Guatemala: A national natural treasure is almost lost because of government indifference

By Mayra Beltran de Daetz

 


Guatemala — Lake Atitlan, located in the Department of Solola¡, has one of the most beautiful landscapes found anywhere in Guatemala. Its beauty has been compared with Switzerland’s lakes.

lake-atitlan.jpg

Along the margins of the lake, there are three imposing volcanos: Atitlan, Toliman and San Pedro. The lake is located at 1,560 meters at sea level and is 18 km long. Its depth varies and at many points it is not known, but drilling has reached depths of more than 350 meters.

In reviewing the history of the scientific origin of the most beautiful “Lake of the World,” as Atitlan is called, there are two versions. One version says that the lake is an old dead crater. The other is that the sprouting volcanoes interrupted the course of three rivers coming from the north. When the rivers reunited, their waters created the lake. The lake does not have visible water drainage.

The lake is surrounded by 12 colorful little towns that are called the twelve apostles: Santa Catarina Palopó, San Antonio Palopó, San Lucas Tolimán, Santiago Atitlán, San Pedro the Lagoon, San Juan the Lagoon, San Pablo the Lagoon, San Marcos the Lagoon, Santa Cruz the Lagoon, Panajachel and others.

The Lake, located only two hours away from Guatemala City, takes longer to arrive at by bus. To get there, it’s necessary to cross very mountainous terrain and so travel is very slow. When arriving at the lake, the first town that you find is Panajachel. It is the place where all travelers vacationing in the region can find the hotels and chalets.

The meaning of Atitlán comes from Atit, the feminine word meaning Moon, and Ala, meaning masculine man. The first Spaniards, in the 16th Century, put the two words together and named the lake Atitlán.

While the scientific version of the origin of Atitlán leaves nothing to the imagination, a legend of how the lake was formed is more popular and romantic among Guatemaltecos. It is said there existed an impossible love between the Sun and the Moon and that throughout the eternal ages they have been forced to live separated by an evil spell.

While one commands the day, the other endures its dark sadness at night. They undergo the separation in silence with the unique hope of an eclipse, thus to be able to see one another. They say that the Moon’s lovesickness ended with a single sweet tear. The tear fell on the same side of the Earth as Guatemala and formed the lake of Atitlán.

Atitlan 1.jpg

I’m sharing these stories because it is a pity that this site of national pride with its tales of heavenly origins which has been the inspiration for so many painters, writers and singers is dying. It is dying from neglect, either from the residents of the area or from the government’s own disinterest.

The lake suffers with cyanobacterium contamination. It’s a bacteria that transformed the pristine waters of Atitlán into a stinky, greenish mess. The contamination was first discovered three years ago by biologists. Ever since then, the biologists tried to warn the government and local communities of the bacteria’s threat, but no one listened. So nowadays, the biologists refer to the case as “the history of an announced death.”

The popular theory is that the contamination stems from a variety of factors: the widespread use of inorganic fertilizers, the dirt blown into the lake from Hurricane Stan, the growth of the local population around the lake and the nonexistence of water treatment plants needed to cleanse the sewage coming from the chalets, hotels and local communities.

Finally, people are paying attention. Sectors of the civil society have had meetings to discuss the problems caused by the bacteria. The Atitlán Foundation, the mayors of the nearby towns, the government’s vice-minister of atmosphere, along with, nongovernmental organizations and biologists have met to discuss what can be done.

 

One of the recommendations is to educate the people who live near the lake on the dangers of the bacteria and that as long as it’s contaminated, the water is not safe to bathe in or drink.

Atitlan 2.jpg

As always, blame is being thrown around. Local municipalities are receiving most of the blame because they didn’t invest even ten percent in environmental health measures. And now because the consequences are almost irreversible, mandatory regulations regarding the use of water treatment plants are in place with strict penalties for those who disregard them.

Lake  Atitlán’s bacteria infection obscures the lake’s pristine waters.

The problem at Atitlán has affected all Guatemaltecos. One of the best columnists of the country expressed it like this: “It sometimes seems that in Guatemala we have a vocation to destroy our own wealth.” She goes on to write that we use to be the country of the green, green, green forests but that we have transformed the land into a slope of desert paradise with brown scars of erosion. She ends by saying our “crystalline lakes, blue volcano mirrors and mountains” have been used like waste baskets and consequently there has formed chemical substances that create ugly rare, mult-colored masses that only inspire fear.

 

The government has vowed to have 40-50 percent of the lake clean in six weeks. They also said that the problem is not very serious.

The Todos por El Lago Association (All for the Lake Association) confirmed the government’s statement. The Association said that due to the rain and north wind the water has cooled off and that has caused the bacteria to sink; it can sink 40 meters deep. When temperatures are high, the bacteria rises to the surface, as happened this past year.

 

Atitlan3.jpg

According to the latest studies, the bacteria was at its maximum coverage of 38 percent in November. On December 1, 2009, satellite images indicated the bacteria coverage had retreated to 27 percent.

The cyanobacterium feeds on phosphorus and agro-checmicals and will continue to thrive if water treatment plants are not put into use. For that reason, it’s been decided that it is imperative to start work on the water treatment plant for Panajachel, Sololá. It is the place where the San Francisco River contributes 75 percent of the phosphorus to the lake.

The government has also indicated that they are ready to work on several measures: a proposal of a $10 million project to construct water treatment plants; using chemicals to decontaminate the lake; and officially prohibiting the use of fertilizers and inorganic products, as well as, several other actions.

Mrs. Carmen Diez Orejas, Spain’s ambassador to Guatemala, announced that the Spanish Cabinet approved a donation of $29.5 million to the country designated for the management of the lake and its cleaning. Half of the money will be for projects in the neighborhood of Lake Atitlán.

The Ministry of Atmosphere and Natural Resources (MARN) has issued an urgent action plan to combat the impact of tourism, pollution and way of life of the residents of the lake’s basin area. The five points of the proposal include an agricultural aspect, environmental cleaning, infrastructure, social, tourism and institutional components. MARN estimates that it will take Q310 million to carry out this plan.

One can’t help but think what a pity it is for Lake Atitlán to be in such agony. The only hope is that the heart of the Moon isn’t made so sad again that she spills another tear. Because if so, the tear won’t make a difference since no reflection will be able to shine back from our pretty Lake Atitlán.

 

Learn more about Mayra:

Mayra Etna Beltrán Molina de Daetz is a native-born Guatemalan who lives in Guatemala City with her husband and teenage son. After attending one of the most noted secretarial schools in the country, Mayra graduated with a secretarial certification — and the ability to speak and write English, as well as, know French.

Yet, she wanted more of a career and so she took architect and graphic design classes at a local university in Guatemala City. Unable to finish her university studies due to finances, Mayra became a stewardess and has over 100 hours in the air.

Yet, she always wanted to be involved with the media and so she returned to school and was able to get a degree in sales and marketing.

 

As a result, she has worked for a weekly magazine and a newspaper.

I have had opportunity to attend International congresses, in which I have known very important people at the more important international newspapers, which has been a very gratifying experience and has allowed me to have friendships outside of my country.

 

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4 Comments

  1. Armand said:

    Gracias por su interesante articulo me gusto mucho la parte sobre el origen del Lago y del nombre de Atitlan.
    Porque los espagnoles en el siglo 16 pusieron estas dos palabras juntas Atit y Ala?
    Una parte que no me parece reflejar la realidad y que es siempre difundida en los medios es que los chaleteros contaminan… Si uno hace un recorrido rapido por el lago se podria dar cuenta que los chalets no son occupados al 100%, los proprietarios vienen muy poco… y por lo tanto el poco uso que dan a su instalaciones no permite decir que es una fuente de contaminacion. Ademas muchos de los chaleteros son amantes del lago y se banan en el por lo tanto estoy seguro que nadie quiere nadar en su m….a..
    Finalmente recordense que cada chalet en su momento a sido fuente de trabajo de gente local y cuando esta terminado siempre da trabajo a uno o varios guardianes y personal de limpieza…

  2. Jerry Hall said:

    The problems of Lake Atitlan result from over population, and modern lifestyle trends,and a collective lack of respect for Mother Earth. All the Humans who live around, and visit,and play in the Lake share responsibility for its degradation.

  3. greg anthony szymanski said:

    I am deeply involved in trying to help at Atitlan but it is a daunting task. With that said, I remain optimistic and hopeful. In my article below, I refer to a company called Eco-Tek. Please have somebody in Gautemala contact them. They may be able to help with waste water management.
    I am asking your prayers, support and assistance to bring the environmental disaster occurring at Lake Atitlan into clear focus here in States and abroad..
    We have formed a an organization called Save Lake Atitlan Mission for this purpose. A new web site and radio is forthcoming and will be out in two weeks.
    I personally will be in Atitlan in June to help those already trying to tackle this problem which threatens the very existence of the lake and the people near it. There is much work to do both long term and short term. Like I said in a recent article I wrote, If there is no lake, there is no nothing there. In your case a polluted lake means sick children who cannot learn.
    Please help me and I will help you any way I can. Look forward to talking and working together now and when I arrive in Atitlan.
    Greg
    Eco-Tek Could Provide Solution for Dying Lake Atitlan
    Garbage piles up, raw sewage dumped in lake, no water treatment plants
    By Greg Szymanski, JD
    March 8, 2010
    There is no excuse for garbage pile up and unsanitary water conditions at Lake Atitlan in the Guatemalen Highlands.
    Whether the lake is in pristine shape or whether it’s showing signs of being nothing more than a big toilet and garbage dump as it is now, water treatment plants should have been built all around the lake long ago.
    Of course, the immediate needs of the 60,000 Mayans living on the shoreline must be met first and there are number of missionary and relief groups in the process of doing just that
    But if there is no lake, there is no shoreline. If there is no lake, there are no Mayans. If there is no lake, there are no fish and fishing profits. If there is no lake, there is no tourism and $30 million annually coming in from the tourist trade.
    If there is no lake, there are, of course, no Evangelicals or Catholics around to preach the gospel with loud speakers and buckets of what may be toxic holy water.
    If there is no lake, there are no New Age people sitting on the rocks preaching love and waiting for the age of enlightenment to arrive. If there is no lake, there are no massage parlors to ease the aching bones of those who write about the beauty of the ancient Mayan people. If there is no lake, there are no churches to visit in order to pray about the dying lake and the lack of fresh potable water.
    If there is no lake, there is no nothing!
    Simply put, if the long term projects for implementing water treatment plants and garbage disposal systems aren’t started immediately, everyone including the rich and poor ought to just put all their dreams and hopes in a big sad sack, put all their earthly belongings in a big suit case and head for the hills.
    Why?
    Because the cyanobacteria outbreak that hit the lake in October 2009 in the form of a large green algae blob covering 85 per cent of the lake is a serious matter that threatens the lives of everyone there.
    This type of outbreak, which isn’t going away anytime soon, is not only going on at Lake Atitlan but there are fresh water lakes all over the world being attacked by pollution, including lakes in America.
    To show how dangerous cyanobacteria can be here is an excerpt of a report not known by the people at Atitlan from the state of New Hampshire, experiencing the same toxic bacteria outbreaks in some of its lakes.
    What You Should Know
    Recent attention has been directed toward cyanobacteria Cyanobacteria in New Hampshire lakes and ponds. The presence of cyanobacteria in recreational waters is a great concern of the DES Beach Program. Blooms of these primitive cyanobacteria have caused adverse health affects, even death, in livestock, domestic animals and humans.
    Beach Advisory of Cyanobacteria Recreational Exposure
    Cyanobacteria blooms are aesthetically displeasing in sight, odor and taste, as well as potentially toxic to domestic animals, livestock, waterfowl and humans. Cyanobacteria are a potential public health danger because they may produce toxins, collectively referred to as “Cyanotoxins,” that can be released into the water when cells die or are consumed by organisms in the food chain.
    However, the amount of toxin produced varies over time and from lake to lake. A cyanobacteria bloom may produce very little or no toxin in one lake and a later bloom in the same lake could produce a large toxin concentration. Unfortunately, no known method exists for predicting the toxin content of a cyanobacteria bloom. These cyanotoxins target the liver, kidney, the central nervous system, and skin irritants. All cyanotoxins can cause both acute and chronic illnesses. Acute effects, such as skin and mucous membrane irritations, can occur after short term exposure with water containing these toxins. Chronic effects, such as liver, kidney, and central nervous system damage, can occur over a long period of time from water ingestion containing toxins.
    Drinking Water Exposure
    The Groundwater and Drinking Water Source Protection Program provides regulatory and non-regulatory tools to protect groundwater and sources of public drinking water. The program works closely with water systems, municipalities, residents and organizations to ensure adequate quantity and quality of New Hampshire’s drinking water and is aware of cyanotoxins. However, at this time it is not known whether cyanobacteria are a significant problem for New Hampshire water systems, other than as a source of taste and odor problems. More information is available in the fact sheet Cyanobacteria and Drinking Water: Guidance for Public Water Systems.
    Prevention
    You can help keep the cyanobacteria from forming in the first place. Research indicates that their numbers increase as the nutrients in the water increase. To reduce the chances of a bloom occurring, reduce the amount of nutrients, such as phosphates, that enter the water. Homeowners can help by testing their soils before applying fertilizers and, if they must apply a fertilizer, making sure that they apply only what they need. The NH Shore land Protection Act prohibits the use of fertilizer closer than 25 feet from shore. Also, between 25 and 250 feet from shore, only low phosphate, slow release nitrogen fertilizer may be used. Keeping your septic system maintained will also help keep nutrients from leaching through the soil into nearby streams or lakes.
    With those serious words in mind, the first step is to build a number of waste water treatment plants.
    Of course, the Guatemalen government and its U.S. partners are going to cry poverty while issuing reports that15 treatment plants at a cost of $350 million are needed to solve the problem.
    Realizing government most often talks first and thinks later, the $350 million figure seems a bit high. It also gives off the impression that the task is a financial impossibility considering the state of the Guatemalen economy, not to mention the decline of the once powerful dollar.
    Looking at the other side of the coin, supposedly Spain and the U.S. have already allocated $39 million for the Atitlan water problems.
    But, if so, where is the money?
    Where is the progress since we know nothing has even started happening seven months after the algae bloom made Atitlan stink like a big bathroom. It’s about time people in Atitlan start telling the government what to do and not the other way around.
    What if we told the officials 15 water treatment plants could be built at a fraction of the $39 million? What if they could be built for say $10 million, $5 million, $3 million or even less?
    What if they could be built without being chemically based facilities harmful to the environment?
    What if we told them the yearly maintenance costs could be less than $5,000 a year while providing a host of jobs for the local people?
    Would they listen? If you have doubts, send them a copy of this story. Translate it into Spanish. Make sure the big shots listen to this.
    There is a waste water management company in British Columbia called Eco-Tek that just built a non-chemically waste water treatment plant in Havana for $150,000 in 2006.
    The company’s chief operating officer has been in contact with the Arctic Beacon and after looking at the Atitlan situation for the last week, he is very excited about getting involved. He added no one from Gautemala has bothered to contact his company even though the situation at Lake Atitlan is life threatening not only for the lake but its people and wildlife.
    One would think with a situation so grave all possibilities would have been explored.
    Hopefully better late than never.
    “In short, yes. This is something we can help with,” said Patrick Meyer, chief operations officer of Eco-TeK Ecological Technologies, Inc. “Panajachel is reputed to be about 14,000 people. That’s far too many people to be going without water treatment. So, Panajachel did have a collection system and an existing site for sewage treatment. That makes things much easier and less expensive.
    “The more I think about this opportunity the more excited I get. We have a low-cost opportunity to make a major change, a significant improvement on what is currently happening.”
    Meyer said he was looking forward to opening up a line of communication with those in Lake Atitlan working on the problem. He added he was going to immediately contact his Cuban connections to see if this might help open up discussions with Guatemala..
    Meyer went on to say:
    “Also, take into consideration our facilities are not just about treating sewage; they’re about water re-use. We clean water to high enough standards that the water may be re-used for agricultural purposes. In Havana we created food producing gardens and an orchard as part of the project. Using this water for irrigation will reduce the toxic run-off from farms the area is presently experiencing.
    “Costs for our system are minimal in warm climates. Our system is Havana would be most similar. It treats 300m3/day and cost $150,000. Further details of that project can be viewed at http://www.ecotek.ca/havana.html
    “As an aside. A key consideration with any mechanical system is to keep maintenance costs in mind. Traditional sewage treatment systems can be extremely expensive when it comes to replacement parts. For our Havana project we really broke down the process and simplified it to eliminate most of the high-cost components. We estimated that operations/maintenance would cost $5,000 per year but I’d be surprised if it amounted to more than $2,000. Since then we’ve done further work on simplifying our system to the point that its hardly recognizable as a sewage treatment facility. Operation costs of the treatment facility should be zero.
    “Vital information at the outset is two-fold. Understanding the waste we’re treating, and knowing that there is a source of revenue that can pay for the expenses. I would hope they would contact us or we can make initial inquiries as well now that we know they need help.”
    Here is more information about Eco-Tek:
    ECO-TEK is an environmental leader in handling waste water through purely biological means.
    While most wastewater treatment facilities treat with chemicals and dispose of treated waste into our natural environment ECO-TEK builds fully biological systems. We use no chemicals and produce useful products at the end of our process.
    We can build ZERO-impact waste water treatment facilities.
    Cleans Water
    The system produces safe, clean water and bio-solids for reuse in a number of applications such as irrigation and industrial process water.
    Beautiful
    The systems are contained within a greenhouse or solarium filled with lush vegetation. Extensive aeration produces an odorless environment allowing the systems to be located in the center of communities.
    Simply Built
    The systems are built using reliable equipment and highly durable, lightweight components that are easy to assemble with unskilled labour.
    Mimics Nature
    The processes are chemical free and are resilient due to a diverse aquatic ecosystem.
    Grows Plants
    The system is designed to turn sewage into clean water, soil and plants. These are in the form of aquatic pond plants, flowers, tree seedlings, and plant starts.
    Reusing Waste water as a Resource
    ECO-TEK was established 1992 by Kimron Rink to promote social, ecological and economic sustainability in communities; creating sustainable ”planetary villages” using ecological technologies.
    ECO-TEK presently focuses on Solar Aquatics Systemâ„¢ and other ecologically engineered technologies to reclaim water and nutrients from sewage and use these constituents to grow bio-regionally appropriate, regenerative plant material.
    ECO-TEK incorporates cutting edge sustainable building principles into every project. Sustainable design and construction results in solar heated, low energy, heat recovering solariums for the Solar Aquatics System
    ECO-TEK is the leader in ecological water reclamation in Canada. Although our focus has been on western Canada we have experience abroad as well.
    In 2006 Eco-Tek completed a Havana Urban sewage collection systems flow by gravity to creeks and streams of the Havana Metropolitan Park. This pilot aqua-culture waste treatment facility was designed and built to reclaim this wastewater for reuse as irrigation water for organic urban agriculture and to grow flowers for export to Canada.
    BREAKING NEWS: Right after the publication of this article, it was announced the Government inaugurated a waste water treatment plant to help clean up Lake Atitlán to be built in Santa Caterina Palopo. It might be added many more plants are needed and Eco-Tek may provide a financially feasible alternative that is environmentally more friendly.
    Please keep an eye on progress, money spent and projected maintenance costs.
    Here is the Headline:
    Published: Monday, March 8, 2010 12:07 (GMT-0400)
    By Business News Americas staff reporters
    Guatemala’s government has inaugurated a waste water treatment plant in southwestern Sololá province’s Santa Catarina Palopó municipality, the presidential website reported.
    Santa Catarina Palopó is located on lake Atitlán, and the 312,000-quetzal (US$38,898) plant is part of the government’s efforts to clean up the highly contaminated water.
    The initiative was carried out with funding from the National Peace Fund (Fonapaz) in coordination with local government.
    The environment ministry Marn has drawn up a 310mn-quetzal (US$37.3mn) plan to clean up Atitlán lake, which currently has high levels of cyanobacteria, also known as blue-green algae. The algae’s proliferation is caused by the presence of domestic waste and untreated waste water in the lake.
    The overall plan involves building 17 waste water treatment plants, septic tanks, sanitary sewerage systems, closing down unauthorized garbage dumps, the gradual prohibition of inorganic fertilizers and chemical soaps, technical and economic support for municipalities in the province, and sanctions for domestic and industrial users caught polluting the lake.
    Editor’s Note: See more of Greg’s stories below on Atitlan. If you want to help raise money, awareness and meet the immediate needs of the Mayans, contact gregbeacon at gmail.com Look for a new world wide web site coming out in two weeks, galvanizing interests worldwide to see the Mayans and Lake Atitlan are treated fairly. Also, a new weekly radio show will be broadcast highlighting Atitlan and the plight of all indigenous groups in North, South and Central America.

  4. greg anthony szymanski said:

    Hello and Good Day,
    I am asking your prayers, support and assistance to bring the environmental disaster occurring at Lake Atitlan into clear focus here in States and abroad..
    We have formed a an organization called Save Lake Atitlan Mission for this purpose. A new web site and radio is forthcoming and will be out in two weeks.
    I personally will be in Atitlan in June to help those already trying to tackle this problem which threatens the very existence of the lake and the people near it. There is much work to do both long term and short term. Like I said in a recent article I wrote, If there is no lake, there is no nothing there. In your case a polluted lake means sick children who cannot learn.
    See Greg’s stories on Atitlan at http://www.arcticbeacon.com. If you want to help raise money, awareness and meet the immediate needs of the Mayans, contact gregbeacon at gmail.com Look for a new world wide web site coming out in two weeks, galvanizing interests worldwide to see the Mayans and Lake Atitlan are treated fairly. Also, a new weekly radio show will be broadcast highlighting Atitlan and the plight of all indigenous groups in North, South and Central America.

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