GNF - Threatened Lake of the Year 2012

Threatened Lake of the Year 2012: 
Lake Titicaca in Peru and Bolivia


World Water Day in Puno, Peru

22 March 2012: CEDAS, a local environmental NGO, organized an information seminar for the Titicaca Lake as Threatened Lake of the Year 2012. They also joint a march for raising awareness of the existing problems at Lake Titicaca and for requesting help at local and international level. Global Nature Fund and the Living Lakes Network support the activities for Lake Titicaca.


Further information about the activities at Lake Titicaca ...

 March in Puno (22 March 2012)


Lake Titicaca is the largest freshwater lake in South America and the highest, commercially navigable body of water in the world.


In the barren plateau of the Andes, the Altiplano in Peru and Bolivia, Lake Titicaca was and continues to be of existential importance to the surrounding population due to its role as a source of drinking water and, thanks to its abundance of fish, of food. The Totora reeds are also still an important basis of life for the Urus, a small indigenous population, which lives on “swimming islands” on Lake Titicaca near Puno, Peru. They build their islands and huts along with boats for fishing out of the reeds.


Around 2 million people live in Lake Titicaca’s catchment area today. This has put high demands on all of the resources of the lake, the shore areas and the adjoining land. In past decades, the self-cleaning capacity of the lake was relied upon, causing the clarification of waste water in the catchment area to be carried out inadequately. The grave consequences of these failings can be seen in many places today. Together with the massive overuse of the lake, they account for the highly endangered status of the lake and threaten the future provision of livelihoods for many people and animals.

 Peninsulas in Lake Titicaca
 Lake Titicaca

Current Situation – Threats to the Lake

Untreated Sewage from Households and Industry

The sewage from the 118,000 person large city of Puno flows, largely untreated, into the northern section of Lake Titicaca. Only 20 % is treated in aerobic wastewater ponds. In Puno Bay, a large part of the water’s surface is covered in Duckweed, which spreads rapidly due to the high nutrient input. Aerobic and anaerobic microorganisms were used to hinder the spread of Duckweed in the past years along with mechanically removing the Duckweed from the lake. However the unabated nutrient input continues to promote the growth of Duckweed.


Even at the smaller, southern part of Lake Titicaca, the cleaning of waste water is inadequate. The Bolivian city of El Alto, with its 1.1 million inhabitants, lies about 60 km east of Cohana Bay and contributes massively to the pollution of the lake. The small waste water treatment plant has the capacity for 300,000 inhabitants. It has not met the actual need of the population for the past 15 years.


In addition to household sewage, untreated sewage from the food processing, leather, cement and timber industries flows into the lake’s many tributaries.

Pollution from Mines

Wastewater is also burdened with heavy metals such as zinc and mercury through numerous and sometimes illegal precious metal mining operations.

Pesticides and Fertilizers from Agriculture

Traditionally, different types of potatoes are grown around Lake Titicaca. The region is even known as the origin of potato farming. Grains such as corn, barley and quinoa are also counted among the region’s agricultural products, thanks to the microclimate created by the lake which allows these crops to grow despite the altitude’s otherwise adverse conditions.


In order to meet increasing food demands, larger and larger areas are being used for the cultivation of grains, vegetables and intensive agriculture. The use of yield-enhancing fertilizers has an additional negative impact on the soil and the water cycle. 

Declining Water Levels

Lake Titicaca is fed by 27 rivers and rainfall. For many years now the rainy season has been growing shorter and of the original six months it now rains only three. Here it is already possible to see the devastating consequences of climate change through a drastic water level drop. The amount of water in the river valley’s tributaries is also declining noticeably due to increasing water removal and water needed for drinking, irrigation and industrial use.


The lake’s declining water level and the now dry shore areas mean a loss of habitat and spawning and nesting areas for many animals and plants. The concentration of organic and chemical pollution in the water also increases dramatically because of this.

Fishing and Dairy Farming

The communities at Lake Titicaca traditionally live from fishing. Here the indigenous fish species like the Andes Ispi, Karachi, Humanto and Boga Carps played an important role. Since 1942, increasing numbers of foreign fish species like the Trucha (Trout) have been released into the lake on account of their faster growth. This has led to the decline of native species. Additionally, the deteriorating water quality has had a negative influence on fish stocks and, beginning in the 1980’s forced some fishermen to abandon their work. Many of them became ranchers and let their alpaca, sheep and cow herds graze around the lake. This structural change is the reason for the increasing overgrazing of the barren slopes.

First Measures to Improve the Situation

Since October 2008, USAID (United States Agency for International Development) has been working together with El Alto and other municipalities that contribute to the pollution, to eliminate the causes of contamination. Some branches of industry now partially use “clean” technologies in waste water treatment. In the long-term, two new waste water treatment plants will help improve the water quality in the Katari River and Cohana Bay by treating the waste water from El Alto. This requires substantial investment in the near future in order to protect the “holy lake” and its valuable services for people and nature in the long-term.


The Bolivian nature conservation organization TRÓPICO has been working together with the Global Nature Fund on a project to fight climate change at Lake Titicaca since December 2011. The population is informed about climate change and its consequences for their livelihoods through awareness-raising measures of an environmental education campaign. A further aspect of the project is the development of a climate change concept, through close cooperation with the municipal authority, for the city of La Paz. In this way the government, population and other stakeholders are actively included in project measures and problem solving.

 Duckweed covers the lake surface in Puno Bay.
 Extraction of Duckweed
 Sewage near the City Puno
 Map of Lake Ttitcaca
 Islands in the south of Lake Titicaca
 "Swimming island" of the Urus on Lake Titicaca
 Inhabitant on an Urus island


Lake Titicaca lies at an altitude of 3,810 m above sea-level in the north of the Andes plateau, the Altiplano. The lake stretches over 8,400km2 and is divided into two basins. The so-called Lago Huinaymarca is connected to the larger, northern Lago Chucuito only by the small (approx. 800 m wide) Tiquina waterway.


The first settlements around Lake Titicaca date back to 1,500 B.C. when the Aymara had their religious and administrative center there. The Incan empire stretched to Lake Titicaca in the 15th century A.D. The Urus, the still existing indigenous population of Lake Titicaca, protected themselves from hostilities during the rule of the Incas by staying on swimming islands they constructed. To this day the Urus live on their “islands” on the lake. Small groups of the Quechua peoples live on the Peruvian islands of Taquile and Amantaní. Traditional villages and many ruins from times past can also be found on the two “holy islands” on the Bolivian side of the lake, the Isla del Sol (Sun Island) and Isla de la Luna (Moon Island).


Since October 1978, large sections of the lake before Puno have become part of the “Reserva Nacional del Titicaca” nature preserve which encompasses about 362 sq. km. Lake Titicaca is a habitat for many endemic and, in some cases, endangered species including various bird, fish, and amphibian species. The entire lake has been designated as a Ramsar protectorate.


Lake Titicaca has been a member of the Global Nature Fund’s International Living Lakes Network since 2003.

Local Partner Organisations

The Peruvian environmental organization CEDAS (Centro de Desarrollo Ambiental y Social) headquartered in Puno and the Bolivian conservation association TRÓPICO based in La Paz have represented Lake Titicaca since its admission into the Living Lakes Network.

General Matters

Every year since 2004, the Global Nature Fund, an internationally active environmental foundation, announces the “Threatened Lake of the Year” on February 2nd, World Wetlands Day. This is done to promote awareness about the current local situation. The focus is on promoting policies and approaches for improving the environmental impacts on each lake.

Further information about Lake Titicaca are avaiable on our webpage.

 Island of the Urus
 City Copacabana in the south of the lake
 Isla de Sol (Sun Island)
 Settlements at Lake Titicaca