top of page

Lust for oil leeches life from lake Maracaibo

Oceans and lakes are a source of life and sustenance, not only for animals but for humans too, with 17 percent of the world's meat coming from fish alone, but as unsustainable and controlled waste practices skyrocket, our bodies of water are becoming less capable of sustaining life and giving life.

Take, for example, lake Maracaibo, one of the world's oldest and biggest freshwater lakes; according to environmentalists who spoke to the Associated Press, Venezuela's once-booming oil industry has left the lake in a state of ecological destruction.

Over generations, excessive oil exploitation, poor maintenance of obsolete infrastructure, and a lack of waste treatment plants contributed to the lake's pollution, located about 600 kilometers (372 miles) west of Caracas.

Many miles of pipes lie at its bottom, where crude oil leaks are frequent.

It also serves as a wastewater reservoir for the states of Zulia, Mérida, and Trujillo, which encompass 5.3 million people, and the Colombian department of Norte de Santander.

Creator: HENRY CHIRINOS | Credit: EFE

Fertilizers, sewage, and other chemicals are discharged into lake Maracaibo, causing high nitrogen and phosphorus concentrations.

This has led to the growth of cyanobacteria, specifically microcystin, which produces 95 percent of what is locally called "verdin," a greenish, toxic microalgae that occupies much of the lake's waters, says Beltrán Briceño, professor at Zulia University and head of the microbiology department at the Maracaibo Institute of Agricultural Research.

The excessive growth of microcystin has caused the lake's waters to become greenish and occupied by this toxic microalgae.

The sources of nitrogen and phosphorus in lake Maracaibo include sewage, human and animal fecal matter, agricultural fertilisers from nearby farms, and oil leaking from rusted pipelines.

These pollutants have contaminated the lake, causing harm to the ecosystem.

The green algae formed by the excessive nutrients prevents sunlight from reaching deeper into the lake, affecting plant life and oxygen generation necessary for the survival of animal life in the lake.

As a result of the toxins they generate, cyanobacteria can cause severe damage to both aquatic animals and humans. Cyanobacteria are responsible for widespread fish deaths.

Fish stocks at lake Maracaibo decline every day, and pollution degrades the health of this great freshwater lake, fishermen say.

Speaking to AP, José Aular, a 61-year-old fisherman who says he developed a skin rash because of the lake’s contamination, noted that the fish no longer come near the shores of the lake because the microalgae “drowns them.”

Environmentalists say oil pollution in lake Maracaibo began at the beginning of the 20th century but worsened in the early 1930s when a canal was excavated at the lake's northern end to allow large oil tankers to navigate and connect the lake with the open sea. Seawater flowed in, killing freshwater wildlife, such as plants and fish.

In the past, fishermen would catch 700 kilos of shrimp almost every time, says Yordi Vica, 33, a fisherman. He says they spend days at sea only to come home with eight kilos (17 pounds).

The spill of crude oil in the lake smears fishing boats, clogs outboard motors, and stains nets, so fishermen cannot cast their nets anywhere for fear of being damaged.

Lake Maracaibo in Venezuela has been badly polluted due to dilapidated oil wells and pipelines. (

The lake's pollution has been building for decades, but now it's being felt on its coast with its bad smells, oil spills, and microalgae, warns Briceño from the University of Zulia.

“There is no magic formula” to rescue the lake if it continues to be used as a “septic tank,” he warns.

(Callan Williamson)


bottom of page