Hurricane Stan Contributed To Pollution Headaches At Lake Atitlan

Hurricane Stan Contributed To Pollution Headaches At Lake Atitlan

The region is a big tourist attraction, but also one of the poorest in Guatemala

By Greg Szymanski, JD
April 20, 2010

In October 2005, Hurricane Stan ripped through the town of Panajachel on Lake Atitlan and many lives were lost.

The storm caused great damage to infrastructure, private property and knocking out the waste water treatment plant.

Panajachel is one of the larger towns on the lake with a population estimated at over 14,000.

It also produces the largest litter and raw sewage volume on the lake, adding to the pollution that created the toxic cyanobacteria outbreak last year.

The sewage plant has yet to be repaired or replaced, meaning the untreated waste of 14,000 residents pours directly into the lake.

Besides Panajachel, the other 11 villages on the lake are also without waste treament facilities. According to local reports, waste is collected roadside or there are communal waste dumps. However, both are inadeqaute an a definite health hazard with much of the raw sewage ending up in the lake anyway.

Once known as the most beautiful lake in the world, now Lake Atitlan, a 1000′ deep volcanic lake 130 square km in size, has been taken over by a massive bloom of cyanobacteria that is now entering its toxic phase ending the basic source of water for the thousands of lake shore inhabitants as well as halting the livelihood of indigenous fisherman. Authorities on lake pollution in a recent gathering at Istanbul listed Lake Atitlan as the world’s most threatened lake in 2009.

With haphazard garbage collection and no raw sewage and water treatment, the once crystal clear water is now undrinkable.

In October 2009, 85 per cent of the lake’s surface was covered with a green algae scum, cutting tourism by 75 per cent, according to local reports.

Although nothing has been really accomplished yet, the government claims a new waste water treatment center in Panajachel will be built this year. The government also claims the lack of action is primarily due “to a lack of money”.

Further, the government claims this is the first step in a plan to clean up the entire lake.

However, the question must be asked if they don’t have money to take care of Panajachel, how can 14 more plants be built at a whopping cost of $350 million?

Critics of the government plan say chemically based plants are a big mistake and are too costly and to expensive to maintain. What is needed, critics claim, are environmentally friendly solutions that can be accomplished at a fraction of the cost.

Lake Atitlan is third biggest fresh water lake in Guatemala and one of the country’s biggest tourist attractions, drawing an estimated $30 million a year according to 2002 figures.

However, the region around Lake Atitlan is also one of the poorest in Gautemala with most people making a meager living from agriculture.

A group called Vivamos Mejor Guatemala has been toiling for years trying to help the poor. The non-governmental group formed in 1992 focuses on preserving nature and sustainable development.

Editor’s Note: Although groups are working to improve health and living standards in the Lake Atitlan region, more help is always needed and that is why Save Lake Atitlan Mission looks forward to the challenge of bringing a better life to all Guatemalens.

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