Below its beautiful surface Lake Atitlán is dying
The Atitlán basin is volcanic - the lake sits in a volcanic caldera with no outflow to the ocean.
Therefore everything that flows in stays in, including wastewater from more than 20 towns, vast quantities of chemical fertilizer and pesticide, and dangerous amounts of organic waste from commercial tilapia farms. Rapid population growth has exacerbated these threats. Local towns and villages have grown significantly over the last few decades and tourism is thriving.
So what does 'Lake Atitlán is dying' actually mean?
It means that the lake's ecosystem is being destroyed, that it is now so contaminated that the threat of ecological collapse is real, and could be imminent. But in fact, what is happening right now is that the lake has too much life in it - too many putrefactive organisms. The water is overloaded with phosphorus and nitrogen, the nutrients that algae feed on, which causes oxygen depletion and eutrophication.
Recommended viewing & reading
This is a must watch 7-minute summary of the big issues (date, January 2015). Local people share their stories about the impact of contamination, and the video features Dr Margaret Dix, one of the foremost experts on the health of the lake.
Political ecologists study the political, economic, and social aspects of environmental issues and changes. In this article political ecologist Emilio Travieso offers insights on why more isn't happening to save Lake Atitlán.