Galvanizing community action to protect the lakes of southern Chile

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Photo: Travel HoundPhoto: Travel Hound 

By Tomás Moggia 
Translation by Aislinn Mackey and Brent Harlow
 
In keeping with its objective of empowering the community, the organization Vigilantes del Lago (Watchmen/Watchwomen of the Lake) has helped develop a poster that seeks to encourage good citizen practices to protect bodies of water. The initiative is part of the organization’s participation in the Lagos Vivos network, where it has come to play a leading role in Latin America.
 
The graphic piece, which was developed with the participation of other institutions in the region, gives 14 practical tips that anyone can do to help take care of lakes, whose most serious environmental problems are linked to human behavior, primarily from aquaculture, farming, forestry and industrial activities, and urbanization. All of these are responsible for a large part of the nitrogen and phosphorus that are currently the worst enemies for lakes.  
 
Vigilantes del Lago, which began in response to environmental contamination of Lake Villarrica in 2004, has since then added 12 more lakes to its work, such as Colico, Todos los Santos, Panguipulli and Llanquihue. Their growing agenda is sustained with help received from the Ashoka Foundation, which has been supporting the project the past three years and is interested in replicating the Vigilantes del Lago model in other countries in Latin America and worldwide. 
 
The objective, however, is the same as it was when they began in Villarrica. “We want to empower the community to be an agent of change who take responsibility for the care of their lakes using citizen science,” says Victor Durán, president of the Fundación Red Nueva Ideas (Foundation of New Ideas), of which Vigilantes del Lago is an offshoot.  
 
With training, citizen volunteers can work independently to contribute to the collection of useful data that provide scientific evidence about existing or developing problems in the aquatic ecosystem, and thus back up their demands and influence good decision-making in water management. 
 
 
 
 
Power in a backpack
Vigilantes del Lago developed a limnological backpack, which simply put is a waterproof backpack with a series of instruments for monitoring the quality of the water, such as a Secchi disc, a digital thermometer, and other tools for the measurement of the transparency, PH levels, temperature, and color of the water. Thanks to the development of an algorithm, the degree of transparency can be used to calculate fundamental parameters regarding components like nitrogen, phosphorus, and chlorophyll. 
 
The set also includes three primers on bioindicators of birdlife (for which the backpack is also equipped with binoculars), insects in the aquatic phase, and aquatic plants. In this way, if a particular bird or type of plant is observed, it is deduced that the waters might have some contamination issues. In the future, the hope is to also incorporate an app that allows for the identification of algae blooms. 
 
The organization has already trained some 1,500 volunteers, now watchmen and watchwomen for the waters of their lakes, and it has also distributed around 30 of these free backpacks thanks to agreements with municipalities, universities, foundations, and educational institutions. In addition to providing reports on lake monitoring to Chile’s environment ministry and water agency officials, Vigilantes del Lago has also installed two basic laboratories in high schools at Villarrica and Pucón.
 
 
Pucón student training. Photo: Vigilantes del LagoPucón student training. Photo: Vigilantes del Lago
 
 
Citizen monitoring in Pucón. Photo: Vigilantes del LagoCitizen monitoring in Pucón. Photo: Vigilantes del Lago
 
 
Chile in diapers 
According to data provided by Durán, there are around 15,000 lakes and ponds in Chile, but only two have water quality norms: Lake Villarrica and Lake Llanquihue. That is why Vigilantes del Lago has gathered and submitted some 15,000 signatures to the country’s environment ministry pushing for the creation of nationwide water quality standards.  
 
“A study to draft standards for the northern Patagonian lakes, from Lake Colico to Lake Chapo — there are some 23 lakes — is currently in the tendering process. Why are these standards important? Because it would allow for lakes to be declared latent or saturated, and for prevention and decontamination plans to be made,” explains Durán, who is now working to collect observations and develop proposals to improve the preliminary draft of the Decontamination Plan for Lake Villarrica. 
 
Part of a global network of lake basin governance, Vigilantes del Lago is looking to go further still and is now conducting a pilot project in the Villarrica basin with the idea of extending their work into the rest of southern Chile. The organization is following the ILBM model, or Integrated Lake Basin Management (known in Spanish as Manejo Integral de Cuencas de Lagos), created by the International Lake Environment Committee (ILEC). A response to the worsening global crisis of water resources, this method provides for continuous improvement in lake basin governance by incorporating six pillars: institutions, policies, participation, science, technology and financing.
 
"Chile is behind in lake protection legislation," says Durán, stressing that other countries, even elsewhere in South America, have done much more to incorporate the concepts of land-use planning and other tools, such as education plans that include aquatic ecosystems. That is why the work begun by Vigilantes del Lago is so vital.
 
“Chile is really lacking when it comes to land-use planning, and what is happening in Lake Villarrica, preparing a decontamination plan, is powerful. Such detailed plans do not exist in any other Latin American country,” he adds, with hopes that this is the beginning of a new era in the way Chileans manage and relate to their environment.
 
 
 

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