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Trash in Titicaca

Sara Shahriari / nhAugust 30, 2012

Lake Titicaca sits on the border of Peru and Bolivia, a marvelous, shimmering, blue wonder. But as cities along its banks boom, untreated waste has started to cloud its waters.

Lake Titicaca, bordering Peru and Bolivia
Image: picture-alliance/dpa

Fifteen thousand feet above sea level, amongst Bolivia's Andean glaciers, the air is thin and cold. In this silent place surrounded by rocks and ice, a stream begins to flow downward. It is beginning a journey towards Lake Titicaca, South America's largest lake, which sits on the border shared by Bolivia and Peru. The glacial stream is crystal clear. But by the time it reaches the lake, less than 65 kilometers away, the water will be a soupy, foamy green, polluted by industrial, household and agricultural waste.

Several miles downstream in the booming city of El Alto, student Susy Mamani walks along the banks of the Seco River. Here, the thin glacial stream has turned into an urban waterway which receives wastewater from tanneries, slaughterhouses and mineral processing. She points at plastic bags and other garbage floating in the river. "The water is dirty, and there are dead animals people have thrown in, along with broken castoff things", she says.

Vendors at a street market in El Alto, Bolivia.
El Alto is one of the fastest growing cities in South AmericaImage: AP

Utility services lagging behind

El Alto is Bolivia's second largest city, a place that over the course of 20 years has grown from a provincial town to a booming industrial center populated largely by migrants from the countryside - all looking for better education and economic opportunities. As the city expands and the population grows, services like drinking water, trash collection and water treatment lag behind.

El Alto's mayor, Edgar Patana Ticona, estimates that less than half of the residents have their homes connected to the city's sewage system. The ones that are channel waste water to the city's only existing treatment plant.

Finding money for all the projects El Alto needs isn't easy, Ticona says, and neither is putting the necessary environmental laws into practice. "If there is enforcement of environmental controls on a specific business, the people who work there begin to protest. So does the owner and neighboring businesses in the area. Not for enforement of the law, but so the owner can continue his activities without being monitored at all."

According to Ticona funds are needed for better trash collection and waste water treatment. There is also a considerable need for environmental education. "The river doesn't go to infinity, beyond the planet earth," he said. "It simply goes out to the lake, and there we generate food, which is fish." He says what El Alto ought to consider are "economic resources to encourage, guide and communicate that through different outlets."

Lack of awarenes

A 2011 United Nations review reported ‘alarming’ concentrations of cadmium, arsenic, and lead in parts of the lake. Today, plans, backed by international funders, are underway to build a new wastewater treatment plant in El Alto, but it remains unclear when those projects will turn into action and stem the tide of pollution choking the lake.

Lake Titicaca, near Puno, Peru, South America
Waste is being pumped into Titicaca's watersImage: picture alliance/Gavin Hellier/Robert Harding

Winding out of the city of El Alto, its masses of new, painted buildings give way to brown fields, small mud-brick houses and herds of cows. It's here that Policarpio Lopez Huanca raises a small herd of dairy cows.

Every year when the rainy season comes and the river near his fields oversteps its boundaries, it brings with it a tide of garbage. "In this pasture we can find every kind of garbage. Plastic bottles, cosmetics, radios, television sets, dolls, basketballs, volleyballs, sandals and clothes," Huanca says. Many farmers like him dig wells for their livestock to drink from despite living near rivers.

A problem on both sides of the border

Fishermen are also affected by the pollution in Lake Titicaca. El Alto is one of several growing cities in the Titicaca watershed, and as rural to urban migration continues in the region, the lake comes under increasing pressure.

People clean the polluted bay of Lake Titicaca in Pajchiri, Bolivia.
Fishing communities say the pollution is killing off the fishImage: AP

The growing lakeshore city of Puno, Peru, also struggles to deal with wastewater. Marcelino Coila Choque fishes just a few miles from the city, as his parents did before him. "Pollution is spreading through the lake, with all the pollution that comes from the cities," he says. He explains that the people from the villages also leave trash and plastic lying around. "It makes our lake sick."

Lake Titicaca, sapphire blue and smooth as a mirror, is more than three times the size of Luxembourg. That size makes the lake resilient and means much of its water is still clean. How long the lake will remain that way, however, as the population in its watershed continues to climb, is a question that worries many who depend on the lake for their survival.

This report was produced with the support the Pulitzer Center on Crisis Reporting.