LAKE SUCHITLAN, El Salvador (Reuters) – A horse wades through a sea of plastic bottles, tin cans and green sludge that fills El Salvador’s largest freshwater lake, stark images showing how a key drinking water source goes neglected even as global environmental concerns are on the rise.
Known locally as Suchitlan, meaning “place of flowers” in the indigenous Nahuatl language, the Cerron Grande reservoir’s ecosystem is home to native fish, waterbirds and mammals such as cougars and ocelots.
A protected site on paper, in reality it is one of Central America’s most polluted bodies of water.
The government’s inability to control waste flooding the key reservoir comes as world leaders met in Egypt last week to debate environmental priorities at the COP27 climate summit.
At Suchitlan, women navigating rickety boats would work from the crack of dawn to chip away at the trash smothering the lake, but after a brief clean-up campaign the government slashed its budget for workers and the effort has now been abandoned for weeks.
The reservoir’s mounting trash comes from the Lempa River, which flows from the Guatemalan highlands via neighboring Honduras, before settling in Cerron Grande, located at the foot of El Salvador’s biggest hydroelectric dam.
The Salvadoran capital’s untreated waste is also swept up by the Acelhuate River before reaching the Lempa, piling in even more garbage.
Authorities from the nearby town of Potonico, hardest hit by the waste, say while people living there are not responsible for the polluted water, their health and livelihoods are paying the price.
About a fifth of the garbage produced in the small Central American country is not processed correctly, according to environment ministry data, meaning some 845 tonnes of waste wash up daily in rivers, lakes and beaches.
El Salvador is one of Latin America’s poorest nations. Its popular president Nayib Bukele has largely focused on rounding up suspected gang members and boosting the economy with a controversial bet on volcano-powered bitcoin mining, which has so far showed few results.
(Reporting by Jose Cabezas; Writing by Sarah Morland; Editing by David Alire Garcia and Josie Kao)
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