Geo-Parks and Geo-Tourism

I n Ethiopia, one of the tourist attractions is the Danakil Depression which is located in the northern part of the Afar crevice or crack. It is a unique geothermal system which is currently receiving attention by researchers.

Despite its extreme climate, it is now being visited by tourists due to the recent improvement of infrastructure by the Ethiopian government. Previous studies focused on the general geological description, the economic exploitation of potash reserves and interpretation of the complex hydrothermal processes.

Continuing monitoring of geothermal activity has not yet been carried out, and the value of local geo-heritage has not accompanied the increased interest of tourists. Studies revealed the unique geological environment and geo-heritage significance of Dallol and Danakil.

A remote sensing campaign has been done to provide information on improving the resilience of visitors through interpreted monthly hazard maps and on following up the changes of geothermal activity.

The first geo-heritage assessment of the region was carried out along with a comparative analysis of the geo-touristic development potential of the area. With the input of the assessment, a preliminary geoheritage management plan was created for practical consideration by stakeholders. A geo-conservation and geo-tourism development, as well as a resilience system of this peculiar area has inspired tourism.

Volcanically active areas are often powerful tourist attractions. When studying these sites for geo-heritage and geo-tourism, natural “risks” should be carefully considered. Lesson should be learnt from the tourist disasters in other parts of the world. It is cautioned that volcanoes and hydrothermal systems should “only” be visited with extreme care and with a high degree of advanced planning.

In Ethiopia, a holistic approach is useful to determine in advance about the geo-heritage and geo-hazard resilience at Dallol and other sites.

As a first step, studies should identify and monitor hazards, then move on to inventorying and assessment of geo-sites. Finally, researchers take into account resilience to geo-hazards and the global importance of the geo-heritage. Following the assessment of the geothermal activity at Dallol, the next step is to study the adjacent Black Mountain, where geo-heritage features change frequently.

Studies show satellite images that give a pattern of periodic activities, from which a series of hazard maps could be made.

These images could be used to improve the “resilience” of visitors to the area by providing more up-to-date information and increasing awareness of risks. Following these methods, the first preliminary geo-site assessment of northern Danakil has been made.

These helped to measure the touristic potential of the sites. Moreover, combining this potential, the geo-heritage assessment and a management plan could be adopted and modified to protect the site and the visitors thereby contributing to sustainable development of the area.

Geo-heritage and geo-conservation is a multi-disciplinary approach and a new domain in geosciences, which has been evolving continuously. Historical records indicate that there have been early initiatives traceable back to the nineteenth century that gave recognition to the Danakil depression. International recognition was widely fostered by the formation of the “geo-parks” movement that gave recognition to the area. However, the area is still lagging behind in biodiversity and cultural heritage management, and the terms used in geo-heritage are scarcely mentioned in key documents.

The area remains resilient to hazards that occurred repeatedly. Resilience is the ability of an area or community or society to resist hazards and absorb, accommodate to and recover from its effects in a timely and efficient manner. This includes the preservation and restoration of the basic and essential structures and functions.

The role of geo-heritage in the improvement of resilience and risk management is facilitated by raising awareness through educational and training activities. Areas of outstanding geo-heritage are often exposed to natural hazards, and visitors can be highly vulnerable to the area. Human activities such as tourism or exploitation of resources are also a hazard to geo-heritage areas. The potential risks of hazard and vulnerability call for the “integration” of risk management into geo-conservation strategies.

Mount Dallol is situated in the Danakil Depression, which is part of the East African Rift System, spanning from Mozambique to the Arabian Peninsula.

The Afar Depression, also known as the Afar Triangle, is a globally renowned example of continental rifting, and the inception of oceanic crust formation, forming a triple junction at the intersection of the Gulf of Aden, the Red Sea and the Main Ethiopian Rift. The Danakil Depression itself could be considered the northern section of the Afar Depression, covering a roughly triangular shaped area.

Dallol is a complex, uplifted, volcanic dome structure, rising above the surrounding salt area. It has been regularly interpreted as a volcano due to its craterlike structure.

The geothermal activity and the resulting landforms resemble volcanic features. A general consensus about the exact evolution and framework of the Dallol dome has not been reached yet. Its focal structure is like a bowl, surrounded by a rim higher than the deepest part of the bowl.

The structure might, therefore, have been formed by the gentle flexing of salt strata. The floor is generally flat, and the salt layers suggest lake formation, with changing structures of geothermal ponds. Physiological features of Dallol show salt pinnacles of the canyon area.

The site of the salt pillars is a circular manifestation of the acidic ponds or brine pool, water which is strongly impregnated with salt. There are structures that are presented in active or inactive form at Dallol; these are pillars, circular manifestations and acid lakes.

The pillars can be several meters high and wide, often found in groups, and are most likely generated by boiling flows, at the top of the structure. Circular manifestations range from several meters to a hundred meters in diameter, also controlled by intense flows and deposits in circular forms.

Acid lakes are controlled by the mixture of groundwater and geothermal flows. Their extent and water level could change frequently, and the drastic color changes from yellow to green- to red. The Black Mountain, just south-southwest of Dallol, is an area of salt, geothermal manifestations and saline flows.

The feature that gives its name to the site is a black dome, created by salt flows. It acquires its black color from the abundant salt. The central black dome is a constantly changing area with regular super-saline outflows which precipitate a magnesiumchloride mineral. Most of the geothermal features are concentrated at Dallol and Black Mountain.

The TPLF as a ruling junta had exploited the saline segment that was dominated by salt canyons and a series of pinnacles, showing salt, gypsum and clay. The salt and gypsum belt was a major source of income for the junta that had placed its functionaries to operate it.

The junta had been attracted by the salt ditches observable in the zone that formed a series of ridges and depressions with rare basalts. In spite of the extreme climate of the region, the Danakil Depression is inhabited, in part due to its economic potential. Its salt layers have been extracted by the local Afar people and the highlander Tigray people by traditional methods.

They engaged in quarrying with sticks and axes, carving the rectangular tiles of salt before transporting them with camels and donkeys to the market. In the last three decades, the TPLF junta had monopolized the whole Dallol zone to extract salt and market it. The junta had operated as a monopoly engaging its firms in the extraction, packing and transporting of salt to the different regions of Ethiopia.

It had virtually excluded salt extracting operators from the area. As a local colonizer, the junta had just repeated what the Italian colonizers had done earlier. They had invaded the Dallol zone to exploit its natural resources.

In earlier times, Italy tried to colonize the Danakil Depression through a number of unsuccessful expeditions. It only succeeded along the Red Sea shoreline and the northern segment of Danakil. Europeans had economic interest in most of the depression, including Dallol. Studies show that the Italian firms had started the extraction of potash, first transporting it by camel and then along a newly constructed railway from Dallol to the port. Studies report that following some intense mining, potash extraction ceased due to reduced demand and “political” tensions between Ethiopia and Italy.

Based on a study, a commercial potash reserve was discovered, and preparations for industrial extraction were started. But after encountering numerous “flooding” events in the mine works, the operation ceased. Remains of the blocks of Dallol salt are slowly falling apart. Extraction of materials at the site, and more widely in Danakil, was also significantly curtailed by socio-economic problems and political turbulence affecting Ethiopia.

The constant clashes between Afar revolutionary movements and the TPLF authorities had affected the extraction process. The movement was against the unfair exploitation of resources by the junta. Political tensions, climatic extremes, and isolation in terms of infrastructure meant that the Danakil remains without sufficient attention.

Moreover, despite the importance of the economic resources of potash, the number of research on Dallol and Danakil was very limited to a few key areas. Actual exploitation of the potash mines would require the reign of peace among interested parties.

Permanently installed instruments and facilities for long-term monitoring of gas and water or thermal changes, were absolutely necessary, but they had been missing at Dallol. Most of the studies have relied on “limited” field visits and reports of economic and geological reconnaissance.

The TPLF junta had not encouraged basic monitoring of the Dallol geothermal activity and landscape changes. Its interest had only been extraction of available potash and other resources for sale. It could have engaged field-reconnaissance missions and measurements that could have provided a partial overview of long-term processes and changes.

The junta, however, had been interested in the growing number of visitors from whom it could have secured foreign exchange. It had never cared about the potential vulnerability of tourists considering the hazard and risk in the area. Geo-tourism is a major source of income for Ethiopia.

Firms engaged in tourism sector, including the private tour operators, may generate employment and income for the unemployed youth and other job-seekers. But, geo-tourism requires the development of geo-parks and infrastructure.

These parks have to be identified and developed with economic infrastructure including roads and hotels that are ready to serve tourists.

The origin of tourists could be both foreign and local that requires institutions for coordinating geo-parks and geo-tourism in the Danakil Depression. This may help generate employment and foreign exchange for the country.

Editor’s Note: The views entertained in this article do not necessarily reflect the stance of The


The 12 February 2022

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