Symbol Of Andean Purity, Lake Titicaca Risks Environmental Nightmare

Traditional local populations are facing the brunt of the environmental fallout in the massive lake between Bolivia and Peru.

On the polluted shores of Lake Titicaca
On the polluted shores of Lake Titicaca
Frédéric Faux

PACHIRI â€" This small Bolivian village of adobe houses sits at the end of a peninsula that juts into Lake Titicaca. Several fields are visible in Pachiri's surroundings, where women sort crops on the ground as a handful of llamas, their ears decorated with multicolored ribbons, cross the Altiplano.

The ochrous outline of the shoreline, fringed by eucalyptus, and the deep blue sky â€" we are at an altitude of nearly 4,000 meters (13,000 ft) â€" form a picture-postcard landscape. But in one quick gesture, local farmer Mario Mamani, turns it into a nightmare.

“Look," he exclaims, brandishing black roots of a reed just ripped up from the edge of the lake. "The roots are completely asphyxiated â€" the algae we use to dry on our fields has contaminated the soil. Fish are dying, and we can’t even water our quinoa and potato crops. The lake water is filthy ... We’re doomed!”

We are in the bay of Cohana, where the rivers running from El Alto finally meet Lake Titicaca, in an industrial suburb of La Paz, the Bolivian capital. The rivers, visible between banks of totoras â€" Titicaca’s typical reeds â€" carry along heavy and putrid water. They've spawned endemic pollution, particularly alarming when we consider that this “small lake” is on average less than 10 meters deep.

But since last April, a new phenomenon alerted lakeside residents. Huge patches of green algae appeared, drifted and decomposed, giving off an unbearable stench. Much of the fauna, deprived of oxygen, did not survive, including renowned giant Titicaca water frogs studied by the great French underwater explorer Jacques Cousteau in the 1970s.

Lake Titicaca's green algae â€" Photo: Rocco Lucia

“On the beaches of Brittany (France), unfortunately, we are used to phenomena like eutrophication due to an excess of nutrient, but it’s the first time that it's happened here,” confirms Xavier Lazzaro, a biologist at the French Institute of Research for the Development, who has been studying the waters of Titicaca for more than 30 years.

For the researcher, this exceptional episode in an Andean tropical lake known to be very poor in organic matter, is a result of a growing population on the shores, combined with unusually long rainfalls. “The rains flowed down the coast and carried along nutrients but also waste water that discharge directly into the lake," he explains. "This oversupply fostered the growth of algae that ended up occupying one third of the lake for more than one month. We’ve never seen anything like this.”

Today, there are three million inhabitants in the catchment basin and no purification plant has proven effective. On the Bolivian side, the main problem is El Alto. In this sprawling and flat city â€" well-known destination for all migrants from the Altiplano and home to 1.2 million inhabitants â€" 130 factories operate, 60% of which illegally.

Action plans and promises

On the Peruvian side, the city of Puno discharges its waters without any treatment. Recent research also shows significant levels of heavy metals â€" mining residue in the Andes â€" and antibiotics. “Lake Titicaca is divided between Bolivia and Peru, which makes the compilation of data difficult," says Lazzaro. "Of all the large lakes in the world, it’s the last one that doesn’t benefit from regular scientific monitoring.”

Llamas on the Bolivian shore of Lake Titicaca â€" Photo: Matthew Straubmuller

In any case, the green algae episode was a wake-up call for locals. Lake Titicaca, considered the highest navigable lake in the world, was until then seen as the symbol of Andean purity. That is where the founders of the Inca Empire are believed to have started their combative hike, at the foot of a cordillera, which rises to over 6,000 meters (20,000 ft). It is a mythology incompatible with images of dead fish floating in greenish water.

The presidents of Peru and Bolivia, who met on June 23, are expected to carry out a joint action plan. Lima has already planned to construct 10 treatment plants for the sum of $470 million. In La Paz, authorities mobilized hundreds of volunteers to clean the lake’s tributaries, before launching a call for projects.

“We’ve received more than 50 proposals from research centers or organizations that have ideas for protecting the lake," says Bolivian Environment Minister Alexandra Moreira. "Titicaca is a national symbol for Bolivia, people are committed.”

These announcements, which made national headlines, went unnoticed in Pachiri. Here, on the shores of a lake supposed to be one of the purest of the planet, inhabitants of Aymara origin equip the roof of their houses to capture rainwater. “We need to act quickly," explains the farmer, Mario Mamani. "After school, more and more of our youth choose to leave to start a new life elsewhere. Look at the hills around us: It’s desert and dry. Without water, we can’t live.”

Nearby, the local village chief, a traditional staff slung over his shoulder, does not hide his fatalism. “It’s true that government officials came once to make promises," he says. "They had their pictures taken and left. Don’t know if we’ll ever see them again.”

Keep up with the world. Break out of the bubble.
Sign up to our expressly international daily newsletter!

7 Ways The Pandemic May Change The Airline Industry For Good

Will flying be greener? More comfortable? Less frequent? As the world eyes a post-COVID reality, we look at ways the airline industry has been changing through a pandemic that has devastated air travel.

Ready for (a different kind of) takeoff?

Carl-Johan Karlsson

It's hard to overstate the damage the pandemic has had on the airline industry, with global revenues dropping by 40% in 2020 and dozens of airlines around the world filing for bankruptcy. One moment last year when the gravity became particularly apparent was when Asian carriers (in countries with low COVID-19 rates) began offering "flights to nowhere" — starting and ending at the same airport as a way to earn some cash from would-be travelers who missed the in-flight experience.

More than a year later today, experts believe that air traffic won't return to normal levels until 2024.

But beyond the financial woes, the unprecedented slowdown in air travel may bring some silver linings as key aspects of the industry are bound to change once back in full spin, with some longer-term effects on aviation already emerging. Here are some major transformations to expect in the coming years:

Cleaner aviation fuel

The U.S. administration of President Joe Biden and the airline industry recently agreed to the ambitious goal of replacing all jet fuel with sustainable alternatives by 2050. Already in a decade, the U.S. aims to produce three billion gallons of sustainable fuel — about one-tenth of current total use — from waste, plants and other organic matter.

While greening the world's road transport has long been at the top of the climate agenda, aviation is not even included under the Paris Agreement. But with air travel responsible for roughly 12% of all CO2 emissions from transport, and stricter international regulation on the horizon, the industry is increasingly seeking sustainable alternatives to petroleum-based fuel.

Fees imposed on the airline industry should be funneled into a climate fund.

In Germany, state broadcaster Deutsche Welle reports that the world's first factory producing CO2-neutral kerosene recently started operations in the town of Wertle, in Lower Saxony. The plant, for which Lufthansa is set to become the pilot customer, will produce CO2-neutral kerosene through a circular production cycle incorporating sustainable and green energy sources and raw materials. Energy is supplied through wind turbines from the surrounding area, while the fuel's main ingredients are water and waste-generated CO2 coming from a nearby biogas plant.

Farther north, Norwegian Air Shuttle has recently submitted a recommendation to the government that fees imposed on the airline industry should be funneled into a climate fund aimed at developing cleaner aviation fuel, according to Norwegian news site E24. The airline also suggested that the government significantly reduce the tax burden on the industry over a longer period to allow airlines to recover from the pandemic.

Black-and-white photo of an ariplane shot from below flying across the sky and leaving condensation trails

High-flying ambitions for the sector

Joel & Jasmin Førestbird

Hydrogen and electrification

Some airline manufacturers are betting on hydrogen, with research suggesting that the abundant resource has the potential to match the flight distances and payload of a current fossil-fuel aircraft. If derived from renewable resources like sun and wind power, hydrogen — with an energy-density almost three times that of gasoline or diesel — could work as a fully sustainable aviation fuel that emits only water.

One example comes out of California, where fuel-cell specialist HyPoint has entered a partnership with Pennsylvania-based Piasecki Aircraft Corporation to manufacture 650-kilowatt hydrogen fuel cell systems for aircrafts. According to HyPoint, the system — scheduled for commercial availability product by 2025 — will have four times the energy density of existing lithium-ion batteries and double the specific power of existing hydrogen fuel-cell systems.

Meanwhile, Rolls-Royce is looking to smash the speed record of electrical flights with a newly designed 23-foot-long model. Christened the Spirit of Innovation, the small plane took off for the first time earlier this month and successfully managed a 15-minute long test flight. However, the company has announced plans to fly the machine faster than 300 mph (480 km/h) before the year is out, and also to sell similar propulsion systems to companies developing electrical air taxis or small commuter planes.

New aircraft designs

Airlines are also upgrading aircraft design to become more eco-friendly. Air France just received its first upgrade of a single-aisle, medium-haul aircraft in 33 years. Fleet director Nicolas Bertrand told French daily Les Echos that the new A220 — that will replace the old A320 model — will reduce operating costs by 10%, fuel consumption and CO2 emissions by 20% and noise footprint by 34%.

International first class will be very nearly a thing of the past.

The pandemic has also ushered in a new era of consumer demand where privacy and personal space is put above luxury. The retirement of older aircraft caused by COVID-19 means that international first class — already in steady decline over the last decades — will be very nearly a thing of the past. Instead, airplane manufacturers around the world (including Delta, China Eastern, JetBlue, British Airways and Shanghai Airlines) are betting on a new generation of super-business minisuites where passengers have a privacy door. The idea, which was introduced by Qatar Airways in 2017, is to offer more personal space than in regular business class but without the lavishness of first class.

Aerial view of Rome's Fiumicino airport

Aerial view of Rome's Fiumicino airport

Hygiene rankings  

Rome's Fiumicino Airport has become the first in the world to earn "the COVID-19 5-Star Airport Rating" from Skytrax, an international airline and airport review and ranking site, Italian daily La Repubblica reports. Skytrax, which publishes a yearly annual ranking of the world's best airports and issues the World Airport Awards, this year created a second list to specifically call out airports with the best health and hygiene standards.

Smoother check-in

​The pandemic has also accelerated the shift towards contactless traveling, with more airports harnessing the power of biometrics — such as facial recognition or fever screening — to reduce touchpoints and human contact. Similar technology can also be used to more efficiently scan physical objects, such as explosive detection. Ultimately, passengers will be able to "check-in" and go through a security screening anywhere at the airports, removing queues and bottlenecks.

Data privacy issues

​However, as pointed out in Canadian publication The Lawyer's Daily, increased use of AI and biometrics also means increased privacy concerns. For example, health and hygiene measures like digital vaccine passports also mean that airports can collect data on who has been vaccinated and the type of vaccine used.

Photo of planes at Auckland airport, New Zealand

Auckland Airport, New Zealand

Douglas Bagg

The billion-dollar question: Will we fly less?

At the end of the day, even with all these (mostly positive) changes that we've seen take shape over the past 18 months, the industry faces major uncertainty about whether air travel will ever return to the pre-COVID levels. Not only are people wary about being in crowded and closed airplanes, but the worth of long-distance business travel in particular is being questioned as many have seen that meetings can function remotely, via Zoom and other online apps.

Trying to forecast the future, experts point to the years following the 9/11 terrorist attacks as at least a partial blueprint for what a recovery might look like in the years ahead. Twenty years ago, as passenger enthusiasm for flying waned amid security fears following the attacks, airlines were forced to cancel flights and put planes into storage.

40% of Swedes intend to travel less

According to McKinsey, leisure trips and visits to family and friends rebounded faster than business flights, which took four years to return to pre-crisis levels in the UK. This time too, business travel is expected to lag, with the consulting firm estimating only 80% recovery of pre-pandemic levels by 2024.

But the COVID-19 crisis also came at a time when passengers were already rethinking their travel habits due to climate concerns, while worldwide lockdowns have ushered in a new era of remote working. In Sweden, a survey by the country's largest research company shows that 40% of the population intend to travel less even after the pandemic ends. Similarly in the UK, nearly 60% of adults said during the spring they intended to fly less after being vaccinated against COVID-19 — with climate change cited as a top reason for people wanting to reduce their number of flights, according to research by the University of Bristol.

At the same time, major companies are increasingly forced to face the music of the environmental movement, with several corporations rolling out climate targets over the last few years. Today, five of the 10 biggest buyers of corporate air travel in the US are technology companies: Amazon, IBM, Google, Apple and Microsoft, according to Taipei Times, all of which have set individual targets for environmental stewardship. As such, the era of flying across the Atlantic for a two-hour executive meeting is likely in its dying days.

Keep up with the world. Break out of the bubble.
Sign up to our expressly international daily newsletter!