By Franz Chávez
Efforts to combat the contamination of Lake Titicaca, which straddles the borders of Peru and Bolivia high up in the Andes mountains, have shown slightly better results in Puno Bay on the Peruvian side, but have barely made a difference in Cohana Bay on the Bolivian side, according to local fishers and specialists interviewed by Tierramérica.
At 3,810 meters above sea level, Lake Titicaca is the highest commercially navigable lake in the world. It has a total surface area of 8,562 square kilometers, of which 3,790 lie on the Bolivian side of the border and 4,772 are in Peru.
Its deep blue waters are a source of livelihoods for 400,000 people who make a living from fishing, harvesting its vegetation for use as livestock feed, and building boats from the totora reeds that grow in the lake, using techniques that date back to pre-Columbian times.
But the inhabitants of the Puno region in southeastern Peru are deeply concerned by the current state of the lake’s waters.
In May, Aymara indigenous communities in the region staged a two-week roadblock on the international highway used to transport Bolivian export goods through Peru to the Pacific Ocean. The roadblock was aimed at protesting new mining concessions that could lead to even further contamination of Lake Titicaca, which already receives the waste effluents of six Peruvian gold and uranium mines.
“There is insufficient treatment of wastewater and the capacity of the plants (to purify it) has been surpassed due to population growth,” technical specialist Javier Bojorquez told Tierramérica. Bojorquez heads up a water quality control project that has been carried out since 2009 by the Peruvian non-governmental organization Suma Quta (which means “Good Lake” in the Aymara language).
With the participation of the local population, the project monitors the waters of the Ramis and Coata Rivers, which flow into Lake Titicaca, identifies contaminants, and designs strategies to eliminate or reduce them at their sources. Laboratory studies have detected fecal waste with a high presence of the Escherichia coli (E. coli) bacterium.
On the other side of the border, Bolivian fishermen Roberto Villcacuti and Ricardo Chasqui declared almost in unison that there are no efforts being made to clean up the lake’s waters. The two men are leaders of Aymara communities in the provinces of Camacho and Los Andes, in the western Bolivian department of La Paz, where they make a living from fishing and harvesting forage plants from Lake Titicaca.
The lake’s water is “dark, gelatinous and full of oxide residues” which pose a lethal threat to the fish that live there, they told Tierramérica. They believe that the source of the toxic waste and mineral residues is the Suches River, which springs from a lagoon in Peru and flows south into Lake Titicaca.
The decline in fish stocks has been dramatic, said Valentín Calisaya, a 69-year-old fisherman from Camacho. He remembers a time, three decades ago, when he could cast his nets overnight and harvest as many as 40 kilograms of the fish known locally as karachi (of the genus Orestias).
Today, over the course of two nights the nets yield barely 10 fish. “The lake has changed, the climate and the people too,” Calisaya commented to Tierramérica.
The extinction of native species was confirmed in a study carried out as part of the Project to Support Integrated and Participatory Water Resources Management in the Lake Titicaca, Desaguadero River, Lake Poopo and Coipasa Salt Marsh System, jointly carried out by the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) and the Lake Titicaca Binational Authority (ALT)
The study notes the disappearance of the native species known as humanto or amanto (Orestias cuvieri) and boga (Orestias pentlandii). Other native species – suche (Trichomycterus rivulatus), yellow karachi (Orestias albus) and ispi (Orestias ispi) – are currently endangered, as a result of overfishing, predation by introduced species, and the impacts of intensive production in trout farms.
In one week, the Villcacuti family catches around 20 kilograms of ispi and sells the fish in urban markets for roughly three dollars, money they need to buy staple foods that cannot be produced in the high Andes plains, such as rice and beans.
Lake Titicaca has been the “most studied aquatic ecosystem in the region for several decades,” according to the UNEP report. Nevertheless, the level of pollution is “troubling and dangerous,” especially in the “lesser lake” or Wiñay Marka section on the Bolivian side, where Cohana Bay is located.
Since the foreign ministries of the two countries agreed in October 2006 to join forces in rehabilitating the most contaminated areas of the lake, the ALT has directed the clearing of fat duckweed (Lemna giba) from the water’s surface.
The duckweed’s capacity to absorb nutrients from the abundance of decomposing matter in the lake has caused it to proliferate and turn into a threat, since it blocks out the sunlight, to the detriment of other life forms in the lake, ALT specialist Néstor Loayza told Tierramérica.
In Puno Bay, technicians and workers aided by machinery removed 40,000 tons of duckweed from an area spanning 500 hectares. The results were almost immediate: the fish and birds returned to the area, and now oxygen is being pumped into the depths of the lake to help promote further recovery.
Around 1,200 hectares of the lake’s surface are contaminated with duckweed in the Puno area.
But in Cohana Bay, on the Bolivian side, there are around 5,000 hectares affected and only 5,000 tons of the troublesome plant have been removed, while the Bolivian Foreign Ministry’s approval of a 16-million-dollar project to continue with the clean-up efforts is still pending, said Loayza.
In the meantime, around 4,000 liters of sewage and industrial wastewater, with high levels of cadmium, arsenic and lead, are discharged into this area of the lake every second, from the cities of El Alto, Viacha and Laja, home to a million people.
In Lima, the head of the Titicaca National Reserve, Víctor Hugo Apaza, described the progress made in bird and plant conservation thanks to awareness-raising work with local peasant communities.
So far, a total of 109 bird species have been recorded, including the Titicaca grebe, a flightless bird that feeds off small fish in the lake. As its name suggest, the bird is endemic to the region, and was in danger of extinction several years ago, Apaza told Tierramérica.
Although the ALT was established 18 years ago, it has done relatively little to address the environmental challenges facing Lake Titicaca.
As a result, in October 2010, Peruvian President Alan García and Bolivian President Evo Morales agreed to create a binational committee to lay the groundwork, over a six-month period, for an institutional, regulatory and operational overhaul of the Binational Authority.
The six months elapsed in April. “The recent elections in Peru have prevented this task from being completed within the timeframe established,” Peruvian Foreign Ministry official Luis Felipe Isasi admitted to Tierramérica.
Franz Chávez is an IPS correspondent. Additional reporting by Milagros Salazar (Lima).