well as for its unique flora and fauna, in which the frog fish of Salda.
NASA considers this place important to find answers about Mars. Photo BULENT KILIC / AFP
The rare minerals The site also attracted the attention of NASA, such as hydromagnesite, which resembles substances detected in the Jezero crater, where “Perseverance” landed.
Scientists believe that the hydromagnesite present along the shore of Lake Salda is a residue of clumps of microbialites, rocks formed by the intervention of microbes.
This material captures the attention of researchers who wonder if life existed in microbial form on Mars billions of years ago.
But what is original about Lake Salda, explains geological engineer Servet Cevni, is its closed ecosystem.
“What makes it so special are the bacteria, single-celled organisms that are there (…) very fragile in the face of external influences, “he told AFP.
Fear among environmentalists
But this influence is already materializing with the construction of nine shelters near a developing public garden near the lake.
“The future of the lake is in danger if millions of tourists arrive,” they warn from the Association for the Preservation of Lake Salda. Photo: BULENT KILIC / AFP
“This project must be canceled. The lake cannot be protected if it is exploitedSakar warned.
While bathing is prohibited in the “White Islands” area, visitors can indulge in a dip in other parts of the lake.
Its advocates believe that bathing in the lake should be banned to protect its fragile ecosystem.
“If a single-celled organism goes extinct, Salda is ruined,” warns Cevni. “The ‘White Islands’ cannot be recreated,” he adds.
Lake Salda is called the “Maldives of Turkey.” Photo EFE / EPA / TOLGA BOZOGLU
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 turns out to be arduous. The association’s demand for the preservation of the Lake was rejected by a court to which it went to stop the construction of the public garden.
Sakar now asks UNESCO to classify the lake as a World Heritage Site, a promise of protection. “Salda is dying,” he said.
But this collides with him economic interest sparked by its popularity, which many riparians hope to exploit.
Suleyman Kilickan, a waiter at a lakeside cafe, says visitors increased exponentially after NASA’s interest. “If there is tourism, there is life,” he says, noting that visitors are urged to be responsible. “It is forbidden to collect sand or dirt.”
In 2019, there were 1.5 million visitors and in 2020, despite the pandemic, 800,000. Photo EFE / EPA / TOLGA BOZOGLU
Tourists have already begun to change Salda’s face.
“Our lake and our town were much cleaner years ago,” says Aysel Cig, a shepherd based near Salda.
Aware of the danger, the Ministry of the Environment 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.