The Miami Herald
Jul. 19, 2004
Peruvian lake project's obstacle: sewage

Critics say a Peruvian city's effort to beautify the waterfront on Lake Titicaca will only create a 'sewage treatment lagoon.'

Associated Press

PUNO, Peru - The mayor dreams of a sunny paddle-boat lagoon, but others worry the bay will become a de facto sewage treatment pond as officials try to solve a pollution problem plaguing Peru's main port on Lake Titicaca, the world's highest navigable lake.

The debate is over a 930-foot-long causeway of flagstone, marble and concrete that encloses 50 acres of Puno Bay.

Walking across the new Malecon Ecoturistico, city projects advisor Victor Catacora says the promenade is a key element in Puno's effort to beautify the waterfront. If the city wants to attract visitors, it will have to clean up the waters inside the walkway, he insists.

A fresh breeze blows in off the lake and yellow-shouldered blackbirds sing amid clumps of totora bulrush inside the lagoon as wild ducks poke about. ''Nature is making a comeback,'' Catacora said.

Two workers in a wooden rowboat scoop up tiny surface plants -- lemna gibba, or ''water lentils'' -- and grab the occasional plastic soda bottle floating in the carpet of vegetation.


To thousands of tourists each year, Puno is a quick stop on a trip to visit Lake Titicaca, which is more than two miles above sea level. Bordering Bolivia to the south, the lake covers 3,456 square miles, an area three times the size of Rhode Island.

Legend has it that the first Inca ruler, Manco Capac, and his wife, Mama Ocllo, rose out of the lake more than 600 years ago to march 185 miles northwest along the spine of the Andes to found Cuzco as their capital.

But for modern-day tourists to get out to the lake's Indian island communities, including the floating Uros Islands made of totora reeds, tour boats must first cut through the water lentils that cover much of Puno Bay.

Although the bright green plants appear natural against the immense blue sky, they are thriving because of sewage emptying into the bay.

For more than a decade, officials have worried that the human waste will turn off tourists.


Puno Mayor Mariano Portugal started building the causeway last year and plans to convert the enclosed lagoon into a scenic spot for canoes and paddle boats.

Designed by architecture students at Puno's University of the Altiplano, the attractive walkway is lined with wooden benches and astronomically aligned metal sculptures, known as sukankas in the highland Aymara language.

In addition to skimming the surface, work crews have also sunk 1.2 miles of three-inch-thick aeration tubing that will help resupply the enclosed lagoon with oxygen gobbled up by the water lentils.

''It's like an aquarium, only much larger,'' workman Juan Mamani saID of the bubbling tubes.

Another pipe running 660 feet out into the bay flushes water in and out of the lagoon, Catacora added.

But biologist Marco Revollar of the government-financed Bi-National Lake Titicaca Project says the lagoon cleanup is a superficial fix.

''What they have created is another sewage treatment lagoon that will be, in effect, cleaned by the oxygenation pumps. The first thing they have to do is stop the sewage from coming in from here,'' he said, stamping a finger on a map of the hillside neighborhoods above the bay.

That is the plan, says the city's water works director, Rosana Verolati.

The city started cracking down on waste last year to accompany the waterfront construction project, and so far about 85 percent of the houses above the lagoon have been connected to the city sewer system, she said.

Besides connecting homes to the sewage system, the city also plans to build a new treatment plant next year on the south side of town. The new plant will replace a treatment lagoon built on the same spot in 1972 when Puno was home to just 40,000 people, compared with 120,000 today, Verolati said.