Lake Atitlan Among 1 Billion On Globe Without Clean Fresh Water

Lake Atitlan Among 1 Billion On Globe Without Clean Fresh Water

Unsafe water kills more people every year than all forms of violence, including wars

By Greg Szymanski, JD
May 4, 2010

According to a group called Charity Water, over 1 billion people on the globe lack fresh drinking water. Two hundred thousand of those people reside in or around Lake Atitlan in the Western Guatemalen Highlands.

Other facts compiled by Charity Water show “unsafe water and lack of basic sanitation cause 80 per cent of diseases and kill more people every year than all forms of violence, including war.

“Children are especially vulnerable, as their bodies aren’t strong enough to fight diarrhea, dysentery and other illnesses. Ninety per cent of the 42,000 deaths that occur every week from unsafe water and unhygienic living conditions are to children under five years old. Many of these diseases are preventable. The UN predicts that one tenth of the global disease burden can be prevented simply by improving water supply and sanitation.”

And everyone of these sad facts apply to Lake Atitlan, but still there have been no real solutions to control raw sewage and agricultural run-off, the main causes leaving the water at the lake undrinkable and unsafe for recreational purposes.

Lake Atitlan is estimated to bring in $30 million annually from tourist dollors, according to 2002 government figures. However, behind the scenic lake and swank hotels, many visitors never really get to see the stark poverty conditions existing there.

Furthermore, the recent pollution problems which threatens the very existance of the lake is only making matters wores, especially for the large indigenous population barely eeking out a subsistence living.

Once known as the most beautiful lake in the world, in 2009 Lake Atitlan, a 1000′ deep volcanic lake 130 square km in size, was 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.
Charity Water was the vision of a man named Scott Harrison, who saw a need first in Africa and then decided to do something about it. In four years, Harrison and his non-profit organization have raised more than $19 million for more than 2,500 fresh water projects worldwide.

“I think we’d like to partner up with Harrison and see if we can get the job done at Lake Atitlan,” said Greg Szymanski of Save Lake Atitlan Mission, a group raising awareness about poverty and pollution there.

“Our goal is to partner up with people first at Lake Atitlan to spread awareness and create accountability when it comes to our donors. Like Harrison points out: Once we find a community in need, we then want to raise money so that work can continue and double, often triple in volume. We try and give a voice to the poor, bringing back their stories to the people here who have the ability to help. We then provide a direct way people can give, ensuring that 100 per cent of the money reaches those in need.'”

Charity Water projects include building wells, as well as looking for solutions to contaminated water like exist at Lake Atitlan.

“Our goal as a non-profit organization,” said Harrison, “is to bring clean, safe drinking water to people in developing nations. We use 100% of public donations to directly fund sustainable water solutions in areas of greatest need. Just $20 can give one person clean water for 20 years.”

Harrison’s organization has never worked in Guatemala, but has helped people in nearby Honduras. Here is a story written by Harrison about what he found there. Although solutions may vary at Lake Atitlan, poverty conditions in both areas seem similar.

La Mosquita.

The Rio Platano River starts high in the Honduran Mountains of La Mosquitia. After hundreds of switchbacks, it ends 70 miles later in a town that shares its name, throwing a massive delta of brown sediment into otherwise turquoise coastal waters.

Rio Platano town is a dive, but not the kind of dive one might associate with Honduran tourism or exotic islands. There are no gringos with dollar bills to be found here but instead a small forgotten population of about 400 people nestled between the ocean, river and a marsh. There’s very little clean water, few decent toilets, no soap and not much hope. The homes are built on stilts and the people are slowly drowning in the high water table – dig down 12 inches anywhere in town, and you get soggy. Unsafe water covers everything.

DRINK. If you’d like a drink in Rio Platano, you’d choose your poison from a series of toxic holes in the ground. Some are boxed neatly with wood from the forest; others are open, their owners not bothering to protect the murky green surface water. A few of the houses direct bits of tin roof into plastic barrels to catch rainwater, a decent solution only during the wet season.

When the fish are plenty, incomes are higher and some can afford chlorine to purify their water. Most don’t use chlorine though and regularly suffer with common waterborne diseases – diarrhea, parasites, skin rashes and bouts of vomiting.

FLUSH. If you wanted to use the toilet here, you’d head away from the beach and toward the marsh. Then up a narrow plank to a small wooden shack on stilts and through a crooked door. But instead of white porcelain and a handle to flush, you’d find an unpleasant hole that drops waste 10 feet below into open marshy ground. The stench would overwhelm you.

WASH. If you wanted to wash your hands, you’d be out of luck. The local store doesn’t have soap in stock nor does it seem to expect another shipment anytime soon. And the $1 buy-in is too steep a price for many who are just struggling to put food on the table.

Forget the clinic if you’re sick. A woman sits here with a huge box of unopened medication and an attitude of defeat. Although she might see 10-15 people a day, few leave better off than they came.

The elementary school is Rio Platano’s lone bright spot – at this place, four teachers fight despair with education.

The headmaster is 34-year-old Denuer Idin, and he’s big on hygiene even in a town without soap. He and his crew inspect the hands of the 91 students and send kids showing dirty hands home to scrub them clean. The school has managed to get cement block latrines built that are closed and kept reasonably tidy. They’re color-coded white and blue for boys and girls. Denuer says bad water keeps kids out of school for a variety of reasons, but he’d have more kids studying if clean water was available.

Rio Platano’s neighbor is Brus Laguna. Separating the towns is an 80-square-mile lagoon with a nasty habit of afternoon storms. To reach Brus from Rio Platano, it takes about an hour by boat or motorized canoe, and only a handful of people in town can afford the trip.

Brus Laguna has the area’s only decent airport, if you’re willing to use both words loosely. Small planes land hard and fast on an airstrip that looks first like a narrow dirt road then turns to grass and marsh on impact and finally gravely and sandy at the finish. The lone “terminal” is built in and around an old tree. Crude benches are nailed to the trunk while wooden beams support a patched tin roof to keep luggage dry in hard rains.

But the airport brings progress, and Brus has a bustle and hope not found in Rio Platano. About 5,000 people live here, and slowly, with the help of their mayor, charity: water donors like Saks Fifth Avenue and our local implementing partner Living Water International, many here have gained access to clean drinking water.


Brus Laguna, Yajal Tajny well. N15º 45.421, W84º 32.364.

Emily Ramos has it better now. For years, she used to drink muddy water from an open well by her house. And then, near her home, charity: water funded a well and everything changed. Emily is a 31-year-old teacher with two kids. She said about once a week, they’d all get sick with diarrhea, vomiting and stomach infections. She’d never been taught to chlorinate her water, so she drank it straight from the pit. When she had money, she’d sometimes skip buying food and go into the general store to instead buy bottled water.

Since the freshwater well was put in six weeks ago, she hasn’t been sick, nor does she know anybody who’s been sick. The 20 kids at her local school are healthy, and she says the kids love the taste of the water. She said there were many important things about the water pump but the best thing was the ability to control the illnesses they were getting from the holes. The pump was a blessing from God and pretty much the greatest thing ever. She tells all the families nearby now to come to the pump for their water and says it’s very well made.

Brus Laguna, Twitante well. N15º 46.427 W084º 32.449.

Rosalie Enriques has it better now too. We photographed her one-year-old son drinking from the well and talked to her about water. Like Emily, she used to get water from a contaminated open well, but when she could afford it, she would buy chlorine. Her son often had diarrhea, and although she didn’t get very sick, she used to get skin rashes from washing with contaminated water. She’s pretty confident the clean water will stop the rashes. Isel Granuel is the well’s caretaker. Before the charity: water well at Twitante, Isel would walk about 30 minutes to another well or sometimes take his water from a closer, but contaminated, shallow well. Every week, he’d be sick with diarrhea, stomach worms and vomiting. He’d go to the clinic and get pills, but they didn’t help the skin rashes and fungus he got either. He is very grateful for this gift and is sure more than 200 people will benefit from the clean water here.

Rio Platano. N15º 52.510, W084º 42.007

Rio Platano’s solution isn’t easy because of its location. The first two well attempts there brought up brackish water. There are plans to go deeper and recase the wells – hopefully keeping the saltwater from reaching the deeper aquifer. As an interim solution, point-of-use household biosand filter systems were delivered to Rio Platano and will be used in the homes to remove contaminants from the open wells.

SOAP. As we continue to search for a sustainable hygiene solution, we couldn’t stand knowing there was no soap in Rio Platano for the dirty hands of the students. We purchased more than 100 bars of soap at Brus Laguna’s store and sent them back across the lagoon to Denuer and the teachers at the school. Faced daily with the injustice of extreme poverty, we continue to look for clean water solutions that meet people’s most basic needs. — Scott Harrison, go to for more information.

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