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Pollution threatens South America's Lake Titicaca

Growing urbanization is threatening Lake Titicaca along the Boliva-Peru border, and endangering those who depend on it for agriculture and drinking water.

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People downstream from El Alto say their attempts to fight back have not yielded major change. In 2004 the Bolivian government passed a law declaring the Pallina River, one in a string of rivers that connects El Alto to the lake, an environmental disaster zone. But little action followed the passage of the law, so locals blocked a key highway leading toward the Bolivian capital of La Paz. The roadblock raised national awareness of the river at the time, but years later the water of the Pallina still runs dark and foamy.

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“When I was a child the Pallina River was clean, the water was crystalline,” says Rigoberto Rios Miranda, an Aymara farmer who has lived on the bank of the Pallina his entire life. “About 15 or 20 years back they contaminated it. There were fish here – then one day waters came – I don’t know from where, maybe a tannery, but all the fish were dead.”

Mr. Rios Miranda, like many farmers, is digging wells on his property after deciding livestock should no longer drink from the river. Another economic blow for people along the Pallina is that they can no longer process tunta, a dried potato that was washed in the river water and sold for relatively high prices.

Challenged by tourism

Despite all the pollutants El Alto sends toward Lake Titicaca, it is not the only source of contamination. Rivers winding toward the lake pass smaller towns that contribute human and industrial waste, and some gold mining operations in Peru use a smelting process which releases mercury into the water. Livestock grazing along the shore loads the lake with organic waste, as well. This can fuel explosive aquatic plant growth, sucking up oxygen and cutting off sunlight other plants and animals need to survive.

Tourism is yet another concern: a double-edged sword that brings better income to the impoverished region, but also environmental challenges. The Peruvian city of Puno and Copacabana in Bolivia receive tens of thousands of national and international visitors each year.

Eco-tourism and infrastructure must be developed carefully to avoid further damaging the lake, says ecologist Francisco Fonturbel, who has studied the lake extensively. Government and non-governmental projects aim to address this issue, but much work remains. In Puno, Peru, for example, the city relies on overtaxed sewage treatment pools, and trash and raw sewage, exacerbated by sharp population influxes due to tourism, find their way into the lake.

“Right now we can see that the number of fish is decreasing,” says Marcelino Coila Choque, an Aymara fisherman who lives a few miles from Puno. He says overfishing and pollution are killing his livelihood.

“What will happen to our children in the future when the fish disappear? What will become of them?” Mr. Coila says. “That’s what we worry about … and not just here, but in different places all around the lake.”

• Reporting this story was funded by a grant from the Pulitzer Center on Crisis Reporting

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