Lake worshipped by Incans now littered with trash

Tucked between snow-capped mountains, Lake Titicaca was once worshipped by the Incas, who proclaimed its deep blue waters the birthplace of the sun.

These days the shores of South America's largest lake are littered with dead frogs, discarded paint buckets and bags of soggy trash. Less visible threats lurk in the water itself: toxic levels of lead and mercury.

The steady deterioration of the prized tourist destination has caused a rash of health problems among the 1.3 million people in Peru and Bolivia living near Lake Titicaca's polluted banks.

Untreated sewage water drains from two dozen nearby cities and illegal gold mines high in the Andes dump up to 15 tons of mercury a year into a river leading to the lake.

"If the frogs could talk they would say, 'This is killing me,'" said Maruja Inquilla, a local environmental activist who recently showed up at the Puno governor's house carrying plastic bags filled with hundreds of dead frogs in protest.


In this Feb. 1, 2017 photo, environmental activist Maruja Inquilla poses for a photo next to a Municipal waste treatment plant with water that flows into Lake Titicaca, in Juliaca, in the Puno region of Peru. "If the frogs could talk they would say, 'This is killing me,'" said Inquilla, who recently showed up at the Puno governor's house carrying plastic bags filled with hundreds of dead frogs in protest. (AP Photo/Rodrigo Abd)

 


Increasing concern about pollution has prompted a series of scientific studies and promises of official action.

The governments of Peru and Bolivia signed a pact in January 2016 to spend more than $500 million to attack the problem, though the details were vague.

A year later, Peru's new president, Pedro Pablo Kuczynski, pledged to construct 10 treatment plants around the lake, putting the cost at $437 million, "so that the most beautiful lake in the world is the cleanest lake in the world."

But details of how the plants would be funded remain unclear and promises by politicians dating back two decades have so far gone unfulfilled.

Many of the more than 400,000 tourists who visit Lake Titicaca from Peru each year stop first in Juliaca, a town that produces 200 tons of trash daily, much of it winding up in a river that has turned into a conveyor belt of waste heading into the lake. Hypodermic needles, tires, old shoes and used diapers are scattered among the potato fields that line the giant lake's shores. An additional 350,000 tourists visit the lake from Bolivia.

A Peruvian government-sponsored study in 2014 found mercury, cadmium, zinc and copper in four types of fish that form part of the local population's diet at levels higher than those advised for human consumption.

Cellular malformations were detected in the fishes' blood, said Mario Monroy, lead author of the study and professor at Jorge Tadeo Lozano University in Bogota, Colombia. Monroy likened the state of the fishes' blood to a thermometer for measuring the health of Lake Titicaca's waters.

The blue waves that lure travelers also contain lead at levels above international standards, the study found.

Dr. Jane M. Hightower, who specializes in internal medicine at the California Pacific Medical Center in San Francisco and is author of the book "Diagnosis: Mercury: Money, Politics & Poison," reviewed the study and told The Associated Press that the numbers indicate the amount of mercury consumed by Titicaca residents would be "unacceptable."


In this Feb. 4, 2017 photo, Lilian Avila Diaz lights her firewood stove to cook lunch for her family in Coata, a small village on the shore of Lake Titicaca, in the Puno region of Peru. The amount of mercury consumed by Titicaca residents is “unacceptable,” according to Dr. Jane M. Hightower, who specializes in internal medicine at the California Pacific Medical Center in San Francisco and author of the book “Diagnosis: Mercury: Money, Politics & Poison,” after reviewing a 2014 study on fish caught from Lake Titicaca. (AP Photo/Rodrigo Abd)

 


The study suggested officials limit some fish consumption, but inhabitants of the lake area said they weren't informed about the study or told they could be consuming fish harmful to their health.

Environment Minister Elsa Galarza said her agency plans to make recommendations to residents based on the findings, though Peru's Production Ministry, which co-financed the study, told The Associated Press in an email that more investigation is required.

Inquilla, the local activist, hasn't been waiting for more. Donning a wide-brimmed, rainbow-hued hat typical of the indigenous communities that surround the lake, she has been visiting villagers to alert them of the dangers lurking in their food and water.

The green totora reeds and camouflage-colored Titicaca water frogs she once spotted in abundance have thinned in numbers. The frogs have been placed on a "critically endangered" list by the International Union for Conservation of Nature and just 10,000 remain.

In the coastal hamlet of Coata, 23-year-old Maria Avila grew angry as she talked about the lake's contamination. The mother of a 4-year-old living in an adobe house says she cannot bathe or drink the water without getting severe diarrhea or red spots on her skin.

If she washes a blouse with the lake's water it turns a green color and if she heats the water to make mate, a tea-like drink with a normally grassy taste, it becomes salty and bitter.

Avila collects rainwater for household use, but when there isn't rain, she rows a boat 10 kilometers (6 miles) out from the shore and gathers water in barrels. The water deeper in Lake Titicaca is cleaner than that collected from the banks and can be used to cook, bathe and drink after being boiled.

"My ancestors have lived here more than 500 years. They have never gone through these things," Avila said.

Like many living on the 4,000-meter (13,100-feet) high plain surrounding the lake, Avila feels government leaders have neglected them.

In 2011, then-presidential candidate Ollanta Humala promised to resolve the contamination and construct water sewage processing plants. He won 79 percent of votes in the Lake Titicaca region but did not follow through.

Kuczynski, a former Wall Street banker who lived just 40 kilometers (25 miles) from the lake as a youth, has made access to clean water one of the priorities of his presidency. In a visit to the lake earlier his year, he characterized the polluted waters "a pigsty."

Avila said Lake Titicaca's people refuse to live "like pigs and streets dogs."

"That's not who we are," she said.


In this Feb. 2, 2017 photo, cousins from the Avila family search for discarded toys on the shores of Lake Titicaca, in Coata in the Puno region of Peru. The shores of South America's largest lake are littered with dead frogs, discarded paint buckets and bags of soggy trash. Less visible threats lurk in the water itself: highly toxic levels of lead and mercury. (AP Photo/Rodrigo Abd)

 

In this Feb. 4, 2017 photo, trapped birds and caught trout lay out to dry on the thatched roof of a home in Kapi Cruz Grande, a village on the shore of Lake Titicaca in the Puno region of Peru. A government-sponsored study conducted in 2014 found mercury, cadmium, zinc and copper in four types of fish that form part of local population's diet at levels higher than those advised for human consumption. (AP Photo/Rodrigo Abd)

 

In this Feb. 1, 2017 photo, children ride bikes along the Torococha River near a municipal waste treatment plant with water that flows into Lake Titicaca, in Juliaca, in the Puno region of Peru. Many of the more than 400,000 tourists who visit Lake Titicaca from Peru each year stop first in Juliaca, a town that produces 200 tons of trash daily, much of it winding up in a river that has turned into a conveyor belt of waste heading into the lake. (AP Photo/Rodrigo Abd)

 

In this Feb. 4, 2017 photo, Melinda Quispe walks on the trash strewn shore of Lake Titicaca, as she holds her dog, in her village Kapi Cruz Grande, in the Puno region of Peru. The governments of Peru and Bolivia signed a pact in January to spend more than $500 million to attack the pollution problem of Lake Titicaca, though the details were vague. (AP Photo/Rodrigo Abd)

 

In this Feb. 2, 2017 photo, a boy stands on a fishing boat on the littered shore of Lake Titicaca in Kapi Cruz Grande, in the Puno region of Peru. The camouflage-colored Titicaca water frogs that used to be in abundance have thinned in numbers and have been placed on a “critically endangered” list by the International Union for Conservation of Nature and just 10,000 remain. (AP Photo/Rodrigo Abd)

 

In this Feb. 4, 2017 photo, environmental activist Maruja Inquilla holds a dead bird called a "Choca," on the shore of Lake Titicaca, in Coata, in the Puno region of Peru. Untreated sewage water drains from two dozen nearby cities, and illegal gold mines high in the Andes dump up to 15 tons of mercury a year into a river leading to the lake. (AP Photo/Rodrigo Abd)

 

In this Feb. 4, 2017 photo, Naty Lugano Quispe cleans fish nets in Kapi Cruz Grande, a village on the shore of Lake Titicaca, in the Puno region of Peru. A 2014 study suggested officials limit some fish consumption, but area inhabitants said they weren’t informed about the study or told they could be consuming fish containing mercury, cadmium, zinc and copper at levels higher than those advised for human consumption. (AP Photo/Rodrigo Abd)

 

In this Feb.3, 2017 photo, a sheep's carcass lays on the shore of Lake Titicaca, Peru. According to environmental activists, villagers' cattle and crops are dying due to contamination. (AP Photo/Rodrigo Abd)

 

In this Feb. 3, 2017 photo, the Avila family sets their lunch of potatoes and fish on the floor of their home in Coata, a small village on the shore of Lake Titicaca, in the Puno region of Peru. Maruja Inquilla, a local environmental activist, has been visiting villagers to alert them of the dangers lurking in their food and water, in connection with contamination in the Lake Titicaca. (AP Photo/Rodrigo Abd)

 

In this Feb. 4, 2017 photo, a child holds a bowl of hot food as the Avila family has lunch at their home in Coata, a small village on the shore of Lake Titicaca in the Puno region of Peru. Lake Titicaca was once worshipped by Incas who proclaimed its deep blue waters the birthplace of the sun, but today high levels of mercury, cadmium, zinc and copper are found in the fish locals consume, according to a 2014 government study. (AP Photo/Rodrigo Abd)

 

In this Feb. 3, 2017 photo, Maria Avila moves her flock of sheep in Coata, a small village on the shores of Lake Titicaca in the Puno region of Peru. Avila, the mother of a 4-year-old living in an adobe house, says she cannot bathe or drink the lake's water without getting severe diarrhea or red spots on her skin. (AP Photo/Rodrigo Abd)

 

In this Feb. 3, 2017 photo, the Avila family fishes on the Coata River, which flows into Lake Titicaca, in the Puno region of Peru. Untreated sewage water drains from two dozen nearby cities, and illegal gold mines high in the Andes dump up to 15 tons of mercury a year into the river leading to the lake. (AP Photo/Rodrigo Abd)

 

In this Feb. 3, 2017 photo, trash covers the shores of Lake Titicaca where environmental activist Maruja Inquilla talks to locals in Coata, in the Puno region of Peru. Inquillla is alerting neighboring villagers of the dangers lurking in their food and water. “If the frogs could talk they would say, ‘This is killing me,’” she said. (AP Photo/Rodrigo Abd)

 

In this Feb. 4, 2017 photo, Maria Avila feeds her daughter Shomara in their family's adobe home in Coata, a village on the shored of Lake Titicaca in the Puno region of Peru. Avila grew angry as she talked about the lake’s contamination. “My ancestors have lived here more than 500 years. They have never gone through these things,” she said. (AP Photo/Rodrigo Abd)

 

In this Feb. 2, 2017 photo, children play inside a church in Kapi Cruz Grande, a community on the shores of Lake Titicaca in the Puno region of Peru. Many living on the 4,000-meter (13,100-feet) high plain surrounding the lake contaminated with toxic levels of lead and mercury feel government leaders have neglected them. (AP Photo/Rodrigo Abd)

 

In this Feb. 1, 2017 photo, Maria Jose Campos Inquilla stands next to the trash-filled Torococha River near a municipal waste treatment plant that feeds into Lake Titicaca, in Juliaca, in the Puno region of Peru. In 2011, then-presidential candidate Ollanta Humala promised to resolve the contamination and construct water sewage processing plants. He won 79 percent of votes in the Lake Titicaca region but did not follow through. (AP Photo/Rodrigo Abd)

 

In this Feb. 2, 2017 photo, a woman carries her baby home in Kapi Cruz Grande, a village on the trash filled shores of Lake Titicaca in the Puno region of Peru. Peru’s new president, Pedro Pablo Kuczynski, a former Wall Street banker who lived just 40 kilometers (25 miles) from the lake as a youth, has made access to clean water one of the priorities of his presidency. (AP Photo/Rodrigo Abd)

 

In this Feb. 1, 2017 photo, environmental activist Maruja Inquilla, left, walks with Auroro Belisario Pacompia at a municipal waste treatment plant whose waters flow into Lake Titicaca, in Juliaca, in the Puno region of Peru. Inquillla is alerting neighboring villagers of the dangers lurking in their food and water. (AP Photo/Rodrigo Abd)

 


Text from AP news story, Lake worship by Incans now littered with trash, by Franklin Briceno

Photos by Rodrigo Abd

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