Contamination of Guatemala’s Lake Atitlán Threatens Livelihoods, Health of Residents

Seven years after experts confirmed that Lake Atitlán in southwestern Guatemala was contaminated with cyanobacteria, which is harmful to people and animals, little has been done to clean up the picturesque tourist destination where many Guatemalans also earn a livelihood.

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Contamination of Guatemala’s Lake Atitlán Threatens Livelihoods, Health of Residents

Norma Baján Balán, GPJ Guatemala

Fishermen who work on Lake Atitlán sell their catch at the local market. Amadeo López Sajvín, who lives in a municipality that borders the lake, has been fishing for 36 years and supports 10 children. But recent reports about the lake’s contamination have started to affect his sales as people are afraid of getting sick.

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PANAJACHEL, GUATEMALA – Arturo Yach Noj has been a boatman on Lake Atitlán, a lake in southwestern Guatemala’s Panajachel municipality, for about 45 years, he says. In decades past, he drank water directly from the lake.

“But now everything has changed,” Yach Noj says. “Our lake is contaminated.”

Yach Noj says he has known about this contamination for about seven years. But Yach Noj says he must continue working, even as rashes develop on his skin.

Yach Noj says he’s never visited a doctor for his skin reactions.

Tourists don’t buy fish. They distrust it because they think it’s from the lake.

Experts confirmed the presence of cyanobacteria in Lake Atitlán in 2009. The toxic strains of the bacteria can affect the liver, kidneys, central nervous system and skin of both humans and animals, and it has been linked to degenerative brain diseases.

Seven years later, the lake is still contaminated, says Margaret Dix, a researcher at the Altiplano campus at the Universidad del Valle de Guatemala. Dix coordinates and manages the monitoring and analysis for the laboratory at the university’s Centro de Estudios Atitlán, where researchers study the lake and find ways to preserve it.

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Norma Baján Balán, GPJ Guatemala

Boatman Arturo Yach Noj says he has known about Lake Atitlán’s contamination for about seven years and believes it is the cause of his occasional skin rashes. Even so, he says, he must continue working despite the risks.

The most recent cyanobacteria bloom, defined as a rapid multiplication of algae, was reported by the Autoridad para el Manejo Sustentable de la Cuenca del Lago de Atitlán y su Entorno (AMSCLAE) in August 2015, Dix says.

That report was based on samples tested by Dix’s university and AMSCLAE, the government institution that monitors the lake and implements conservation measures.

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The August bloom was the strongest since 2009, according to an AMSCLAE press release.

Cyanobacteria occurs naturally, and not every type is toxic. In the case of Lake Atitlán, the bacteria contains phosphorous.

The presence of phosphorous is evidence that the lake is contaminated with the sewage and fertilizers used in agriculture in the different communities in the Lake Atitlán basin, says Elsa María Reyes, a biologist and head of investigation and environmental quality at AMSCLAE.

It’s impossible to cover the costs. People don’t want to pay more.

No one is surprised by reports that the lake is polluted, Yach Noj says. The contamination is visible: When there is a cyanobacteria bloom, portions of the lake change colors, he says. Deep down, the water is brown, but toward the surface it is red. Plus, he says, it smells bad.

Panajachel is a popular tourist destination, says Hilda Emilia Xitamul Yac, the owner of Ricassoli Pizza Steak House restaurant on Panajachel’s main strip, but people now hesitate before buying seafood.

“Tourists don’t buy fish,” she says. “They distrust it because they think it’s from the lake.”

Xitamul Yac says AMSCLAE recommended she install a water biodigester system, which is essentially a small water treatment plant.

The system costs around 11,000 Guatemalan quetzales ($1,433), she says, and she would need to temporarily close the restaurant to install it. She can’t afford that, she says.

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Norma Baján Balán, GPJ Guatemala

Farmers, including those who work this land in Guatemala’s Sololá department, are using a special fertilizer that has been distributed by the government to help prevent further contamination of Lake Atitlán.

AMSCLAE is asking owners with a business around the lake, such as hotels, restaurants and bars, to hire one of their recommended advisors to visit their business and conduct an analysis of their use and treatment of water, says Elida Quino, the head of economic and sustainable development for AMSCLAE.

After this analysis, the consultant will recommend what type of system the business owner should install, she says. AMSCLAE does not pay the consultant’s fee or the installation of a system, she adds.

Reyes says AMSCLAE is aware that people have become ill after eating fish from the lake, but it’s difficult to confirm and document those cases, especially if the people who got sick are tourists and leave the area.

Everyone agrees the lake needs to be cleaned and contamination needs to stop, but those are expensive projects.

The government has a plan to build at least one wastewater treatment plant for each of the municipality’s 15 communities.

But once those plants are built, Panajachel municipality Mayor Abraham Mayén says, it’s not clear who will pay to maintain them.

But now everything has changed. Our lake is contaminated.

Panajachel already has a wastewater treatment plant, Mayén says. But it only serves 45 percent of the municipality’s population of over 19,000, as of 2015 government data. It costs about 100,000 quetzales ($13,028) per month to maintain the plant, but local people pay between five quetzales (65 cents) or 10 quetzales ($1.30) a month for the sewage system.

“It’s impossible to cover the costs,” Mayén says. “People don’t want to pay more.”

It’s not clear how the plant is funded, aside from contributions from local people.

Other communities will have the same problem if more plants are built, he says.

“I look at the master plan like a dream,” Mayén says.

The government has done some things to curb further pollution of the lake.

AMSCLAE repairs and conserves gullies and builds runoff barriers, Reyes says. The organization also distributes a special fertilizer, donated by the Guatemalan government, to farmers who live in the basin.

The organization also hosts events to help people understand what’s going on with the lake and learn about how to use its water.

AMSCLAE recommends that people avoid eating the lake’s fish and drinking its water. Recreational activity in the lake is risky, according to the organization.

But for fishermen who have long made their living on the water, the recommendations could have devastating consequences.

Agustin Sahon, 49, says he sold 75 quetzales ($9.77) to 125 quetzales ($16.29) worth of fish each day before the August cyanobacteria bloom.

But now that the lake looks different, Sahon sells about 40 quetzales ($5.21) worth of fish each day.

Like Yach Noj, Sahon spends long periods of time in the water.

“But what are we to do if it’s our means of livelihood for the family?” Sahon says.

Sahon has nine children. The oldest is 21 years old and the youngest is 4.

“All of them are in school,” he says. “Without fishing, this wouldn’t be possible.”


Rishi Khalsa, GPJ, translated this article from Spanish.