As I look out this bright mid-afternoon in this middle of the dry season, Lake Atitlán is in its gloriously shimmering element, all abuzz with dancing movement and vibrant light. As is normal, the winds swept a front across the lake south west to north east around noon, erasing the calm serenity of the morning. Whenever at the lake, I like to take a swim, straight off the dock if possible, bathing in the clear cobalt-blue waters, with the deep blue sky reflected on the surface.
It would be nice to think that the pristine-looking waters of this mesmerizing 1,100-foot deep caldera lake will always remain as clear and clean as they have been historically. But sadly, Lake Atitlán already faces immense ecological pressures.
Bacteria counts are on the rise, especially at certain pressure points, where effluent of sewage and chemicals enter into the lake in increasing volume. Water quality is continuously monitored and anaysed by organizations such as Amigos de Atitlán (www.amigosatitlan.org), AMSCLAE (www.amsclae.gob.gt), the government authority for the sustainable management of the lake basin of Atitlán, and Save Lake Atitlan (www.savelakeatitlan.com).
Amigos de Atitlán reports: "After years of contamination, the lake has presented signs of severe environmental stress."
"The lake is going from oligotrophic – crystalline and potable waters - to mesotrophic – turbid and green – and if this degradation continues it will go on to become an eutrophic lake impossible to recuperate."
"The principal threats that must be addressed in short term are:
The use of the soil, which includes three principal factors: the expansion of the agricultural frontier, erosion, use of fertilizers, and use of agro chemicals.
"AMSCLAE, the authority responsible for the protection of Lake Atitlán presented in 2015 an initiative to develop a Master Plan for drinking water supply and wastewater treatment. This plan includes technology options, institutional framework and community consultations for the introduction of drinking water supply, sewerage and sewage export outside the Basin. Wastewater treatment plants installed in some municipalities are only part of the solution, treatment plants alone fail to remove pathogens and nutrients such as nitrogen and phosphorus that feed the cyanobacteria."
"Since the start of the Master Plan development, Amigos de Atitlán allowed for dialogue and has spread information of the plan at a national level. The association has gained support at all levels to stop wastewater from entering the lake. Additionally Amigos de Atitlán has promoted the comprehensive drainage system as the only feasible economic and environmental solution to preserve and restore Lake Atitlán."
Raw liquid sewage draining into the lake
"There are not enough wastewater treatment plants around Lake Atitlán to treat the ever-increasing amount of raw sewage produced by the area’s growing population. Most of the existing plants operate well below full capacity. They simply remove solids and do little to reduce the volume of pathogenic bacteria entering the lake. Only one of many planned new facilities has been built so far, and municipal authorities do not have the resources they need for maintenance and upgrading.
As a result, thousands of metric tons of raw sewage or improperly treated wastewater from households and businesses in more than 20 towns enter the lake each year. The ecosystem is under constant siege from putrefactive bacteria and other pathogens."
"Since the 1950s, local farmers have been pressured to abandon natural farming and instead use chemical fertilizers, pesticides, fungicides, and herbicides. These toxic products are highly subsidized, and poor farmers are strongly encouraged to use them copiously to boost their production. The fertilizers, which are particularly high in phosphorous, run off into the lake during the rainy season. Waste water from coffee processing is also acidic and high in natural effluents."
"Lake Atitlán is a ‘Protected Area’ under Guatemalan law, but commercial tilapia farms are being allowed to operate on a massive scale, even though all the nutrients that they leave in the lake are accelerating the destruction of the lake’s ecosystem."
A perennial problem is the lack of consensus as to how to proceed that often leads to paralysis, inertia, foot-dragging. Locals are understandably reticent to throw support behind large infrastructure projects, given the checkered history of granted funds being utilized as mandated. And where does the funding come from? How much control will municipalities and communities have over their own precious and finite resource - water? Who 'owns' the project? The future fate of the lake is far from clear, but bold concerted action from all stakeholders is called for.