Unchecked pol­lu­tion be­foul­ing ma­jes­tic Lake Tit­i­caca


Gulls swept down to feast on hun­dreds of dead and dy­ing gi­ant frogs float­ing in the ran­cid wa­ters along a south­east­ern shore of Lake Tit­i­caca, where the al­gae­choked shal­lows reek of rot­ten eggs.

The die-off was the most strik­ing sign yet of the de­te­ri­o­rat­ing state of South Amer­ica’s largest body of fresh wa­ter.

Lo­cal fish­er­men have a harder time find­ing any­thing to catch, while farm­ers who work the land along the shores com­plain that tainted wa­ter is stunt­ing crops.

As hu­man and in­dus­trial waste from nearby cities in­creas­ingly con­tam­i­nate the famed lake that strad­dles the bor­der be­tween Bo­li­vian and Peru, the na­tive Ay­mara peo­ple who rely on it for food and in­come say ac­tion must be taken be­fore their liveli­hoods, like the frogs, die off.

“We used to live off of fish­ing,” said Juan Quispe, a lo­cal vil­lager. “But now we have noth­ing to sus­tain us.” The fish have moved far­ther and far­ther from shore.

On a re­cent Satur­day, the 78-year-old Quispe joined a cleanup brigade to re­move dead dogs, tires and other refuse from the shore of Cohana Bay where the lake meets the Katari River.

Near-shore fish­ing was good un­til about 2000, when lo­cals be­gan to no­tice that the crys­tal azure wa­ters pe­ri­od­i­cally would turn a murky green, Quispe said.

Most pol­lu­tion on the Bo­li­vian side, in­clud­ing such toxic heavy met­als as lead and ar­senic, orig­i­nates in El Alto, a fast-grow­ing city of 1 mil­lion peo­ple near La Paz that sits 200 me­ters above the lake and just 40 kilo­me­ters away.

Seventy per­cent of El Alto’s 130 fac­to­ries op­er­ate il­le­gally and are not mon­i­tored for pol­lu­tion, says Bo­livia’s en­vi­ron­ment min­istry. Runoff from min­ing ex­ac­er­bates mat­ters.

A study by the bi­na­tional Lake Tit­i­caca Au­thor­ity found el­e­vated lev­els of iron, lead, ar­senic and bar­ium in the wa­ter, the worst at the mouth of the Katari, which flows from El Alto.

Con­tam­i­na­tion is most se­ri­ous in the shal­low wa­ters of Cohana Bay, near the pop­u­lar tourist spot of Copaca­bana and, on the Peru­vian side, Puno Bay and near the Ramis and Coata rivers. The lat­ter flows from the city of Ju­li­aca.

Ur­ban runoff is not solely to blame. More than half the peo­ple liv­ing along the shores lack plumb­ing and ex­ist­ing lo­cal wa­tertreat­ment plants are badly over­taxed, the lake au­thor­ity says.

To date, the only true re­me­di­a­tion has been spo­radic al­gae cleanups, au­thor­ity pres­i­dent Al­fredo Ma­mani said. “It’s like clean­ing a pus- ooz­ing wound with­out at­tack­ing the cause.”

Bo­livia and Peru cre­ated the au­thor­ity to man­age the body of wa­ter but have given it few re­sources to do so, he said. While Ma­mani de­clined to dis­close the au­thor­ity’s bud­get, he said it has 30 em­ploy­ees and no money for equip­ment or projects.

Dur­ing a meet­ing Tues­day in Peru, the pres­i­dents of the two coun­tries agreed to strengthen the au­thor­ity and to form a bi­na­tional com­mis­sion that, over the next six months, will come up with a plan to help the lake and fi­nance the ef­fort.

Long be­fore the frog deaths in April, the au­thor­ity asked Peru and Bo­livia for per­ma­nent moni- tor­ing ef­forts and lab­o­ra­to­ries to mea­sure con­tam­i­nants en­ter­ing the lake. Even with­out such re­sources, the signs of con­tam­i­na­tion are ob­vi­ous.

Ma­mani blames the frog kill on un­treated sewage and other waste that dis­till into a hy­dro­gen-sul­fite cock­tail that chokes the life out of near-shore aquatic habi­tats.

While only a small por­tion of Tit­i­caca’s wa­ters are pol­luted, the af­fected ar­eas are along shores where more than a half-mil­lion Ay­mara peo­ple live, he said.

Trout farms and nearby agri­cul­ture also have suf­fered.

Quispe said the pota­toes he grows near the shore­line have shrunken over time, a change he blames on con­tam­i­na­tion of the lake wa­ters, which par­tially cover his fields be­fore each grow­ing sea­son.

Lo­cals fear the tourism in­dus­try is next. Each year, some 750,000 tourists visit the 3,800 me­ter-high Lake Tit­i­caca for its reed boats, pre-Columbian ru­ins and ma­jes­tic views of snow­capped An­dean peaks.

Vil­lagers from Puerto Perez, who pad­dle tourists on the lake on week­ends, show­ered Bo­livia’s en­vi­ron­ment min­is­ter, Alejandra Mor­eira, with com­plaints at a meet­ing in a nearby vil­lage in May.

She sug­gested the 46 com­mu­ni­ties on Tit­i­caca’s shores and is­lands, which are among the poor­est in the two An­dean na­tions, pool funds for ex­panded sewage sys­tems and treat­ment plants.

The vil­lage sec­re­tary, Guillermo Valle­jos, called her re­sponse worse than in­ad­e­quate.

Deputy En­vi­ron­ment Min­is­ter Ruben Men­dez later said that the Bo­li­vian gov­ern­ment plans to raise tens of mil­lions of dol­lars to build waste treat­ment plants along Tit­i­caca’s shores.

De­tails about the plan, how­ever, have yet to be pro­vided.


This June 20 photo shows a woman rid­ing her bike in the morn­ing fog in Bahia de Cohana, Bo­livia, near Lake Tit­i­caca.

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