Sunday, September 13, 2015

Lake Atitlan Is In Trouble

Lake Atitlán is the second-most visited attraction in Guatemala, after Tikal. The lake is renowned for its beauty, and if you’ve been following my blog, you know that I'm entranced by this lovely place as well.

Unfortunately, the lake is not as perfect as it seems in glossy photos. This year we are experiencing another bloom of cyanobacteria that is reportedly covering 70% of the lake’s surface. The last bloom of this size was in 2009 and made news headlines even outside of Guatemala.

Cyanobacteria occurs naturally in the lake but creates a problem when it becomes overgrown due to high nutrient levels in the lake, most notably phosphorus and nitrogen. Nitrogen and phosphorus come from untreated sewage being dumped into the lake, from pesticides and fertilizers, and from washing chemicals found in soaps. The algae flourishes by eating the chemicals; it’s doing its job to clean the lake. However, this process starves the other plants and animals of the oxygen they need, which creates more decaying matter in the lake.

Here's a picture I took of the algae at the lakeshore right in Panajachel.
Cyanobacteria in Lake Atitlán.

It not only looks bad, but is stinky and goopy. I’ve seen some people swimming in it, but most people are avoiding it. Last week, I met some friendly tourists who were biking along our road searching for a clean place to swim. It must be shocking to people who arrive at Lake Atitlán expecting the most beautiful lake in the world and instead finding a smelly green mess.

AMSCLAE is the authority in charge of the lake. They are coordinating with various government departments within Guatemala, as well as organizations in other countries. They have received advice from scientists who have worked to clean up Lake Tahoe in the United States and Lake Como in Italy.

This is a contentious issue in Guatemala, with both locals and expats. Just recently, the government finally released a $10 million grant that had been sitting in red-tape limbo for almost seven years. The grant had been matched by Spain, but bureaucracy had kept it from being earmarked for projects. I'm not too familiar with what's going on, but there's a very informative article about this at Sherm Davis' blog. Check it out!

There are mixed reactions to the announced plans to “save” the lake. It is a hot topic on Facebook and in cafës around town. I've heard everything from cautious optimism to flat out scorn. "It will never happen," said one long-term resident. Another common sentiment is that the money will never get to what it's supposed to and instead end up in a politician's or gang leader's pocket.

Me, I’m optimistic and excited, but those feelings are dampened by the opinions of the wiser expat residents around the lake. They have been here longer than me and know “how things work”. But still, I hope that this grant is a sign of change. Guatemala is a spirited country whose people who are no longer afraid to protest their corrupt government. I sincerely hope the power of the people’s voices can resound loud enough to overcome the negativity and restore Lake Atitlán to its former glory.

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