Cattle drink from the Sewanka River, contaminated with sewage from El Alto, Bolivia.
Credit: Bernarda Claure
Titicaca Truths Revealed
By Bernarda Claure
A binational effort, with the backing of the UN Environment Program, is expected to shed light on the scope, origin and possible cures for the contamination of Lake Titicaca on the Peru-Bolivia border.
BAHÍA DE COHANA, Bolivia, Jun 2 (Tierramérica).- Nobody doubts that Lake Titicaca, a watershed and resource shared by Bolivia and Peru, is polluted. But a half-century after the two governments realized there was a problem there are still no detailed studies of the state of its waters.
There are six sites considered most damaged, including Bahía de Cohana, in the western Bolivian department of La Paz, and Peru's Bahía Interior de Puno, in the department of the same name.
The problem is enormous natural ponds filled with a cocktail of sewage, organic pollution and industrial and mining waste.
The lack of sewage treatment itself has become a health threat to the nearby communities.
"We only use the water to wash clothes," Sonia Copa told Tierramérica near the town of Argachi, an hour's drive from Bahía de Cohana. "We don't even give it to the animals because sometimes it's red, sometimes it's black, and smells bad."
In Argachi, families have opted to dig wells to get water. "We are scared of falling ill. Animals have died from drinking the river water," says Felipe Chura, owner of a small herd of cattle.
Despite numerous investigations, the problem has not been dealt with in a systematic way, so the true environmental conditions and future impacts are impossible to know, Alberto Giesecke, an engineer with Peru's National Environment Council, told Tierramérica.
According to Giesecke, the main problem on the Peruvian side are the effluents and solid waste from the nearby communities. On the Bolivian side, contaminated water flows from the western municipalities of Viacha, Laja, Pucarani and from the industrial city of El Alto -- together representing nearly one million people
Lake Titicaca, whose name means "rock of the jaguar" or "rock of the feline" in the Aymara language, is located on the border of the two South American countries, surrounded by the Andes mountains. It is the world's highest navigable lake, at 3,810 meters above sea level.
Its waters are crystalline blue across most of its 8,562 square kilometer surface (3,790 sq km belong to Bolivia and 4,772 to Peru). Among its native wildlife are several species of duck, fish like the endangered suche (Trichomycterus rivulatus), karachi (of the Orestias genus) and the giant Lake Titicaca frog (Telmatobius culeus).
Among the aquatic vegetation are the bulrush, a flowering seaweed known as yana llacho, and the duckweed.
More than 25 rivers flow into Titicaca. Pollution is believed to have affected "a small percentage" of them, Luis Alberto Sánchez, coordinator in Bolivia of the Lake Titicaca Binational Authority, told Tierramérica.
Between the information from diverse institutions and the perception of the local residents, a sort of puzzle has emerged.
"Public, academic and private institutions are involved, but the monitoring systems are not continuous or sustainable, such that the information is not standardized," says Giesecke.
"Perhaps we have to introduce a more modest approach, practice basic monitoring. As one author said, content ourselves with reaching a level of optimum ignorance and not seek to know everything there is to know," added the Peruvian environmental official.
To take on the problem, the United Nations Environment Program (UNEP) is promoting a binational plan to establish an official environmental monitoring network "that makes the information uniform, with just one protocol," said biologist Evelyn Taucer, of the ecology and conservation graduate studies center at the Universidad Mayor de San Andrés (UMSA) in La Paz.
"We are identifying six locations for the monitoring stations, based upon which we will conduct physical, biological and chemical tests of the water and aquatic biodiversity," she told Tierramérica. What is needed, she added, "is that the efforts are channeled to one single network that provides official information for decision making."
Both in Bolivia and Peru, municipal governments, city councils, ministries and subordinate offices, as well as the Binational Authority, are involved in Titicaca issues.
Bahía de Cohana is a four-hour drive from La Paz, in the lower lake region of Bolivia. One doesn't have to be an expert to notice that the Sewanka River, which follows part of the road to this cattle-raising town of some 1,000 inhabitants, is dirty and that the lake gives off a foul odor.
According to limnologist Roberto Apaza, of UMSA's environmental quality laboratory, sedimentation, the proliferation of duckweed and the consequent reduction of spaces for birds and fishes are a fact that the local people have to deal with.
This is already being discussed in the schools. "They teach us about the water contamination," says Lucio Pari, 14, who knows that the duckweed and bulrushes have high concentrations of cadmium, lead and arsenic, according to a study by the UMSA lab.
Duckweed, through which Andean geese frolic on the lake, absorbs the most pollutants. This plant is used as fertilizer, while bulrushes are used as livestock feed.
"A considerable number of cattle are not butchered in the municipal slaughterhouses, but at clandestine, outdoor sites," and the remains "are dumped directly into the Katari River," wrote researcher Francisco Fontúrbel in an overview of ecotourism in Bahía de Cohana.
Such practices contribute to the spread of the liver fluke parasite. This flatworm may have killed more than three people in the area, according to Esteban Zapana, a former municipal official.
Some of the proposed solutions to Lake Titicaca's ills come from non-governmental organizations.
For example, there is "anaerobic biodigestion technology", a process of fermentation of human and animal excrement and of agricultural waste to generate biogas, says Oliver Campero, director of a development technologies project that has research stations in Tiwanaku, some 70 km from Cohana.
The La Paz government proposes decontaminating the bay by 25 percent and making the water consumed by the population potable.
The results will soon be available of a bidding process for infrastructure to collect water from a runoff site, treat it and channel it back, according to Ramiro Villarroel, director of natural resources and environment in La Paz.
If the contamination is not reversed, said Fontúrbel's report, the Titicaca watershed "could begin to collapse, interrupting the food chain and turning the shores of Titicaca into swamp."