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  HOME | Bolivia

Bolivian Lake Becomes an Arid, Trash-Covered Wasteland

By Gabriel Romano

ORURO -- Gazing at Lake Uru Uru in the southwestern Bolivian province of Oruro, the thought occurs that no amount of effort would be sufficient to reverse the environmental degradation which has left 90 percent of the lake bed a dried-up waste piled high with plastic and other detritus.

Uru Uru and nearby Lake Poopo are home to more than 70 different species of birds, including some 120,000 flamingos of three different varieties, along with abundant fish and lush vegetation.

Environmental activist Limberth Sanchez describes Uru Uru as a virtual miracle of nature, as it arose in 1955 from an overflowing of the Desaguadero River on its southeastward course out of Lake Titicaca.

Within a few years of the lake's formation, it had been stocked with various kinds of fish and Uru Uru came to support seven different fishing cooperatives, Sanchez said.

While the lake was never deep, measuring only 1.5 m (4.9 ft) even during the rainy season, its surface has shrunk from 214 sq km (83 sq mi) to just 20 sq km, the activist says, citing data from the municipal government in Oruro city, the provincial capital.

Among the factors contributing to this ecological disaster, the most obvious is the flow into Uru Uru of the Tagarete Canal, an open sewer carrying waste and refuge from the city of more than 264,000.

Amid the thousands of plastic bottles one catches glimpses of toys, shoes, soiled diapers and even the skeletons of dogs. And beneath the sandy surface is a layer of nauseating black residue akin to tar on beaches.

The water in what's left of the lake shows dangerous levels of "heavy metals such as cadmium, zinc, arsenic, lead, even mercury" as the result of runoff from the San Jose Mine, Sanchez says.

A railway built across the lake some years ago has come to mark the division between the part of Uru Uru where it is safe to fish and the "totally contaminated" portion, fisherman and indigenous leader Felix Quiroz tells Efe.

In nearly 10 hours on the water a few days ago, Quiroz caught just one fish, barely 15 cm (5.9 in) long. Before the ecosystem began to decline in the mid-1990s, it was common to snag fish 45 cm long.

What was originally a rest area for tourists on the shores of Uru Uru now serves as a pig pen and boats sit abandoned because "the lake has gone," in the words of one resident.

Oruro's municipal director of Environmental Management, Guillermo Quispe, takes notes as a contingent of city workers conduct a mock clean-up of 10 hectares (24.7 acres).

He estimates that to actually do the job, it would require 500 people with the necessary supplies and protective gear and at least one earth-mover.

Without such a "massive cleanup" and the installation of filtration grids upstream, Lake Uru Uru could disappear entirely in the next five years, Quispe tells Efe.

Quiroz says the area requiring remediation is 240 hectares, excluding the lake itself.

Feathers of dead flamingos and other birds can be seen along the edges of the most contaminated part of the lake.

While the coming online of a water treatment plant and composting and recycling facilities should help, a real solution will require a cleanup far more thorough than what appears to be on the cards at the moment.

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