Pollution Threatens Guatemala's Lake Atitlán

December 17, 2009

by Kara Andrade

In a pretend conversation written in Una Hoja de Papel, a child asks his grandfather what Guatemala's Lake Atitlán—Central America’s deepest lake—was once like. "It was very beautiful, crystal clear waters, you could see through the waters to the pebbles on the shore," the grandfather recalls. "It was once nominated as one of the seven wonders of the natural world. The couples chose this destination to spend their honeymoon. Undoubtedly, an enigmatic place of quiet waters and unparalleled splendor." "But, what happened?" the grandson asked. "Simple, we stood idly with our arms crossed," the grandfather said.

Today Lake Atitlan—located within an hour’s drive of Antigua—is drowning in a film of green scum. NASA pictures taken just a few weeks show the lake as massive swirls of blue-green algae or cyanobacteria that, besides looking ugly and foreboding, literally make the lake stink. A result of long-term, excessive pollution.

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The situation has gained attention from international media and local publications like Prensa Libre and The Revue. The lake even earned the unfortunate distinction the “Threatened Lake of the Year 2009” by the Global Nature Fund. But is it human pollution or an environmental imbalance that has caused the lake to enter a coma and possibly an impending death?

While some believe that the lake is polluted by Escherichia coli or untreated fecal matter from hotels and residents, others trace it back to rising temperatures (2 degrees Celsius according to Margaret Dix, a scientist at the Universidad del Valle de Guatemala). Another hypothesis is that the bacteria thrive on too much phosphorous, which is found in fertilizer and soap. 

"It's not the contamination that caused this," said Juan Skinner Vice-President of Pro Lago Atitlan, an all-volunteer nonprofit founded in 2002. "Reducing the contamination is like reducing the sugar intake for a person with diabetes. You can reduce what worsens diabetes, but you can't get rid of diabetes." According to Skinner an environmental imbalance was caused by the introduction in 1958 of non-native black bass to attract more tourists.  The International Lake Environment Committee Foundation documents how this phenomenon is not unique to Guatemala.

Much finger pointing has ensued about the causes of the pollution. Now locals, environmentalists, nonprofits, and government officials are wondering why a decades-old problem was not prevented. The cyanobacteria was found in 1976. What is clear is that something needs to be done quickly.

The Guatemalan government released an official action plan in November to confront the problem. The 32 immediate action steps include: a gradual ban on the use of inorganic fertilizers; the construction of septic tanks; and the building of 15 water treatment systems that include regular residual phosphorus reduction. The plan also calls for implementation of radio campaigns and trainings in five languages—Tzutuhil, Quiche, Cakchiquel, Spanish, and English—to educate people on how to protect the lake and the environment. Organizations like Salvemos Atitlan are making their own recommendations. The estimated cost for saving the lake is a mere $37.8 million (Q.310,000,000) but there is no source yet for this needed funding.

In the wake and deadlock of the UN climate summit in Copenhagen the looming question is: will all the money, clean up crews, septic tanks, and phosphate reduction make the damage to the lake reversible? "I have lost hope," said Skinner who believes strongly in local accountability. "The only hope is that it will fix itself." Clearly, it’s time for action or Guatemala may lose one of its prized natural attractions.

*Kara Andrade is a guest blogger to She is a Central American-based freelance journalist who has worked as a multimedia producer and photojournalist for Agence France-Presse, Associated Press, San Jose Mercury News, and Oakland Tribune, among other publications.


Tags: Guatemala, Lago Atitlan, pollution

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