The most famous creation stories in this part of the world come from the Inca, the last indigenous culture to control the region before the Spanish arrived in the 1500s. Those stories say the god Viracocha rose from the waters of Lake Titicaca. Some say Viracocha created mankind, while others say he made the first Inca, Manco Capac and Mama Ocllo. The lake is still considered a sacred place, and honored with a pilgrimage that draws thousands of people each year to a church on the lakeshore in Copacabana, Bolivia.
The New Urban Landscape
Over the past decade Aymara Indian farmers from all over Bolivia’s high plains were drawn to the city of El Alto in search of education and employment. But as the population of that city has recently grown to more than one million people, it scrambles to provide basic services with a budget that is always stretched thin. Many Bolivian cities do not treat much of their used water, but what makes El Alto important is that its wastewater ends up in Lake Titicaca, just 40 miles away.
About 80 percent of the people in El Alto have access to potable water, but at best just 50 percent of its homes and businesses connect via sewers to the city’s only wastewater treatment plant. The rest of the water goes directly into rivers, which now display a sickly rainbow of colors—red with blood from slaughterhouses, green with chemicals from tanneries, and a deep orange from mineral processing waste. Their banks are lined with trash—from tires to bottles to dead dogs—and the rivers are also toilets for many people who don’t have bathrooms in their homes.
“The water keeps getting dirtier,” says 17-year-old Susi Mamani from El Alto as she walks along a bank of the Seco River. She says that for many households the river is the closest and easiest way to dispose of trash, especially when garbage trucks fail to collect it week after week. “I hope we can clean the water and learn not to throw our trash in the rivers,” she says. “I want to see them cleaner, with more plants.”
Dirty water and piles of trash can have deadly results. Children playing along the riverbanks and families picking through the piles of garbage are exposed to chemicals and feces; many people here carry harmful intestinal parasites and thousands of children die each year from diarrhea related to inadequate sanitation.
LO RES FEA Photo Titicaca 03 This water whose orange color results from mineral processing is entering the Seco River. REST CAPTION IN METADATA 270×180 Sacred Lake Titicaca Is Being Drowned by Pollution
The orange flow in the Seco River comes from mineral processing runoff.
Budgets Stretched Thin
“There is no complete and structured treatment of wastewater,” says Marco Ribera Arismendi of the Environmental Defense League in La Paz, which monitors pollution in El Alto and the lake. “The things governments have done so far are like giving an aspirin to someone who has been shot.”