Waste water treatment strategy needed for Cyanobacteria Bloom in Lake Atitlan, Guatemala

By: Guest Contributor, Sherm Davis


Panajachel, Guatemala – On 3 August 2015, a cyanobacteria bloom invaded Lake Atitlan in Guatemala, the first such occurrence since 2009. An infestation of microalgae is considered a bloom when the concentration reaches 2 million parts per liter, and the tests run by the organizations mentioned below prove beyond a doubt that this is a bloom unprecedented in modern history. The question at hand is: What can we do about it?

A series of water samples taken by the Watershed Authority (AMSCLAE) in association with The University del Valle de Guatemala (Altiplano Campus) revealed that there are five major types of phytoplankton in the water, and that three of these (Dolichospermum,Limnoraphis, Microcystis) are classified as cyanobacteria.

The eutrophication (excessive richness of nutrients) of the lake is the main cause of this bloom, and if left unchecked, cyanobacteria (in this case Microcystis specifically) will cause the toxification of the lake and make it unsuitable for human use. This has already happened at neighboring Lake Amatitlán, and to lose a national treasure due to ignorance or political incompetence is unconscionable. These nutrients, of course, come in the form of waste water entering the lake untreated, as well as the inappropriate use of industrial fertilizers which then enter the water supply. Therefore, waste management and water treatment are two of the most important issues  facing the 15 municipalities in the Lake Atitlán basin.

But in an underdeveloped country like Guatemala, where according to Ana Lena Katt, Director of Social Communications at AMSCLAE, there are only waste water treatment plants at 11 of the 15 pueblos in the Atitlán basin, there are both practical and political hurdles to full implementation of a comprehensive water treatment plan for Lake Atitlán.

According to Ivan Azurdia, scientist and Executive Director of AMSCLAE, the funds have existed for seven years to upgrade the entire waste water treatment system and water supply in the Atitlán basin. “Working through the United Nations and the IDB (Inter-American Development Bank), Spain has given Guatemala a donation of US $50 million, matched with another US $50 million in the form of an IDB loan.” Within the $50 million that was given as a donation, a portion was allocated for technical assistance. “The terms of reference exist to develop the master plan,” says Azurdia. “It is ready for implementation.”

There are three organizations that must work in harmony in order for this plan to work. “The IDB signs the checks, INFOM (Instituto de Fomento Municipal, a governmental body on the national level) will provide field supervision during construction of the project, and UNOPS (United Nations Office for Project Services) then manages the project, including procurement of subcontractors, bidding, and proposals. “UNOPS was brought on board to minimize corruption,” says Azurdia. “But time is running out.  For seven years and two administrations, the process had been held back by bureaucratic red tape.”

But finally, on 18 August 2015, bowing to public pressure, INFOM signed the document that will free the funds for implementation of the master plan. Now the race against time has begun. “After all these years of waiting, we have only four months to allocate the funding,” says Azurdia. “After 31 December 2015, the seven-year window for allocation of the funding will close. So although there’s still a lot of work to be done, the funds have finally been released, and we can finally do our job.”

So the first hurdle has been surmounted – the proper official finally released the funding to clean up the lake after the extended bureaucratic idling of two administrations. Now, only four months remain to allocate the funding and begin executing the master plan. Azurdia and his colleagues have been waiting for this day for seven long years. Now, the real work begins to implement a long-term strategy to save Lake Atitlán, one of the world´s natural treasures.


Sherm Davis is a writer, musician, and international educator currently living by Lake Atitlan in Guatemala. His self-help novel, entitled Learning to Stutter, is now available online.

Image credit: Sherm Davis