GNF - Threatened Lake of the Year 2009

Lake Atitlán in Guatemala is Threatened Lake of the Year 2009


Within the scope of the 5th World Water Forum in Istanbul, Global Nature Fund (GNF) has declared Lake Atitlán in Guatemela “Threatened Lake of the Year 2009”. It was chosen because the assimilative capacity of the lake is greatly reduced due to long term excessive pollution of the lake.


Lake Atitlán is one of the largest and most important freshwater bodies in Central America. Embedded in a wonderful volcanic landscape, Lake Atitlán provides livelihood for a large number of local residents – the lake supplies the people with water for their daily life and agriculture. Additionally, Lake Atitlán is one of the most attractive tourism destinations and therefore an important economic factor for the communities around the lake.


But appearances are deceitful. In December 2008, a large carpet of algae occurred on the water surface, caused by Cynobaycteria. Visitors and locals were alarmed by this phenomenon and this incident has raised serious concern among the authorities and the local population. The algal carpet temporarily covered 75 % of the lake surface, especially in bays and along the shoreline near large settlements the carpet persisted over a longer period until March 2009.


In the meantime, representatives of the different governmental and non-governmental organisations gathered at the lake to jointly and unanimously carry out comprehensive studies on the water quality, the causes and consequences of the algal carpet as well as its possible toxicity. That way, the current situation of Lake Atitlán is being assessed. Furthermore, the organisations involved agreed to continue this data collection over a longer period of time to allow immediate action in cases of changes and possible disasters.


The three governmental agencies responsible for the lake and its catchment area, are meagrely funded up to now. The authority for sustainable development in the Atitlán basin and its surroundings (La Autoridad Para El Manejo Sustentable de la Cuenca de Atitlán y su Entornos AMSCLAE), the State Council for Nature Reserves (Consejo Nacional de Áreas Protegidas y su delegación departamental) as well as the relevant department of the Ministry of Environment have local representatives and strive together with the NGOs for an increase in the financial resources to be able to implement concrete protection measures.

Volcans and litter at the shore liines

Inflow of raw sewage.

In Guatemala, and particularly in the Sololá region, at Lake Atitlán, 74 % of the people live in extreme poverty. Until now, the issue environmental protection has only played a minor part as the expansion of the health care system as well as the construction of routes and schools have higher priority and therefore privileged access to funding.


Due to the enormous water volume, Lake Atitlán is considered a clean water body. Its assimilative capacity is based on the natural mechanisms of oxygenation capacity e.g. through winds, as well as on the filter efficiency of water plants that have absorbed part of the inflowing substances so far.


Before the occurrence of the algal carpet the environmental pollution was visible at some hot spots only. The population of many villages stores litter in wild dumping grounds or directly into the lake leading to severe contamination of the areas near larger settlements. Till now not a single lake community has implemented environmentally sound waste management practices. Although several environmental organisations around the lake have been active in the region for over ten years, the lack of sufficient financial resources does not allow the implementation of the necessary water purification programmes. Until now, the organisations were capable of carrying out punctual actions only. 

In October 2005, the hurricane Stan caused a natural disaster, with important consequences for the lake: inundations and mudflows occurred and many lives were lost. The storm has also caused damage to both public infrastructure and private property. In the community of Panajachel, in the lake basin of La Cuenca, one of the rare sewage plants was destroyed.


Panajachel is one of the communities at the lake shore, which produces the largest litter volume in the region because of its high population (approx. 11,200 inhabitants) and because of its importance as main tourist resort in Guatemala. Due to the destruction of the sewage treatment plant in October 2005, the untreated communal waste water discharges directly into the lake with the consequence that the pollution along the lakeshore has considerably increased. It is not only the waste water that contributes to the pollution, also the solid litter. No local community provides adequate wastewater treatment facilities, normally the waste is collected roadside and finally reaches the lake shore. Also communal waste dumps which are not leak proof may seep into the lake.

In this context, the lake communities as well as the national environmental authorities emphasize the necessity of immediately introducing lake rehabilitation plans to halt the already existing and/or impending pollution before it is too late.


As a first concrete measure, a new sewage plant shall be built in Panajachel this year, three purification plants in small communities under construction, which due to lack of money were not completed so far, will finally be finished. In total, as a first step, 15 communities around Lake Atitlán will benefit from the realization of the protection measures. The projects will be coordinated in the context of the Regional Strategic Planning PET  (Planificación Estratégica territorial - PET). Focus will be on the treatment of waste water and garbage.


Our local partner organisation, Asociación Vivamos Mejor Guatemala, organizes campaigns to inform the public about the current water problems to raise awareness about the lake and the problems related to effluent and waste volume.


Lake Atitlán is the third biggest freshwater lake in Guatemala, located in the western highlands in the administrative district of Sololá. The lake lies in a volcanic crater and covers an area of 130 sq. km. It was formed by an immense volcanic explosion 85,000 ago. Estimates of its maximum depth range up to 340 m, and the lake is recognized to be the deepest lake in Central America. 


The lake and the lake region are rich in biodiversity, 798 different plant species are found there, 61 of them are endemic. The area is also rich in wildlife: 116 species of reptiles and amphibians. 236 bird species (12 of them endemic) as well as 141 different mammal species (7 endemic) live in the region.

The region around Lake Atitlán is one of the poorest in Guatemala. Most of the people make their living from agriculture cultivating crops, maize and beans. Tourism is another source of income as Lake Atitlán is the second most popular tourist destination in Guatemala.


Our partner organisation Asociación Vivamos Mejor Guatemala has been working for years to improve the livelihood of the local population. Other activities focus on the preservation of nature and sustainable development in the region. In November 2006, Lake Atitlán and our partner organisation became an associate member in our worldwide network Living Lakes.


Vivamos Mejor Guatemala, a non-governmental organisation, was founded in 1992, and is active in the Sololá region, one of Guatemala’s poorest regions. Vivamos Mejor concentrates its work on the social development of the region, the improvement of the quality of life of the local people as well as the preservation of the natural environment. Since 2002, the organization has carried out several measures to protect Lake Aititlán. Its long-term goals are successful application of integrated development models and the extension of the work to other regions of the country.


On several occasions, Vivamos Mejor Guatemala was honoured by various communities, governmental and private organisations as one of the best development organizations of Guatemala.


More information on Lake Atitlán can be found on the GNF website.