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Why Did This Once Thriving Lake Disappear?

Previously known for having vast blue-green waters, Lake Atescatempa is now little more than a few puddles of mud.

The Lake That Slowly Vanished

Once known for its fish-filled waters, Lake Atescatempa in Guatemala has dried up, leaving nearby residents hungry and displaced.

"It makes you want to cry seeing the whole lake dry," 17-year-old fisherman Wilman Estrada tells the AFP news agency from the shores of Lake Atescatempa in Guatemala.

In recent years, Estrada and his community have watched the once thriving lake become little more than a few muddy puddles. Now, the shells of clams, snails, and immobile boats litter the lakebed.

As reported by the AFP's Carlos Mario Marquez, Lake Atescatempa has undergone a prolonged drought in the past two years that has effectively eliminated the town's fishing and tourism industries.

"We have children who are dying from lack of food," Hector Aguirre says in the AFP video report. Aguirre works with Mancomunidad Trinacional, a Central American advocacy group for indigenous communities, to push for relief efforts in Atescatempa. In Guatemala, rates of malnutrition for children under five have risen in the past decade.

"There aren't pictures that show this problem, but it is something that should embarrass Central Americans," Aguirre says.

Decade of Drought

Lake Atescatempa lies in what is known as Central America's Dry Corridor, a western region spanning from Guatemala to Panama.

Its geographic location leaves it uniquely susceptible to the cyclical weather pattern known as El Niño. This phenomenon can result in drier than average wet seasons for some regions, including the Dry Corridor. But the region is currently experiencing one of the worst droughts seen in the past 10 years.

A 2013 study published by the journal Nature foretold that El Niños may become more frequent as greenhouse gasses continue to be pumped into the atmosphere.

Without long-term data, it's difficult to say with absolute certainty that climate change contributed to Lake Atescatempa's depletion, says Tulane University scientist and National Geographic grantee Mya Sherman, who has studied the effects of drought and flooding in Amazonian communities.

Other human activity, from resource extraction to agricultural malpractice, could also be to blame. However, climate change is a likely culprit.

"Climate variability and extreme hydrological events are expected to generally increase in Latin America as a result of climate change," Sherman says.

Vanishing Freshwater

The recent drought conditions in the Dry Corridor hit Guatemalans especially hard. For people living in rural areas, agriculture and farming are forms of subsistence, and those who move to cities often face overcrowding and unemployment.

Last summer, officials from the United Nations requested $17 million to safeguard drought-stricken communities in the Dry Corridor.

People affected by Lake Atescatempa's drought have reportedly received rations of beans, rice, flour, and oil. But Aguirre tells AFP that indigenous communities have struggled to secure these rations.

Jose Graziano de Silva, the director-general of the Food & Agriculture Organization of the United Nations, stressed to UN officials last year that the overwhelming drought in Guatemala is a multifaceted issue that requires long-term solutions.

Rather than just reacting with humanitarian aid, argued de Silva, intergovernmental organizations should focus their efforts on the structural causes of poverty and food insecurity in the Dry Corridor.

And Lake Atescatempa is not the only vital body of water being affected by human activity.

In just two years, Lake Poopó in Bolivia disappeared as a result of melting glaciers and diverted tributaries. In the Middle East, the Aral Sea has become just a tenth the size it was before people began diverting water for irrigation in the 1960s.

Because lakes and their connecting rivers are such critical sources of income for many communities, droughts are contributing to the rise in climate refugees. The UN estimates that 22.5 million people have been displaced by a climate or weather event since 2008.

Residents around Lake Atescatempa, however, are still hopeful that future precipitation will replenish the lake and their livelihoods.

"Now we have to see if it will fill up again with the rain that falls," Estrada says.