Collectively Assessing the Baseline: A Step Towards Sustainability in Wastewater Management in Guatemala

  • 2018/07/30     Guatemala

    Participants at the workshop were hard at work identifying important indicators of a comprehensive baseline assessment (Image: Serena Caucci/UNU-FLORES).

    By Lucia Benavides and Angela Hahn, Water Resources Management Unit & Waste Management Unit

    Especially in the field of natural resource management, the stakeholders involved are often met with conflicting interests since in many cases they are using the same limited resources for different purposes. Efforts to understand the different perspectives of the actors involved are extremely crucial, in order to find a solution that not only addresses the economic, technical, and environmental aspects of the problem, but that is also socially accepted.

    Against this background, UNU-FLORES together with the local project partners Fideicomiso Ambiental de los Valles de Hidalgo (FIAVHI) and Universidad San Carlos de Guatemala (USAC) – in Mexico and Guatemala respectively – is currently developing an integrated approach to identify sustainable solution options for wastewater management in a participatory manner.

    As part of the SludgeTec project, whose research and capacity building initiatives are focused on the sustainability of wastewater management in the Americas, UNU-FLORES and USAC co-organised an assessment workshop at the study site in Panajachel, Guatemala from 20–23 March 2018.

    Map showing the location of the SludgeTec study site at Panajachel, Guatemala (Image: Lucia Benavides).

    The site is home to the fourth largest lake in Latin America, Lake Atitlán, which lies at the bottom of the closed basin. This means that all wastewater produced within the lake’s catchment area eventually reaches the lake. In general, wastewater treatment in Guatemala is limited.  Specifically, at Panajachel, low-quality effluents are reaching the water body, directly affecting tourism and fisheries, which are major income sources in the region. Evidence for alarm has already been detected.

    SludgeTec pilot site in Guatemala: Los Cebollales activated sludge wastewater treatment plant, with a view of the volcanic mountain range in the background (Image: Serena Caucci/UNU-FLORES).

    The March workshop brought stakeholders together and provided a space for networking, sharing, and discussing the common problem of wastewater management at Panajachel. It aimed to tap into stakeholders’ knowledge about the current state of the wastewater management system and to get a sense of local priorities and concerns as input for a comprehensive baseline description.

    Selected drawings from the participants who graphically expressed their view of the wastewater management problem in Panajachel during the assessment workshop.

    The design of the participatory processes is essential, assuring the right mix of actors, degrees of participation, and carefully selecting working scales. The assessment was structured in three main blocks in which international experts and local stakeholders were jointly working on (i) a shared understanding of the problem, (ii) the identification of locally relevant criteria and thresholds against which the problem and solutions options can be assessed, and (iii) the criteria for probable solution options on site. Various participatory methods were applied – such as roundtable discussions, plenary discussions, drawing sessions – to give stakeholders the opportunity to express themselves regardless of their cultural context, language, or background.

    The workshop paved the first steps towards building a common knowledge pool shared by stakeholders of very diverse backgrounds, and in doing so, tackling data scarcity and gaps. Data, where available, are found to be scattered.


    According to an initial analysis of the information gathered from the assessment workshop, it is clear that in Panajachel many stakeholders are well-informed and very much interested in participating in finding solutions to the wastewater issue. However, this is not generally the case, and the information is not evenly distributed among all potential stakeholders.

    Raising awareness and opening channels for broader participation along the decision-making process for wastewater management (and likely in the management of other resources) seem to be key issues in reaching sustainable solutions. These first impressions will continue to be tested throughout the development of the SludgeTec project.

    Participants discuss future perspectives for a sustainable management of the wastewater system at Panajachel (Image: Jennifer Paiz).

    Next month, the SludgeTec team will embark on a four-week field trip in Guatemala and Mexico to further assess the sustainability conditions at both pilot sites. Going forward, two trainings – one on the operation and maintenance of wastewater treatment plants and one on sludge management and biogas production – have been planned in Mexico and Germany for local stakeholders. Through a co-design process, various scenarios of sustainable solution options for wastewater management will be developed that will then facilitate the process of collectively deciding on one of them during a closing workshop.