The fact that visitors can be breathless on its shores is not only due to the impressive dimensions of this body of water: lake Titicaca, on the border of Peru and Bolivia, is in fact 190 km long and 80 km wide. In addition of being the geographical highlight of the South American Altiplano plateau, it also lies at an altitude of over 3.800 meters. The lake, as freshwate reservoir, is of existential importance to the people of the Peruvian-Bolivian Andean highlands. In addition, it represents the utmost important fishing ground for the people living along its shores. Members of the indigenous Uru people weave their boats, houses and even the artifical islands on wich they live from the special reeds that grow along its shores.
This treasure of nature has been under pressure for years, and the situation is coming to a head: 2.5 cubic meters of wastewater produced by the Peruvian and Bolivian populations flow into the lake every second, and many species of fish have already disappeared forever. The international environmental foundation Global Nature Fund (GNF) and the global lake network Living Lakes, which it coordinates, are therefore awarding Lake Titicaca their title “Threatened Lake of the Year” on today’s World Wetlands Day – for the second time in eleven years.
For the second time a debatable title – because catastrophe is imminent
Biologist Dr Thomas Schaefer, who is in charge of the units of Nature Conservation and Living Lakes at GNF, explains the recent nomination: “In the case of Lake Titicaca, the importance of the water body for the people who live with and from it and its ecological exploitation are in a particularly glaring disproportion. About two million Peruvians and Bolivians live in the catchment area of this giant lake and depend on it as a drinking water reservoir. However, a large part of the wastewater from the region flows untreated directly into the lake – e.g. from the large cities of Puno and Juliaca in Peru and from El Alto in Bolivia. In addition, there are pesticides from agriculture and heavy metal contaminated wastewater from partly illegal mining in the region. The consequences are drastic and can be smelled by everyone: It stinks on some of the lake’s shores – and that is only the most obvious consequence of a looming ecological catastrophe to which a large part of the lake’s biodiversity has already fallen victim.”
During the 16th Living Lakes Conference in December 2022, 60 international representatives from the international Living Lakes network were able to get an up-to-date impression of the situation on site. Juan José Ocola Salazar, President of the Peruvian-Bolivian environmental protection organization ALT (Autonomous Binational Authority of Lake Titicaca), adds: “The situation has rather become worse than better since 2012, which is due to the increasing anthropogenic pressure on the water quality. Therefore, this renewed title is a final wake-up call: If nothing happens now, the water of the lake could in the long run only be made usable as drinking water for the inhabitants inside of its shores under very difficult conditions. And we would then have to say goodbye forever to species like the endangered Titicaca giant frog.”
Together for the turnaround: What ALT, CEDAS and GNF want to move at the lake
As partners in the Living Lakes network, GNF, ALT and the Peruvian Conservation organization CEDAS (Centro de Desarrollo Ambiental y Social) strive to reverse the downward spiral: environmental education campaigns should sensitize the regional population in the catchment area to the importance of the lake and its worthiness of protection. ALT, as a supranational organization, is working to get representatives of both riparian countries around the table to implement measures and programs to conserve, control and protect Lake Titicaca’s water and hydrobiological resources.
“We need to see clearly that the time of declarations of intent is over and massive efforts are needed to protect the lake,” said Dr Schaefer. “That is why we are working with our partners to encourage both local people to behave in a more environmentally friendly way and authorities and decision-makers to design a regulatory framework whose compliance is actually monitored and whose violation is sanctioned. The fact that there has been unrest in Peru for some time does not make the situation any easier – but it is necessary to keep ecological issues in mind even in politically difficult times.”