Africa / Photo Gallery / Wildlife

Photo gallery: Abiata, Ethiopia’s dying lake

Ethiopia’s Rift Valley is not the Ethiopia that famine-focused news reports are made of. Travelling south from Addis Ababa, I found myself driving past not sand storms, cracked earth and skeletal cattle; but forests, waterfalls and fish-and-hippo-filled lakes. I relied on the Amharic signs and  the unmistakeable aroma of frankincense and roasting coffee beans to remind me where I was. Ethiopia, I thought, is beautiful.

Until I arrived at Abiata-Shala National Park.

View of Lake Shala, Abiata Shala National Park, Ethiopia, Africa

Lake Shala is a deep, picturesque lake, with island havens for birds

The park’s 887 square kilometres are comprised mostly of the two large lakes from which it takes its name. Lakes Abiata and Shala are separated by just a 3km-long ridge, but they couldn’t be more different. The picturesque Lake Shala plunges up to 360m into a collapsed volcanic caldera. Islands dot its surface, havens for birds, which thrive thanks to the fish in its waters and the lack of predators on the remote islands. But across the ridge is a very different story. Here were the endless dry earth and the felled forests. This was the sickly version of Ethiopia which I had seen in the papers, on the evening news. I hadn’t wanted to believe it existed

Pelicans on Lake Shala, Abiata Shala National Park, Ethiopia

Great white pelicans fish on the edge of Lake Shala

Mud pools in Lake Abiata, Abidjatta-Shalla National Park, Ethiopia

Hot springs dot the dusty, crumbling banks of the lakes in central Ethiopia

We parked our car and began to walk towards the distant waters of the lake, across the flat, featureless mud that was once its bed. The waters have been diverted to a nearby soda ash plant, causing the water to recede by up to 5km, and salinity to increase, killing all the fish. The park was gazetted to protect the birdlife, but the birds will not return here while there are no fish for them to feed on. The cormorants, fish eagles and pelicans are gone; only flamingoes remain, feeding on the abundant algae that stains the lake, darkly.

Flamingoes on Lake Abiata, Abidjatta-Shalla National Park, Ethiopia

Flamingoes are a salmon-coloured contrast to the grey lake and skies, Lake Abiata

Storm clouds cluster above this apocalyptic scene; the flamingoes are a salmon-coloured contrast to the steely lake and sky. As raindrops begin to puncture the parched mud, we run back to the car, but distances are deceiving in such an empty landscape, and we are drenched be the time we reach the shelter of the vehicle.

Car on dry lake bed of Lake Abiata, Abidjatta-Shalla National Park, Ethiopia

Car on the dry lake bed of Lake Abiata, which has receded by up to 5km

The soda ash factory apparently no longer functions, but the damage has been done. The lake struggles to replenish itself, but the 600 farmers around its borders drain it to irrigate their crops. They have felled the surrounding acacia forests for firewood and charcoal, and to make space for maize plantations. Hot springs, on the northeastern bank of Lake Shala, are used for bathing, socialising; while domestic animals quench their thirst at the lake’s edge. Donkeys haul jerry cans of water back to the homesteads.

Donkey carrying water from Lake Shala, Abidjatta-Shalla National Park, Ethiopia

Donkey carrying water from Lake Shala

I visited Lake Abiata-Shala National Park to research, map and photograph local attractions for “Ethiopia’s Central and Southern Rift Valley Mapguide” published by National Geographic in 2011.


  • Abiata-Shala National Park is a half-hour drive from Lake Langano. The rust-red Langano is a popular resort as it is the only lake in Ethiopia which is completely free of bilharzia.
  • Accommodation and restaurants can be found by Lake Langano.
  • Other nearby attractions include Shashamene, the region donated by Emperor Haile Selassie to the Rastafarian people and other Caribbean people of African origin.
  • There are also hot springs on the northeastern edge of Lake Shala, where residents and tourists can bathe.

One thought on “Photo gallery: Abiata, Ethiopia’s dying lake

  1. Beautiful photos! I’m happy to hear of your visit to this area & that you enjoyed it.
    I lived in this area for several years as a child and became permanently enthralled by both of these amazing & unique lakes. I was able to return for a visit in 2011 which was a dream come true for me. I only wish I could have spent more time there!
    Some of your information is a little off though. Lake Shalla is reported to plunge as far as 266 meters down into the O’a caldera. The locals have a number of terrifying tales about the dangers of its deep, dark waters- from undertow currents & whirlpools which will swallow anyone venturing more than a few meters from the shore, to foreigners stranded in boats for days unable to return to the shore, as well as a crashed jet of which no trace can be found. It is also common belief that the lake is completely dead & supports no fish or marine/aquatic life.
    Farmers could not possibly irrigate crops with water drained from the highly alkaline-saline, caustic water of Abiyata. The Bulbulla river (which drains from the fresh waters of Lake Zway to the north) and the Hora Kelo seasonal stream (from the fresh Langano to the east) are being used as sources for irrigation and first started in the 70s.
    Are you sure that water is being collected from Shalla to be carried away by the donkey? Shalla’s water is even more saline than Abiyata & completely unusable for drinking or cooking. Plus it is not just the depth of the lake which make it appear black, it’s water is quite dark with obsidian & other minerals. The lake water is used for laundering, but this is done at the lake shores as it is much more efficient to bring the laundry to the lake than to bring the water to the laundry. I just can’t imagine why water would be taken from Shalla or what purpose it could possibly serve. It’s much more likely that the donkey is carrying empty jugs to be filled from a fresh source on the next leg of their journey.

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