World Lake Vision
The environmental crisis we face in Lake Atitlan requires us to find a balance between human water needs and the ability of nature to maintain the needs of lake water over time. To that we must work together and follow principles for the management of the lake to ensure their sustainable use. These principles are taken from the Committee of the World Lake Vision (ILEC), (http://www.ilec.or.jp/e).
Principle 1. A harmonious relationship between humans and nature is essential for sustainable use of the lake.
Principle 2. The drainage basin is the logical starting point for launching of planning and management actions for the sustainable use of the lake.
Principle 3. It is essential to develop a long-term preventive policy to address the causes of degradation of the lake.
Principle 4. Management policies and decisions should be based on scientific knowledge and the best information available.
Principle 5. Management for sustainable use of the lake requires the resolution of conflict between different groups using its resources, taking into account the needs of generations present, future and the environment.
Principle 6. It should motivate people and the others involved, for their active participation in the identification and resolution of critical problems in the lake.
Principle 7. Management based on governance, accountability, good faith, transparency and proper distribution of responsibilities of those involved is essential for the sustainable use of the lake.
These principles of the World Lake Vision should be the basis of environmental National politics for lakes across the country. With this vision we see new forms of relationships between humans and the natural environment and new ways of management that will allow us to restore the beauty and quality of life in Lake Atitán.
The Lake Atitlan Basin covers all of the villages and environments marked on the map, the solutions and strategies should be aimed at the entire basin.
COMMUNIQUE NO. 2 / 31 of Oct, 2009 (Back to Top of Page)
What is cyanobacteria?
The cyanobacteria are bacteria that live in water and can produce their own food with sunlight. As bacteria they are not visible to the eye until they form large colonies. “These colonies consisting of billions of microscopic cells live about 30 meters deep until there is a flourishing and they rise to the surface as the mass colonies of green, yellow or copper that we see today floating in the lake.
The cyanobacterial blooms grow rapidly at temperatures around 25Cº(77ºF) and with concentrations of nutrients, particularly phosphorus. As the lake levels already have phosphorus frameworks, blooms are expected to be recurring annually until there are lower phosphorus levels in water. The cyanobacteria require less intense light than other algae and their blooms tend to occur in the months of October thru December. Until the arrival of phosphorus (sewage, agrochemicals and erosion soil) is totally halted, it will take many years before Atitlan ceases to have blooms of cyanobacteria.
There are many types of cyanobacteria, this is called Lyngbya hieronymusii and is quite rare to the point where the world does not have a record of blooms like the one in Lake Atitlan.
The basin of Lake Atitlan is a territory with a natural drainage system, all of the water flows into one place as it drains, the lake. The lake only has underground outlets. Atitlan Basin is surrounded by mountains. In the south there are volcanoes and in the north rivers enter the lake.
In this basin, the people on the south side – San Lucas, Cerro de Oro, Santiago and San Pedro – have few sources of water and use lake water to live. On the north side are rivers. The basin includes the people who live “up” in Santa Lucia Utatlán, Argueta, Los Encuentros, San Jose Chacayá, Solola, Concepcion, San Andres Semetabaj and Agua Escondida.
What happens above affects us all. We are all in the basin, therefore we have to act together towards the same principles and objectives.
What contaminates Lake Atitlan?
It is contaminated with everything we throw into the basin. One of the pollutants
that is hurting us most is the phosphorus reaching the lake mainly from three
1. Fertilizer and soaps
2. Sewage flowing into the lake
3. All of the land that washes into the lake in the rainy season has phosphorus.
It is important to note that all of the land that from crops without soil conservation to road and building construction washes into the lake when it rains, all of this material contains large amounts of phosphorus. Besides the natural content of phosphorus in soils, chemical fertilizer is carried with the soil. The result is that today, the lake has 20 phosphor points per liter of water, before it had 2.5 points of phosphorus per liter. Chemical to water concentration is higher than ever.
Consequences of cyanobacterial bloom
What happens to the water?
The bacteria join to form filaments (hairs) of millions of microscopic cells that comprise thousands of algae that live below the water level at about 25-30 meters from the surface. When the temperature changes, for example, at the end of the rainy season or before the rains, the bacteria floats to the surface for the sun, feeds and grows rapidly to form colonies. The water loses its clarity and purity. When cyanobacterium die they can release toxins that are harmful to health. If that were not enough, the dead bacteria decompose and use up the dissolved oxygen in the water so the fish drown and life in the water is significantly reduced.
What of the toxin of the cyanobacterium?
The Lyngbya is one of the most worrying groups of cyanobacteria as they produce toxins in the water. Currently there are three known types of Lyngbya toxins: debromoaplysiatoxin, aplysiatoxin and lyngbyatoxin, ALL CAUSE DERMATITIS
depending on the skin and other complications of the toxin.
TO DATE: October 31, 2009, IT HAS NOT BEEN PROVEN THAT THE Lake Atitlan CYANOBACTERIA produce toxins. We will know after water sampling taken by Dr. Margaret Dix and Dr. Pablo Mayorga of Valley University on October 28, 2009 has finished its testing. (WEBMASTERS NOTE: It has been proven that Cyanobacteria Lyngbya always has some level of toxicity and the level of toxicity can change dramatically over time)
Has this happened before?
Yes, but not with such intensity. Last year there was a large outbreak, but was not as widespread around the lake. In 1968 the lake was clean with few nutrients and no cyanobacteria were detected in water analysis. At this time analysis of the water was made by foreign scientists. In 1976 the presence of cyanobacteria was detected, but concentrations were low. Currently there is a gradual increase of nutrients, chiefly phosphorus, and the cyanobacteria has flourished very quickly and very intensely.
Why have we not seen it before?
It has not been seen because only in the last year has all the years of dumping reached critical levels. It’s like having a glass of pure water and we put just a little fertilizer in it every day until the water becomes cloudy.
What happens to water when there is cyanobacteria?
The water is no longer drinkable and can cause skin irritations.
Is it the same as Lake Amatitlan ?
Dr. Margaret Dix of the Valle de Guatemala University specializes in freshwater bacteria and cyanobacteria, notes that this is similar to that found in Lake Amatitlan called Microcystis whereas the variety in Atitlan are Lyngbya hieronymusii.
COMMUNIQUE NO. 3 / 31 OF OCT, 2009 (Back to Top of Page)
Problems, Solutions and Actions
Together the people and the authorities have to understand the problems and the solutions involve all of us, we must take responsibility for the consequences of human actions on our environment and for correcting them.
Since March this year we have had meetings to identify the problems and seek solutions to the deterioration of the lake. On Wednesday 28 October, we met in Panajachel, civil society groups, NGOs and government to propose immediate action to save Lake Atitlan. This meeting with the participation of Foundation Atit Allah, Live Better, several organizations, departmental authorities and concerned citizens all united by the Lake. We worked to propose a plan to solve the problem of lake pollution and the cyanobacterial bloom.
Our principal objective being:
Stem the flow of nutrients to the lake, especially phosphorus. With priority actions aimed at controlling wastewater, reducing or eliminating agrochemicals and control of all sources of Soil erosion in the watershed.
The group presented a work plan to the Minister for the Environment, Dr. Luis Ferrate at a meeting which was attended by among others the Governor of Solola, Elena Yojcom, Vice-Minister of Environment, Dr. Luis Zurita and the Vice Minister of Environment, Ms Emy Diaz.
The strategy is prioritization of proposed projects linked to the crisis of Lake Atitlan.
Remove immediately untreated wastewater discharges with the most appropriate technological systems.
Eliminate pollution of Lake Atitlan via discharged waste with the implementation of treatment systems in the different municipalities of the watershed.
Eliminate the use of detergents and soaps containing phosphates and replacement by others without these compounds. Including a maintenance program to assist in the transition to biodegradable detergents and soaps.
Eliminate the use of agrochemicals in the Lake Atitlan Basin and replaceme them with organic agriculture.
It instructs the Ministry of Agriculture and Food to establish the distribution of manure to the Lake Atitlan basin.
Create relevant regulations within 6 months with fines and penalties imposed at the local and national levels to comply with the requirements.
It instructs the Ministry of Agriculture and Food to implement a program of management and soil conservation in the area of the lake and its surroundings .
Establish an environmental education program aimed at overview of the lake and the comprehensive management of the basin.
Implementation of a permanent accredited scientific research and environmental monitoring system of Lake Atitlan and its environment and to establish a warning system.
Implementation of systems for solid waste management in municipalities of the Atitlan Basin.
Controlling soil erosion produced by civil works and agroforestry.
Creating a financial delivery mechanism for recording the payments for environmental services provided to Lake Atitlan and its environment.
What can we do now?
In the short term, we must direct our efforts to:
1. Ensuring drinking water for the inhabitants of the basin
2. Restrict water use
3. Provide assistance to fishermen and crabbers, who have no access to food.
4. Collaborate with neighbors, if your home has a drinking water well or filter
provide this vital liquid free to others.
5. Do not drink water from the lake, do not allow any person to enter the water.
NOTE: we are opening a bank account to channel funds to the needy through an NGO with a background of transparency and accountability.
In the medium term, with a view of lake management, we
1. Use scientific methods to understand what is happening and how to react.
Identify sources of pollution and stop those that are within our reach
(in our homes or properties).
2. Require the creation and support of programs for waste separation, composting and recycling by municipalities.
3. To report pollution sources to municipal officials and AMSCLAE.
4. Follow up on these complaints by applying the pressure of public opinion demanding accountability, good faith, transparency and proper use of the powers of the agents involved.
5. The Ministry of Agriculture and Livestock (MAGA) needs support to mount a massive plan of management and soil conservation. Creativity is needed and resources for the massive campaign to raise awareness of communication and lead to change of attitude and agricultural patterns across the watershed.
What are the scientific observations and recommendations?
“I urge them to stop if you want to think about the introduction of grass carp to lake. This will lead to a great disturbance of the ecosystem with probably a zero effect on the cyanobacterium, as documented by many cases around the world. Bacterial matter (drugs/chemicals) is also highly suspect. I understand that everyone wants a solution, but a hasty decision could do more harm than good. The only solid solution is to prevent the entry of nutrients. “(E-mail by Dr. Eliska Rejmankova, professor of environmental studies, University of California at Davis, Oct. 30, 2009).
The bloom will eventually stop, but when the cyanobacteria form crusts near the banks and especially during the stage when it is dying, my best recommendation would be to tell people not to make contact with the water and do not use it for domestic use. …. As I said, the main problem is that this species is very rare and there absolutely no data on the type of cytotoxin produced. It can potentially produce a wide range of toxins and therefore caution must be used until more testing has been completed. (Eliska Rejmankova October 27, 2009) Likewise has commented Dr Margaret Dix Valley University Guatemala who is advising the Ministry of Environment and has participated in the all round tables by the lake.