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Story Publication logo November 23, 2011

Bolivia: El Alto's Contaminated Waters

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Lake Titicaca supports hundreds of small Aymara indigenous farming and fishing towns in Peru and...

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Near the Bay of Cohana, where the rivers running from El Alto finally meet Lake Titicaca, most people live by raising sheep and cows, and small-scale farming. Image by Noah Friedman-Rudovsky. Bolivia, 2011.

The Seco River begins in Andean glaciers that top 20,000-foot peaks and rolls down over Bolivia's plains toward the vast expanse of Lake Titicaca. Along the way it passes straight through one of the fastest-growing cities in South America: El Alto.

What was once a shantytown perched next to the city of La Paz is now a political and industrial powerhouse of about one million people that has grown by nearly 50 percent since 2000. Despite this boom, the chronic poverty and lack of access to services historically faced by Bolivia's indigenous people persist in El Alto. Bolivia is one of Latin America's poorest countries, and its population of just 10.5 million people, of whom more than 6 million identify as indigenous, has radically shifted from the countryside to cities over the past two decades.

Infrastructure lags behind El Alto's spontaneous and unplanned growth. Many homes lack access to potable water, and hopeful estimates put the number of homes and businesses that link to the city's sorely overtaxed sewage treatment plant at 50 percent. The remaining wastewater is piped directly into rivers like the Seco, and eventually reaches South America's largest lake, the high altitude expanse of Titicaca.

During the dry season, from May through November, the Seco is just a trickle fed by wastewater from homes, slaughterhouses, tanneries and mining operations. Along its course through El Alto its waters run red with blood, vivid green with algae, black with oil and a thick brilliant rust color from mineral processing. The riverbed also doubles as a dump—plastic bags, rotting food, tires, dead dogs and feces line its banks. The water smells sharp and bitter. When the rainy season arrives in December, everything sweeps toward the lake.

"The water keeps getting dirtier," said 17-year-old Susi Mamani from El Alto as she walked along the bank of the Seco. 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. I want to see them cleaner with more plants," she said.

"The problem is that there is no complete and structured treatment of wastewater," said Marco Ribera Arismendi of The Environmental Defense League (LIDEMA) in La Paz.

Treating all the wastewater El Alto produces would require tens of millions of dollars to invest in piping and an adequate wastewater treatment plant, more money for an industrial park and even more money to guarantee trash pickup and educate communities about trash disposal. But the cash to create that infrastructure has not been forthcoming from national or local governments since serious pollution became apparent about 10 years ago. "The things governments have done so far are like giving an aspirin to someone who has been shot," said Ribera Arismendi.

Even if money were available, reaching consensus on a project of such scope is a daunting challenge in a city where neighborhood organizations are often more powerful than the city government, and leadership changes frequently. Meanwhile, without a comprehensive water treatment solution in sight, El Alto's continued growth poses increasing threats to its residents and communities downstream.

Near the Bay of Cohana, where the rivers running from El Alto finally meet Lake Titicaca, most people live by raising sheep and cows, and small-scale farming. Scientific studies on the effects of water contamination on the people and animals of Cohana are scarce, but concern in lakeshore communities is high.

Several hundred yards from the river a man drills a deep well. The people here are hesitant to talk about water contamination because if suspicion were ever cast on the health of their livestock it could destroy their livelihoods. But this farmer, who did not want to be named, is certain a well is an excellent investment. The river, he says, is dirty, and he can't allow his cows to drink from it.

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