Dangerous Waters: Urban Boom Threatens Lake Titicaca and its People

Each year thousands of Bolivians leave their rural homes, betting on a brighter future in the high altitude adobe-brick metropolis of El Alto. One of the fastest growing cities in South America, El Alto and the neighboring city of La Paz now make up Bolivia's largest urban center, home to nearly 2 million of the country's 10 million people.

The twin cities' infrastructure lags far behind their ballooning population, and only a fraction of the waste they produce can be treated. Much of El Alto's wastewater, treated and untreated, flows from this sprawling urban center's slaughterhouses, tanneries, garbage dumps and toilets and runs across Bolivia's vast, dry plains toward Lake Titicaca.

The name Titicaca means Puma Rock in the Quechua language of the Inca. The Inca, who colonized the area, believed the lake was the birthplace of the human race. Today its waters, which sit on the border between Bolivia and neighboring Peru, support hundreds of small Aymara indigenous farming and fishing towns.

These communities produce crops and supply fish that Peru and Bolivia depend on to help feed their populations, but this way of life is at risk in some areas as the water that supports it is spoiled by an urban boom that promises to continue unabated. And urban growth is not the only threat to traditional lakeshore life: increased mining, cattle operations and overfishing also put the lake at risk.

In this series of stories writer Sara Shahriari and photographer Noah Friedman-Rudovsky explore the lives of people who depend on the lake, what its contamination means for two of South America's poorest countries, and how Peru and Bolivia are trying to save this key water source.

Updated 08/17/2012

Peru: Voices from Lake Titicaca

Peruvians and Bolivians who depend on Lake Titicaca say pollution complicates their work and even puts their livelihoods at risk. This report traces water from Andean glaciers to the lake itself.