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Peru: Pollution in Lake Titicaca

An old legend says that at the dawn of time, Manco Cápac and Mama Ocllo, a married couple and children of Inti (the Incan sun god), emerged from the waters of the lake Titicaca to found the city of Cusco and the Incan Empire. These days, we do not know what kind of being might emerge from the Titacaca given the degree of pollution affecting the lake.

Even though this subject has been discussed for some time, it has not been given enough importance.

Titicaca is the highest navigable lake in the world (3,812 meters [12,500 feet] above sea level), located between Perú and Bolivia, with both countries responsible for its conservation. To this end, there is the Binational Autonomous Authority for the Titicaca Water system, Desaguadero River, Lake Poopó and Coipasa salt flat whose actions are implemented through the Lake Titicaca Special Project (Perú) and The Bolivian Operating Unit.

Two years ago, the situation in the Titicaca Lake region near the city of Puno was as can be seen in this National Link video [es]:

On February 2, World Wetlands Day, Lake Titicaca was declared ”Threatened Lake of the Year 2012″ by the organizations Global Nature Fund (Germany) and Living Lake (USA). Among the factors contributing to this situation, according to Alberto Rivera Lescano, director of the Center for Social and Environmental Development (CEDAS), are “formal and informal mining, poor clean up and treatment of waste and wastewater from the city of Puno”; however the highest pollution “is found in the Bay of Cohana – Bolivia.”

Radio Pachamama's blog delves into the issue citing [es] statements by the environmentalist Moisés Duran:

“Más de un millón de litros de agua contaminada por segundo, que ingresan al lago Titicaca, provienen en su mayoría de la minería, industria y hospitales” [...] Asimismo, cuestionó el trabajo del Proyecto Especial Lago Titicaca (PELT), porque no existe voluntad política para elaborar proyectos y descontaminar el lago.

“More than a million liters of contaminated water per second, entering Lake Titicaca, come mostly from mining, industry and hospitals” […] He also questioned the work of the Lake Titicaca Special Project (PELT) because there is no political will to develop projects and decontaminate the lake.

Lago Titicaca. En primer plano la "lenteja".

Lake Titicaca. “Water Lentils” in the foreground. Photo “Waiting for a voyage” by Flickr user auntjojo, reproduced under Creative Commons license Attribution-No Derivative 2.0 Generic (CC BY-ND 2.0).

Meanwhile, the website Verde y Gris commented [es] on the growing presence of what are commonly called “water lentils” in the waters of the lake:

en la bahía interior de Puno (Perú) existe la presencia de Lemna (Lemna es un género de plantas acuáticas de libre flotación de la familia de las lentejas de agua Araceae). Cubren toda la superficie del agua debido a los altos niveles de contaminación por fosfatos y nitratos. Esta planta se reproduce de forma muy rápida, lo cual complica mas su erradicación. La existencia de esta planta está produciendo la muerte de muchos peces y otros organismos del lago, ya que al cubrir la superficie impide la oxigenación correcta del agua y también produce un desagradable olor.

In the inner bay of Puno (Perú), there is Lemna (Lemna is a genus of free-floating aquatic plants in the Araceae duckweed family). They cover the entire surface of the water due to high levels of contamination from phosphates and nitrates. This plant reproduces very quickly, further complicating eradication. The existence of this plant is causing the death of many fish and other organisms in the lake, because covering the surface of the lake prevents proper oxygenation of the water and also produces an unpleasant smell.

But a study [es] by the National Agrarian University at La Molina, notes with regard to Lemna that due to “the effectiveness of this organism to grow in difficult conditions, […] its management could be an alternative to reduce the process of eutrophication in the lake.” Eutrophication is the process by which a body of water, due to excess nutrients, creates a biomass that can contribute to oxygen depletion in the water and subsequent drying up.

The start of work to remediate mining pollution was recently announced by PELT. This work would start “in the Puno district of Crucero, through which the river Ramis passes, one of the main tributaries of Titicaca, and where elevated levels of contamination from mining have been detected.” The Bolivian side has also reported that they “anticipate the construction of sanitary and storm sewers in the towns of Copacabana and Gauqui, plus a landfill in Desaguadero, to keep this waste from going into Titicaca”.

The Pulitzer Center produced the video “Lake Titicaca: At Risk From Upstream Urban Pollution“, regarding the contamination of the lake from the Bolivian side.

In 2009 the Lake Titicaca National Reserve produced a video [es] about mining pollution on the Peruvian side.
Controversy isn’t far from this problem, either. In June, irregularities were reported [es] in the management of funds by the Binational Autonomous Authority of Lake Titicaca, as well as the lack of results of their actions. Moreover the mayor of Puno, Luis Butron Castillo, was also accused [es] of “allegedly committing the crime of environmental damage by authorizing the dumping of 80 alien bacteria into the waters of Lake Titicaca.”

But the concerned citizens of the area don’t just accuse, they also protest and use any means at their disposal to raise awareness about these issues. This past July, an environmental group in Puno held a protest [es] on the shores of the Titicaca, and in September the group ATitiQaqa “sumáq káwsay-suma jakaña” proposed circling Lake Titicaca with people holding hands to beat the Guiness world record, in order to raise global awareness and crate effective legislation prohibiting discharging contaminants into the lake.

During that time, I had the opportunity speak with Fanny, the representative of the organization “Juntos por el Titiqaqa” [Together for Titicaca] which has organized parades [es] promoting ecological improvement of the lake, and this is what she said:


The future of Lake Titicaca’s conservation is uncertain, but while there are people interested in doing something about it, there will be hope. Though perhaps, as the Bolivian filmmaker Roberto Calasich proposes in his recent film La Sirena del Lago [The Mermaid of the Lake], a mermaid will have to appear from the waters of Lake Titicaca to denounce [es] that the pollution is killing her.

Post originally published in the personal blog [es] of Juan Arellano.
English subtitles by Hernan Botero
  • vcs1vcs1

    It would be interesting to know what percentage of the lake’s pollution comes from informal, illegal mining vs. formal minimg.

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