07/02/2009 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Lake Titicaca Is Full of Sh*t

No, really. It is.

Back in seventh-grade Spanish class, when they showed us educational films about South America and we first heard this lake's name, we laughed our heads off. Both halves of "Titicaca" were hilarious. Not to be all twelve-years-old about this, but according to Peruvian government scientists, these days the lake is living up to its name, at least the last half. I know -- gross!!

According to Peru's Environment Ministry, over 12 million cubic meters of raw sewage are dumped into Lake Titicaca every year.

A slide show in yesterday's El Comercio details the lake's current state and how it got this way. I've translated the captions (thanks again, middle-school Spanish), which explain that Titicaca, the world's highest navigable lake and one of Peru's most important tourist attractions, is "an ecosystem menaced by contamination. Because it is part of a closed basin with many rivers and tributaries flowing into it but not to the sea, contaminants that enter Titicaca have little chance of escaping."

The main source of pollution is the lakeshore city of Puno, population just over 100,000. Puno produces 100 metric tons of solid waste every day; much of it ends up in the lake, as does some 70 percent of Puno's untreated liquid waste. This comes not only from homes but also includes runoff from hospitals, factories, tanneries and slaughterhouses: "It carries a toxic cargo of organic materials which compose and produce methane. (Methane is cited as one of the precursors of global warming.)"

Titicaca's dire state was first detected in the 1980s, when its water began stinking and large numbers of fish floated to the surface, belly-up.

A sure sign that water is contaminated is "the parasitic plant known as the lemna gibba or green water lentil" -- it's a kind of duckweed -- "which grows in aquatic environments into which urban runoff is continually discharged. This plant reproduces with the rapidity of a plague. Within four days, a single 'lentil' produces ten shoots. It rapidly spreads across the water's surface, consuming oxygen and blocking sun rays. Without sunlight and oxygen, plants growing on the lakefloor die. The dead plants then create further contaminants." Fish and other wildlife also suffer.

Local industries provide further pollutants. Farm silos are one source, and gold miners wash truckloads of earth down perforated chutes. These chutes catch gold particles but send huge quantities of river water containing clay and infinitesimal metal bits back into the rivers, which then empty into the lake. Miners also continuously swirl silty water in pans containing mercury. The pans are emptied into the lake. According to El Comercio, an estimated 70 tons of liquid mercury contaminate the lake this way every year.

"Without sewage treatment facilities, this lake is doomed," a spokesman for Peru's Environment Ministry told reporters.

But sewage treatment facilities aren't in the foreseeable future: "For poor people living along Lake Titicaca's shores" and nearby, "the struggle to survive often takes precedence over protecting the environment."

Adios, lago.

(Because I'm a scavenger, and because I'm the coauthor of The Scavengers' Manifesto, people tend to expect me to be gross. Although I am not personally so gross, I think it's well worth scoping out some of the grossest things around the world as this can inform us, intrigue us, inspire us to change things, and/or at least freak us out.)