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Pollution threatens South America's Lake Titicaca

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Improving sewage treatment is often pushed aside due to inadequate budgets, says El Alto Mayor Edgar Pataña Ticona, and environmental laws are rarely enforced. “We have rules. They aren’t very strong, but we have them,” Mr. Pataña says.

A lack of quality sewage treatment in El Alto, as in many parts of Bolivia, means industrial waste also feeds into rivers.  In sharp contrast to the deep blue of Lake Titicaca, opaque, foul-smelling water trickles through rivers in El Alto.  Those rivers run red with blood from slaughterhouses, green with chemicals from factories, and vivid orange from mineral processing.  Dead dogs and trash litter the banks, and are swept toward the lake when the rains come each year.

“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. 

Living downstream 

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.

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