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'Miraculous' Lake Mysteriously Appears in Water-Starved Tunisia

Aug 06, 2014 04:32 PM EDT

It's the dead of a dry and hot summer. You, a sweating, tired, and thirsty shepherd from water-starved Tunisia, have not brought yourself to wash or drink today. Water is so tightly controlled, and you know you can go a little longer. You didn't bring much with you. They will need more back home.

Then, just ahead you notice a glimmer of dancing sunlight, as if reflecting off a pool of water. But there is no water here. This is the Gafsa region, suffering from one of the worst droughts the country has seen in a long time. But as you walk closer, you now know that this is no mirage. You can smell the moisture on the air and your sunburnt skin puckers, eager to kiss the water dead ahead.

Sprawling before you is Lac de Gafsa, or Gafsa Beach, a "miraculous" lake of water in the middle of the Tunisian desert that appeared practically overnight.

Sheepherders reportedly discovered the lake three weeks ago while traveling through a part of the desert that has always been known to be dry. Locals began to flock to crystal water within the first few days, relishing the appearance of a local swimming hole.

In short time, more Tunisians began to hear about "Gafsa Beach" and a Facebook community page was even quickly set up.

"After several long hours on the road without a break, I honestly thought I was hallucinating," Mehdi Bilel told journlaists after first seeing the lake.

According to The Guardian, Bilel had been on his way home from a wedding when he spotted the body of water and flocking "beach goers" a little off the road.

"I don't know much about science and thought it was magic, something supernatural," he said.

And for many Tunisians, that is exactly what this must be. Early speculations were that the lake was made from rainwater that had collected along the short canyon that rims the lake. However, local media has reported that the lake is about a hectare (100,000 sq ft.) in size and up to 30-60 feet deep. It would have taken an enormous amount of rain to both saturate the ground around the lake and fill the lake itself. Yet, according to INECO - an international water sustainability project - Tunisia suffers from droughts annually, and is even currently experiencing aquifer depletion and groundwater overexploitation.

Nature World News recently reported how a similar problem is having a severe impact on the people of Iran.

However, this mysterious lake may not be the savior of Gafsa that many Tunisians think it is.

"Some say it is a miracle, while others are calling it a curse," Lakhdar Souid, a Tunisian journalist, told France 24 television. "In the first few days, the water was crystal clear; a turquoise blue. Now it's green and full of algae, which means it's not being replenished."

Bothered by the changing state of the lake and lack of action by local officials, Souid contacted geologists working at Gafsa's college of science.

"[They] had come up with a number of theories about the lake's origins, one being that seismic activity upset the water table, causing groundwater to rise to the surface."

"For the time being, the origins of this lake remains a mystery, but," he added, "our biggest concern right now is the quality of the water."

Gafsa became the center of the country's mining industry after phosphate was discovered in the southern Tunisian region in 1886. The country is now the world's fifth largest exporter of phosphate, which can leave behind radioactive residue.

Souid reported that last Friday hundreds of people returned to the lake to swim, ignoring warnings issued by the Tunisians Office of Public Safety that the "miracle" lake might actually be carcinogenic.

Nothing has been confirmed and Souid simply wants people to wait until all the facts are in.

"The site is certainly stunning and there are many large rocks perfect for diving. So to truly dissuade people from coming, we'll need something more convincing than a little warning," he said.

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