“El Alto doesn’t have an industrial park,” Marco Ribera Arismendi of The Environmental Defense League in Bolivia says. “Most of the medium and small businesses are dispersed through the city and plastic, paint, detergents, and metals from factories go into the rivers and then the lake.” A 2011 United Nations report found “alarming” concentrations of cadmium, arsenic, and lead in various parts of the lake.
There is a proposed second wastewater treatment plant for El Alto, which would rely largely on international funds for completion. But that addition alone will not be enough to allow the city to deal with all its wastewater.
Titicaca is big – larger than the state of Delaware – which makes it resilient and means the majority of its water is still clean. But for populations that live along polluted rivers and lakeshore areas, inaccessible clean water matters little.
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.
“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.”