Page last updated at 11:49 GMT, Saturday, 4 December 2010

A life of constant thirst beside Djibouti's Lake Assal

Salt trader using camels to transport his goods
Trading in salt from Lake Assal goes back centuries

By Pascale Harter
BBC News, Djibouti

Djibouti in East Africa is one of the hottest places on Earth, which can make it uncomfortable for visitors. People who have lived there all their lives are used to the heat - but often have barely enough water to survive.

One moment the porter was there, dressed in grimy blue overalls. The next, he was off - the only sign of him, a pair of dusty sandals discarded in the airport car park.

He seized our equipment before his colleagues got a chance and presumably slipped off his shoes to run better.

When I finally caught up with him, loading our luggage on to the security scanner, I remembered I had run out of cash.

On holiday with a sun umbrella, some iced water and a cool sea, 34C might be bliss... but here there is no natural shade and no drinking water at all

Embarrassed, I gingerly offered him three one-litre bottles of water. To my surprise he said, "Merci," and turned back again to add "C'est bien gentil" - as though he had just received a particularly thoughtful present.

In nearly 10 years of working for the BBC around the world, mostly in Africa, I have never before been able to pay someone with water.

Not in war-torn Congo where the rivers and lakes are contaminated with bilharzia, nor in the dry desert of Mauritania.

But Djibouti, one of the hottest places on the planet, is one of the poorest countries in the world in terms of fresh water.

Lake Assal
Lake Assal is the lowest point on the continent at 150m below sea level

At Lake Assal, in the centre of the country, the summer temperature here routinely reaches 55C. But it is winter now in Djibouti and it is a mere 34C.

That might not seem too extreme but I can tell you, this is a different sort of hot.

An oven-like wind batters you constantly. It is so strong it snatches words out of your mouth so that you cannot hear what someone standing right next to you is saying, while it carries every word of a conversation going on 50m (165ft) away - if it is upwind.

On holiday with a sun umbrella, some iced water and a cool sea, 34C might be bliss. But here there is no natural shade and no drinking water at all.

No swimming

Lake Assal is as warm as a bath and saltier than the sea.

I wade in just a bit when the rubber soles of my shoes have got too hot to stand on. The water dries in seconds and I note the hem of my navy blue trousers is stiff as a board and completely white with salt.

The people who live at Lake Assal never swim in it.

Ali Hamid
Salt mined in Djibouti often ends up in European restaurants

Ali Hamid who mines the salt by hand where it forms on the shore, tells me they want to.

The noise of the green water lapping is alluring and the salt crystals look as cool as ice.

But the salt drying on your skin in the searing sun makes you itchy to the point of pain. And fresh water is far too precious to waste washing it off.

Ali's family, all 10 of them, depend on a government tanker delivering water once a week.

Wealthy people living in Djibouti town can buy the shade and water they need so the heat is a mere inconvenience.

At Lake Assal people are so poor, they have no choice but to let the extreme temperature govern every aspect of their lives, or they will not survive.

Ali's house is made of chicken wire and corrugated iron. This does not keep out the heat or the wind.

Some bone-dry palm fronds have been carefully threaded through the chicken wire in places to provide shade.

They must have come from some distance away. The only trees anywhere near Lake Assal have thorns not leaves.

There is a man who has built a wall - well, four pillars and a roof. It is quite a valuable asset at Lake Assal. We pay him just to eat our own sandwiches in his shade.

The heat dictates when people here work, when they sleep, how quickly they move and how slowly they talk.

Map of Djibouti showing Lake Assal

"Patience," everyone tells us, "is what you need to live here."

What does constant thirst feel like, I ask Ali.

"You see how slowly I speak? And how softly?" he says. And it is true, everyone we meet here speaks with a hoarse voice.

As Djibouti's population doubles over the next 15 years, the government will find it harder and harder to keep delivering drinking water to families like Ali's.

And he will not be able to buy it from a private company - the price for the salt he mines is falling.

Tourism hopes

Early one morning we meet a man by the road who is selling toy cars carved out of the volcanic rock.

Like Ali, Mohamed says he is pinning his hopes for the future of Lake Assal, on tourists coming to look at it.

The first plush hotel has sprung up in Djibouti. It has two swimming pools and hot and cold running water.

But the water still smells of desalination chemicals and tastes of salt.

Its guests are mostly foreign military on rest and recuperation, visiting diplomats, and NGO staff.

I ask Ali why he and the other families do not leave and look for work in Djibouti town.

He says: "We were born here. We love Lake Assal. We like the heat, we just want more water."

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