Death of a Lake
From the distance a glimmer of light, it must be the sun reflecting on the lake’s surface. We’ve been told at the Fishing village of Llillipati that a little water has come back. They also told us that the last time they saw a fish was three years back. People here keep their fishing nets at home ready. The boats are out on the dry lake waiting for a miracle. We approach the shores of lake Popoo on the FLYER eBikes pedalling inwards in Turbo mode as much as possible, until the mud becomes too heavy and we start to skid and sink. We continue by foot walking straight toward the distant silhouette of a fishing boat, floating on the edge between lake earth and sky.
Beside us in a marshy area a small stream of clear water flows towards the lake; a group of Flamingos pick in it and leave in a leisurely pace as we approach them. Our feet sink in a white salty mud that is turning crusty. We come across a Flamingo skeleton encrusted in the crusty mud then another one and another one. Countless birds must have died here others must have taken flight.
Tons of fish have been easily taken out during the gradual shrinking of the lake until the fish died apocalyptically. In 2014 on November the 18th more then 30 millions fishes died at once according to Juan Toroni Lapaca head of the Oruro fishermen’s cooperatives.
We walk and walk the ebikes disappear in the distance. The sky is blue, islands simmering in front of us. Everything is light or mirroring light glaringly intensely blindingly. For a moment it feels as if we’re walking on water as the sky is reflected on the dry lake’s surface.
In the town of Oruro we’re invited by Sister Roxana head of Caritas Oruro to attend the monthly meeting of the Oruro Fishermen’s federation. An organisation supported by Caritas Oruro that represents 736 families and 17 fishing cooperatives directly affected by the disappearance of lake Popoo.
Community leaders and elders chair the meeting. The basketball field sized hall is filled with about 120 people. The place has no ventilation it smells strongly of the coca leaves that are chewed profusely. Sister Roxana introduces me; thanks to her introduction I’m able to portrait the people in the hall. Unwilling at first, after a few volunteers the fishermen and women their leaders begin appear in front of my lens. It’s a fast portrait session four or five clicks per person or group. We write down names and the names of the community they belong to. Later I’m told that it would be better not to publish the names, as people are afraid of possible government’s reprisal.
Here we learn more about the drying of Lake Popoo. In October we’re told you can walk from one shore to the other of the lake or from Llillipati to Orinoca, the birthplace of Bolivia’s president Evo Morales, without getting your feet wet.
Fishermen and women tell us that the drying of the lake is partly due to droughts combined with the steady rise in temperature and evaporation rate due to climate change. But the main culprit they say is the diversion for mining and agriculture from the Desaguadero River, the source of 90% of the lake’s water. They also blame a dam constructed in the town of Desaguadero by the Titicaca Lake under an international agreement between Bolivia and Peru. The agreement they say favours Peru heavily allowing only a little water to flow into the Bolivian side unless the lakes risks overflowing.
The drying of lake Popoo has happened in the past but now the fishermen and women are afraid that the lake will stay dry forever. They are asking the government to help them with food and shelter and alternative means of living. Most of all the leaders, are convinced that a constant dredging of the Desaguadero riverbed would be golden bullet solution, allowing the waterflow to reach the lakes catchment area again. An expensive plan.