Clean-up efforts on world’s highest lake hindered by informal mining and contaminated water from mine residue deposits

Tailings from more than 30,000 small-scale miners are causing widespread environmental damage in Lake Titicaca, the largest lake in South America and the highest commercially navigable lake in the world, said the Executive President of the Binational Autonomous Authority of the Titicaca Lake, Julián Barra Catacora.

Preserving Lake Titicaca is a top priority because it is one of our largest reserves of fresh water, Barra told Radio Programas radio.

RPP reported that 98 percent of fish species have disappeared and what used to be flourishing aquatic vegetation has now turned to muck.

Tucked away high in the Andes between snow-covered peaks, Lake Titicaca, which straddles between Bolivia and Peru, is being asphyxiated by pollution. Besides receiving sewage and industrial waste from the city of Puno, it receives agricultural run-offs from the surrounding areas and tailings from mineral processing plants and the region’s more than 30,000 informal miners.

Puno’s regional government must act more responsibly, argued Barra, just days after Environment Minister Antonio Brack Egg called Peru’s informal miners an “encysted mafia.”

Small-scale mining poses a complicated problem for Peru because of its social, political and economic nature. Any solutions to the negative consequences it generates must take into account the sanitary and environmental impacts of poverty, the needs of small-scale miners and their families, the ability of Peruvian authorities to monitor and enforce regulations, and the fact that large mines often compete with small-scale miners for access to mineral deposits and land.

For poor people living along Lake Titicaca’s shores, the struggle to survive often takes precedence over protecting the environment.

According to the Foundation for Sustainable Development, “the severe contamination of the lake affects the health of those who depend on it, yet systems of monitoring and testing water quality are primitive, under funded, and falling behind the current rate of pollution.”

And, since violence and terrorism have long prevented environmental issues from being at the vanguard of community debate, it is only now that they are being addressed. The Lake, for example, is still managed by Peru’s Agriculture Ministry rather than the recently created Environment Ministry.

According to various scientific studies, cleaning up Lake Titicaca should cost Peru approximately $4.5 million, Barra said.

Tiny water lentils, or lemna gibba, fed by sewage emptying into the lake, pose a particular health and economic problem and have turned the lake a milkshake-like shade of lime green in some areas. And, during the dry season, the Katari, Seco, Seque, Pallina and Jalaqueri Rivers deposit trash and metal contaminants they pick up from cities and towns along their banks.

The impact of tourism on the environment, mainly in terms of depletion of water, soil and air quality, is also becoming increasingly significant in the region. Soil erosion threatens the region as well, reports World Lakes, as more than a quarter of total watershed area is considered vulnerable to erosion.

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