Poopó Lake

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Poopó Lake
Lago Poopó
Poopo 1991.jpg
Location Altiplano
Coordinates 18°33′S 67°05′W / 18.550°S 67.083°W / -18.550; -67.083Coordinates: 18°33′S 67°05′W / 18.550°S 67.083°W / -18.550; -67.083
Type Endorheic salt lake
Primary inflows River Desaguadero
Primary outflows evaporation
Catchment area 27,700 km2
Basin countries Bolivia
Surface area 1,000 km2
Average depth > 1 m
Surface elevation 3,686 m
Settlements Oruro
Challapata, Huari
Designated 11 July 2002
The top photo shows the lake with low water levels, exposing large tracts of salt and mud flats. Rainfall afterwards resulted in flooding of Poopó with muddy waters from the Desaguadero River. The lower shows the extent of flooding of the western salt flats sufficient to create an ephemeral island — as shown by the rectangle.

Poopó Lake (Spanish: Lago Poopó) is a large saline lake located in a shallow depression in the Altiplano Mountains in Bolivia at an altitude of approximately 3,700 metres. Because the lake is long and wide (90 km by 32 km) it makes up the eastern half of the Oruro Department, a mining region in southwest Bolivia. The permanent part of the lake body covers approximately 1,000 km2. The lake receives most of its water from the Desaguadero River which flows from Lake Titicaca at the north end of the Altiplano. Since the lake lacks any major outlet and has a mean depth of no more than 3 m, the surface area varies greatly.[1]

The lake has been designated as a site for conservation under the Ramsar Convention.[2]

Archaeological evidence[edit]

Archaeological investigations conducted by the San Andres University of La Paz, Bolivia, shows the influence of the Wankarani culture on the Poopo area where complex central urban areas such as villages and towns were developed that expanded into the Poopo basin during the Late Formative period, (200 BCE – 200 CE), probably in conjunction with changing patterns of agriculture. Herders and the life style of llama caravan merchants coexisted with more sedentary farmers in a harmonious system of exchange of goods and services. Other investigators examining the following period, the Early Regional Developments (approx. 300 - 900 CE), shows that the size of the inhabited areas increased. The South Poopo inhabitants developed a unique style of ceramics style with triangular spirals. The Huari[disambiguation needed] at the east portion of the lake displays an important Tiwanaku enclave, with ceramic styles from the core Titicaca area and surrounding styles, demonstrating the interactions between different peoples in the area.[3]

Lake dynamics[edit]

Poopó Lake gets the majority of its water (roughly 92%) from the Desaguadero River which enters the lake at the north end. There are numerous smaller inlets along the eastern shore of the lake, many of which are dry most of the year. At times of very high water levels, Poopó is connected to the salt desert Salar de Coipasa in the west. A minor outlet also leads to Salar de Uyuni in the far south of the Altiplano, but as the lake lacks any major outlet it is classified as an endorheic basin.

When the water level of Titicaca Lake drops below 3,810 m, the flow of Desaguadero River is so low it can no longer compensate for the massive water losses due to evaporation from the surface of Poopó Lake. At this point, the lake volume begins to decrease. At its maximum in 1986, the lake had an area of 3,500 km2. During the years that followed, the surface area steadily decreased until 1994 when the lake disappeared completely. The time period between 1975 and 1992 is the longest period in recent times with a continuous existence of a water body.

Lake Titicaca basin's drainage system, for the most part, is able to provide Titicaca with enough water to retain its status as a freshwater lake although its evaporation rate is so high.[4]

Salinity and geology[edit]

Fishing in Lake Poopó is low scale and is carried out using rowing boats and small nets. The image shows boats owned by fishermen from Llapallapani

The water of Poopó Lake is highly saline. The salinity is a result of the endorheic nature of the hydrological system on the Altiplano, which allows all weathered ions to remain in the system. The salinity of Poopó Lake is further enhanced by the lack of outlet, the arid climate and the high evaporation from the lake surface.

In the northern end of Poopó Lake there is a dilution with freshwater from Desaguadero River. This results in a salt gradient of higher values towards the south.

The salinity varies with water volume. During October – November 2006 the salinity in the north end of the lake varied between brackish and saline (15-30,000 mg/l). In the south end of the lake the water was classified as a brine (105,000- 125,000 mg/l). The water type is a 4-2 Na-(Mg)-Cl-(SO4).

Geological sources of NaCl such as halite and feldspars are present in the drainage area. These could also contribute to the salinity of Lake Poopó. The lake body is situated on top of Cenozoic deposits, consisting mainly of unconsolidated material. These sediments are the remains of extensive prehistoric lakes, which covered the Altiplano during at least five glaciation periods.

Mining and heavy metals[edit]

There is a long tradition of mining in the Poopó Basin. Extraction of metals began in the 13th century to support the Inca army. After the Spanish colonization in the 16th century, the mining operations became more large scale. At this point the region got its current identity as one of the mining centres of Bolivia.

Salt crystals in footprints on the shore of Lake Poopó

The mining districts are situated at the foothills of the Cordillera Oriental along the eastern border of the Poopó basin. The economically most important minerals are silver and tin.

Studies have shown elevated concentrations of heavy metals in surface and ground waters of the Poopó basin. These metals are naturally present in the bedrock, from which they are released through weathering processes. The mining activities in the area further contributes to the heavy metal pollution. Acid leaching from mines and mechanical processing of ore speed up the process.

The major part of the heavy metals transported to Lake Poopó seem to be immobilized in the bottom sediments. Still, concentrations of arsenic, lead and cadmium in the lake water exceed Bolivian and WHO guideline values for drinking water.

Flora and fauna[edit]

Three to four native fish species inhabit the lake: the Mauri (a Trichomycterus catfish), and the Carache and Ispi (Orestias spp.). Two exotic fish species were introduced in the 20th century; the rainbow trout[5] (trucha) in 1942 and the silversides Odontesthes bonariensis (pejerrey) in 1955. These bigger fish are now the most commercially important species. The lake has a relatively large fish population although it declines during the years of low water when the salinity is high.

The aquatic bird life is highly diverse with a total of 34 species. Most famous are the three types of flamingos which mainly live in the shallow lagoons in the northern and eastern parts of the lake. An inventory of the bird population, made in the year 2000 in cooperation with BirdLife International, identified 6 endangered species. Among these are the Chilean flamingo and the Andean condor.

A total of 17 superior plants and 3 species of algae have been identified in and around Lake Poopó. Due to the constant drought and flooding, the littoral zone experiences great disturbances. As a result, there is hardly any vegetation to be found on the shores of the lake.


  1. ^ "Lake Poopo". Encyclopædia Britannica. Retrieved 2007-07-18. 
  2. ^ "Contracting Parties to the Ramsar Convention on Wetlands". Ramsar.org. Archived from the original on 2007-07-11. Retrieved 2007-07-18. 
  3. ^ "Central places formation at the southern Poopo lake basin". Uppsala Universitet. Archived from the original on 2007-06-09. Retrieved 2007-07-18. 
  4. ^ "geography of Bolivia". Encyclopædia Britannica. Retrieved 2007-07-18. 
  5. ^ "Aquaculture Development in Sistan-Baluchestan 2005 - 2008" (PDF). Retrieved 2007-07-20. 
  • Drever, James I: The Geochemistry of Natural Waters, 3rd edition, Prentice Hall, 1997.
  • Montes de Oca; Geografia y Recursos Naturales de Bolivia, 3rd Edition, EDOBOL, La Paz, 1997.
  • Rocha, O.O. (editor): “Diagóstico de los recursos naturales y culturales de los lagos Poopó y Uru Uru, Oruro – Bolivia”. Convención RAMSAR, WCS/Bolivia, La Paz, 2002.
  • Troëng, B., Riera-Kilibarda C. Mapas temáticos de recursos minerales de Bolivia, Boletin del Servicio geológico de Bolivia N 7, La Paz, 1996.

External links[edit]