GRANADA, Nicaragua – If the forestsare the lungs of Nicaragua, Lake Cocibolcais indisputably the country’s heart.Bordering 34 municipalities and spanning8,000 square kilometers, CentralAmerica’s largest freshwater lake (alsoknown as Lake Nicaragua) is consideredthe future source of drinking water for allof Nicaragua and the key to the country’sagricultural and tourism development.The lake currently provides drinkingwater for several small communities on theeastern shore of Chontales, but undergroundaquifers now serve as the watersources for Granada, Managua, Masayaand Rivas.The demand for drinking water isgrowing twice as fast as the population,and even conservative estimates here indicateLake Cocibolca will be the mainsource of drinking water for Granada in 10years, and Managua in 20.In two decades, the lake will need toprovide potable water to at least 70% of thecountry, and perhaps eventually exportdrinking water to neighboring Costa Rica.WHEN explained in life-and-deathterms, most Nicaraguans realize the paramountimportance of protecting the lake.But poverty, a lack of education, insufficientsewage infrastructure, lax environmentallegislation and general apathy haveresulted in the lake – particularly the shorelinebordering Granada – becoming pollutedwith industrial chemicals, fecal matter,gray-water runoff and garbage of everyvariety.Frustrated environmentalists are warningthat continued pollution of the lake islike taking a chainsmoker’sgamblewith the future healthof the entire country.“There are nosurprises to the waynature acts when it issick, there are onlyconsequential symptomsof infringingdegradation,” saysleading Nicaraguanenvironmental investigatorSalvador Montenegro, referring tothe disappearing species of fish and freshwatersharks in Lake Cocibolca because ofpollution.Activists and community leaders inGranada are also raising concerns aboutcontamination levels in the lake that hasneighbored their city for the last 480 years.In a letter to several government ministrieslast month, the group demanded to knowwhat the government is doing to protect thelake, and requested technical tests to determinecurrent contamination levels.Roger Monterrey, president ofGranada’s consumer rights organizationACUGRA and author of the letter, said nogovernment authority has responded to thegroup’s request.DESPITE damage already done to thelake, environmentalists and municipal governmentleaders this week found reason tocelebrate a minor victory in their efforts toturn the tainted tides.The Central American Water Tribunal,a non-governmental court that hears waterissues but whose verdicts are non-binding,last Thursday ruled that a Tilapia fish farmlocated off Ometepe Island is guilty of pollutingthe lake and violating environmentallaws.After holding audience last week withenvironmentalists and activists, the fivemembertribunal ruled in favor of the plaintiffs,who argued that the African-importedfish raised in submerged cages were threateningthe lake’s delicate ecosystem, depletingoxygen levels in the water, and depositingan estimated 27,000 pounds of fecalwaste directly into the lake each day.The accused Tilapia company,NICANOR, which has remained tightlippedduring the controversy – only onceoffering a half-hearted “it’s a big lake”argument to the national press – did notappear at the hearing, and instead sent aletter in its defense.The Environment Ministry has scheduleda forum next month to discuss theWater Tribunal’s verdict. The ministry hassaid it will decide the future of the Tilapiafarm following the forum. NICANOR hasnot commented on the ruling.WHILE environmentalistsand municipalleaders areapplauding the decision,both agree it is asymbolic – rather thana strategic – win.Humans, not fish, theyclaim, are causing thereal pollution of thelake.Benjamín Lugo,executive director of the 34-memberMunicipal Association of the Great LakeWatershed, said the lakeside local governmentsare happy about the Tilapia ruling,but stressed that fish poop was not toppingtheir list of environmental concerns.“This is not about Tilapia, it is aboutwater contamination,” Lugo, an environmentalengineer with Granada’s municipalgovernment, told The Tico Times thisweek. “We are aware that the future of ourdevelopment is based on a clean lake.”Lugo explained that the municipalitiessurrounding the lake have implemented acommon development plan for the lakebased on five sustainable and compatiblepriorities: 1) potable water, 2) agriculturalirrigation, 3) sportfishing, 4) biologicaldiversity, 5) tourism.He said all development near the lakemust meet the established priorities; newtextile plants, for example, will be prohibitedfrom setting up shop under the plan.MONTERREY and other communityleaders in Granada, meanwhile, claim theyknow nothing about the government’sdevelopment plan.“How is the government going to findsupport for this plan if no one knows whatit is?” he demanded. “The problem is thatpeople are not involved.”The consumer rights watchdog claimedthat the best way to combat pollution andenvironment abuses is through populareducation and citizen involvement, not“covert legislation.”“What good is legislation when peopledon’t know not to defecate in the lake?” heasked.Nevertheless, Lugo insists the governmentof Granada has made protecting andpreserving Lake Cocibolca a priority,regardless of who knows about it.LUGO said the municipal governmentof Granada has recently secured an$8 million loan from Germany toimprove and expand its 40-year-oldsewer system, which covers only 25% ofthe area’s population of 110,000, mostlyin the center of town.Another 50% of the population hasseptic systems, and about a quarter of thepopulation has no access to any treatmentsystem and uses rivers or the lake to disposeof human waste.With the loan, Granada hopes to get95% of its population connected to a newsewer system within the next five years,and effectively halt human-waste runoffinto the lake, Lugo said. Another loan, allbut signed with Luxemburg, will go towardbuilding a new waste-processing plant, heexplained.THE municipal water expert said pollutionfrom the 12 companies bordering thelake on the Granada coast is “under control.”He said once the runoff from humansand homes is controlled, the lake will naturallyheal itself of pollutants.