Chott Melrhir: Algeria’s Largest Lake

Extending from the Gulf of Gabès on Tunisia’s east coast, through Algeria to the Sahara Desert, Chott Melrhir is a series of depressions created millions of years ago with the formation of the Atlas Mountain Range. Covering an area of around 6,700 square kilometers, Chott Melrhir is considered to be Algeria’s largest lake, despite the fact that for a large part of the year it contains little or no water. Located around sixty kilometers from Biskra, and around eighty-five kilometers from El Oued and Touggourt, the saltpan-lake lies below sea level and is the lowest point of Algeria.

Although it very seldom rains directly over Chott Melrhir, during the winter rain season many wadi in the surrounding area empty into the lake, filling it up. The largest of the wadi – rivers which dry up periodically – leading into Chott Melrhir are the Arab and Djedi, with the latter being one of the largest rivers of the Sahara, starting at an elevation of around 1,400 meters in the Saharan Atlas Mountains.

During the dry summer months, most of the wadi feeding the lake dry up, and so does the lake itself – becoming an enormous salt pan, emitting an odor similar to garlic. During this dry season, the area is also subject to sandstorms whipped up by high-speed winds sweeping down through the valley.

Although these conditions may appear to be most inhospitable to life, there are seventy-two species of plants that have adapted to the salty water of Chott Melrhir, with up to fourteen of these species being endemic to the area. These plants create a habitat for a range of bird species, including ducks, sand grouse, houbara bustard and greater flamingo, which feed on the brine shrimp of the lake. Other animals observed around Chott Melrhir include hares, foxes, golden jackals and wild boars.

Recognizing the unique qualities of this lake in Algeria, in 2003 Chott Melrhir was included on the Ramsar list of wetlands of international importance. This list forms part of the Ramsar Convention – an international treaty promoting the conservation and use of wetlands that meet certain criteria. The criteria for inclusion in the Ramsar list include being of international significance in terms of botany, ecology, zoology, hydrology or limnology. Visitors to Chott Melrhir will understand why this unique conservation area in Algeria has a spot on the international list of places to be protected.