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Ecotoxicologist Claudia Romero, a professor at the San Carlos University of Guatemala and director of the Atitlan Studies Centre, is on a personal mission - to decontaminate Lake Amatitlan. 
Located near Guatemala City, covering more than 15,000 square kilometres, the lake is used by some 20,000 people to irrigate their crops. But it suffers from intense pollution as a result of poor waste management.
Romero has developed a natural method of biological decontamination that can be used in many different water bodies, for which she won an award last year from The World Academy of Sciences.
In an interview to mark World Water Day, Romero talks to SciDev.Net about her work, and the “vital and urgent” need to preserve global water resources.

Why is Lake Amatitlan contaminated?

Unfortunately, the lake has suffered from mismanagement of waste disposal by seven urban municipalities and the area around Guatemala City. So it receives waste from almost 400,000 people. Bad agricultural practices, the advance of agriculture boundaries, and reduction of forests also contribute to the increase in pollutants that in turn fuel the growth of microorganisms called cyanobacteria, or green-blue algae.

“If this resource is poorly managed it could mean the end of humankind, without exaggeration,”

Claudia Romero

How long would it take to clean it up?

The lake has faced a long degradation process in the last four decades, going from a eutrophic state – denoting good water quality - to a hypereutrophic one – poor water quality. 
To clean it up, we need to restore the balance of microorganisms and promote natural processes of recovery by implementing low-cost, easy-to-use technology, such as aquatic plants, or “green technology”, along the tributaries polluting the lake, such as the Villalobos River. 
With the control of pollutant discharge by authorities, and the development of a comprehensive watershed management strategy, the lake should come back to its eutrophic state within 10 to 20 years.

Claudia Romero by T. Borger
Data collectors contribute to research on polluted Lake Amatitlan.
Credit: T. Borger

What is being done to try to achieve this?

There are several initiatives for research and recovery of the lake. Together with the General Directorate of Research from the University San Carlos of Guatemala, and the Atitlan Studies Centre at the University of the Valley of Guatemala, we are developing a research project to find out the extent of human contamination in the last 50 to 70 years.
We are also collaborating with Auburn and Florida universities, in the US, with funds from National Geographic, to learn about the historical presence of cyanobacteria and cyanotoxins.
lago Amatitlán by Claudia Romerot
Lake Amatitlan is very important for inhabitants around Guatemala City.
Credit: Courtesy of Claudia Romero.

What is the role of citizen participation in these kinds of projects?

Citizen participation is key in processes of change and ecological restoration. I believe that for green technology to be successful in Lake Amatitlan, education, development and monitoring must be done by inhabitants and beneficiaries of the water resource themselves.
After lab work, the next step is to bring the results obtained to the field. For that, we need local support as well as support from the regulatory bodies of municipalities that negatively impact the lake.
Lago Claudia by T. Borger.jpg
Lake Amatitlan is very important for inhabitants around Guatemala City.
Credit: T. Borger.

What problems are there in Guatemala with water management?

Unfortunately, Guatemala has no regulations or laws on water use and management. Different initiatives have been proposed but they have not thrived, essentially because they had no scientific basis, and because water is recognized as a right, not a service. More education and institutional intervention is required to establish laws on the management of this resource. 

You could have studied a myriad of subjects. Why did you choose water?

If this resource is poorly managed it could mean the end of humankind, without exaggeration. So efforts to understand, study, manage and preserve water resources – not only for humans but for biodiversity and natural processes — are vital and urgent.

This piece was produced by SciDev.Net’s Latin America and Caribbean edition

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