Water Contamination in Guatemala

As I’ve been told in a number of (rather depressing) environmental health and policy courses, water quality around the world and it equitable distribution is a growing concern around the world. I have particularly focused on the country of Guatemala whose water problems are well documented and treatment strategies of such are falling short. Guatemala sits at a very dangerous stage in its development where it has the infrastructure and economy to support various industrial activities, while lacking the political and regulatory mechanisms by which to regulate the pollution and environmental damage these industries cause. Particularly impacted by the pollution caused by large-scale farming and goods manufacturing is Guatemala’s water sources. According to the Army Corps of Engineers Water Resources Assessment of Guatemala, many surface water systems in the country are sources of various disease-causing pathogens such as Vibrio cholera, the bacterium that causes cholera1, 2. Interestingly, basic treatment protocol is available for these types of water pollutants; the addition of minor levels of chlorine to drinking water is highly effective—theoretically. The work by Nagata, J. et al. attempts to explain why such systems are not working as well as they should in Guatemalan regions stricken with water-borne diseases2. Though the treatment may seem simple from a Western perspective, there are several deep rooted anxieties among the Guatemalan people that undermine such health initiatives. The metallic and faintly acrid taste of chlorinated water Americans tend to associate with summer fun by back yard swimming pools often reminds many Guatemalan citizens instead of Civil War fears of a tainted water supply—many Guatemalans are hesitant to chlorinate for this reason. This is only one example of the variety of “demographic, socioeconomic, social, cultural, political, and historical factors” that influence the Guatemalan perception of their water supply, the effectiveness of current treatments, and that outlines novel treatment plans anthropologists may help implement in the future.

Mayo Clinic Staff. “Cholera.” MayoClinic. April 5, 2014. Accessed August 7, 2014. http://www.mayoclinic.org/diseases-conditions/cholera/basics/causes/con-20031469.


US Army Corps of Engineers. “Water Resources Assessment of Guatemala.” 2000, 18. June 1, 2000. Accessed August 7, 2014. http://www.sam.usace.army.mil/Portals/46/docs/military/engineering/docs/WRA/Guatemala/Guatemala WRA English.pdf.


“Criticisms of Chlorination: Social Determinants of Drinking Water Beliefs and Practices among the Tz’utujil Maya.” Rev Panam Salud Publica, 2010. October 4, 2010. Accessed August 7, 2014. http://www.scielosp.org/pdf/rpsp/v29n1/02.pdf.

This Post Has 1 Comment

  1. charet22 says:

    In this instance, Nagata et al acted as applied medical anthropologists in an attempt to understand the factors contributing to the outbreaks of cholera in Guatemala. Despite the methods in place, noncompliance was too high to overcome the spread of the illness to produce acceptable results.
    As in most instances of patient noncompliance, anthropologists thinking outside the box identified the root cause of the problem. The problem wasn’t so much that there was cholera spreading through contaminated water but rather due to noncompliance from the locals. To accomplish this, interviews and surveys were systematically put in place to the population of villages in Guatemala. After having found the locals’ distaste for the chlorinated water, they were able to identify the source of the noncompliance which was contributing to the high numbers of cholera outbreaks despite their best efforts.
    While their water is left to their liking, they sacrifice taste and personal preference for cholera infested water. Had the team of anthropologists not been on site, the individuals heading up this initiative wouldn’t have been able to figure out why cholera was continuing to spread. It is this kind of outside the box thinking that is what leads to identification of the source of epidemics around the world and is absolutely essential to stopping them in their tracks. The world doesn’t always need more doctors, sometimes a medical anthropologist needs to be on site to analyze the cultural and social factors that contributed to the noncompliance. This is something that can be overlooked by standard medical doctors but is crucial absolutely essential. You can only supply so much chlorine to the masses but if no one chooses to utilize them then the whole initiative would prove to be useless, regardless of the amount of patient education.

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