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The Lake at the Bottom of the Bottom


[clock] 26-MINUTE READ ISSUE:  Summer 2011
A boy plays with a dog near Lake Xolotlán in Managua, Nicaragua.
A boy plays with a dog near Lake Xolotlán in Managua, Nicaragua. The lake is one of the most polluted in the world.
Nicaraguan ichthyologist Lorenzo López reports finding numerous fish with defects in Lake Xolotlán, but some local residents still eat their catch from the poisoned waters.
Nicaraguan ichthyologist Lorenzo López reports finding numerous fish with defects in Lake Xolotlán, but some local residents still eat their catch from the poisoned waters.
Edda Montes, right, and her teenage daughter Tatiana walk the lake's edge with their children in their arms.
Edda Montes, right, and her teenage daughter Tatiana walk the lake’s edge with their children in their arms.

It’s 8 a.m. in The Bottom, and the sun already feels like a flashlight in my eyes. A guardabarranco, Nicaragua’s national bird, flicks its two-pronged tail feathers on the jury-rigged power line behind Edda Montes’s house of scrap wood, sheet metal, and concrete blocks. The sun glints off the bird’s iridescent blues and oranges. It has a panoramic view of Lake Xolotlán: high enough to see the pale-green water stretch toward dusky mountains but too low to see the deltas of drainage ditches pocked with plastic bottles and unpaired shoes just below the knoll Edda’s house sits on.

Edda’s fifteen-year-old daughter, Tatiana, takes me to see her cousins fishing on a concrete pier surrounding a brewery outfall pipe. We follow a dirt path down the garbage-strewn side of a drainage ditch. Tatiana presses her threemonth- old daughter against her chest. Yellowy foam rides the ditch’s sour-smelling stream, which narrows to a fordable falls where it drops to the lake level.

As we cross, I remember walking this path the first time I ever saw Lake Xolotlán (also known as Lake Managua) in 2008, when I helped an arthritic, Afro-Nicaraguan named Rosalba Cox traverse this ditch. Straddling the water, I took one of her hands and pulled on her forearm. She flashed me a broad, snaggle-toothed grin and made jokes about how much effort it took just to go swimming. We were headed to “the beach” with members of the community development project Women in Action, who were showing me around their Managua barrio that locals call El Fondo (“The Bottom”). But no one would be swimming.

Lake Xolotlán is the most contaminated lake in Central America. The firm Global Water Intelligence calls it “the world’s biggest sewage lake.” In 1927, the Nicaraguan government ordered the raw sewage of Managua—Nicaragua’s capital of 1.6 million—to be pumped directly into the lake. All of the city’s untreated sewage—along with benzene, mercury, and other heavy metals from about three hundred industrial facilities—continued flowing into the lake until February 2009, when Central America’s first large, state-of-theart wastewater treatment plant opened on the lakeshore. The plant now treats approximately 40 percent of Managua’s sewage but much of the rest still flows directly into the lake. Many say the lakefront already smells better. It is no longer as if a door to an overused outhouse has opened every time the wind blows. The Nicaraguan government’s plan to further clean up the lake, however, could potentially displace The Bottom’s thousand residents who have lived with that stench every day for years. If the lake gets cleaner, the government wants to build a scenic road and tourist attractions along the lakefront.

But many questions persist. Can such a polluted lake really be restored in the Western Hemisphere’s second poorest country? And, if so, how will it affect not just the residents of The Bottom but also the more than 120,000 people who live in some of Managua’s most impoverished communities around the lake?

When Tatiana and I reach the narrow pier where her two cousins are fishing, we find them dangling their legs over the side and dipping fishhooks tied to sticks in the murky water. The two twenty-something women tell us they’ve caught three fish and point to a pink plastic bag. I open the bag and see the dead guapote (rainbow bass), each no more than three inches long. Tatiana’s cousins say they’re going to eat the fish. Many residents of the barrios along the lake eat and sell its fish to survive. I’ve even seen men shoulder-deep in the water casting nets, despite the risks of alligators, skin diseases, and mouthfuls of diarrhea-inducing water.

“The water has a bitter taste,” Nicaraguan fish expert Lorenzo López once told me. López has fished and scuba dived in Lake Xolotlán at least fifty times and caught many fish with missing eyes. He says the visibility in the lake is so bad you can’t see anything underwater. Nevertheless, more than twenty fish species live in the lake.

A fisherman casts his net into Lake Xolotlán, despite the risks of illness and disease.
A fisherman casts his net into Lake Xolotlán, despite the risks of illness and disease.

At the end of the pier, a fishing white egret, standing on submerged concrete, looks as if it’s walking on the water. Three months still remain in the rainy season, and the lake is already creeping noticeably toward The Bottom’s improvised houses.

The lake has lapped at Edda Montes’s doorstep before, she tells me back inside her windowless house while she cradles her ten-month-old, Alberto. Edda is thirty-four, tall, thin, and one of the few women I know in The Bottom who doesn’t look significantly older than she is.

“Sometimes, like now when the water is rising,” Edda says in Spanish, “it brings dead animals and lots of trash close to the house.”

The rising water isn’t only a problem because it’s dirty. In recent years, hurricane-spawned floods have destroyed entire lakeshore communities. You would think this would make Edda nervous, but she has everyday survival to worry about. She rises at 4 or 4:30 every morning to start a fire to make breakfast for her husband and four children, feed her baby and change his diaper, and iron her two school-going kids’ uniforms. Then she moves on to doing laundry by hand in her stone washboard sink.

“Every day is the same. It’s hard. I work in the house all day. By seven or eight in the evening, I’m so tired I just fall asleep. Sometimes I wish I could just leave and go on vacation.”

Vacation is not an option, though, for Edda, whose family survives on the roughly seven dollars a day her husband makes selling milk from two cows he grazes in the green ribbon of noman’s land along the lake.

Edda’s ten-year-old nephew Gerardo interrupts and asks me, “Do you have money?”

I know Gerardo is asking if I’m rich, and I explain that by Nicaraguan standards I am and by US standards I’m not. I explain what rent, food, and a car cost in the US and how much of my income goes toward each. No amount of explaining, however, can change the fact that I have the means to visit Gerardo’s house, while he lacks the means to visit mine.

As we sit talking, the morning thickens like a haze of anesthesia. By the time a shift siren at the nearby brewery splits the air and Edda declares, “It’s twelve o’clock,” her house has become an asphyxiating hotbox. The metal roof almost hums with solar radiation. Edda sees me sweating and tells Gerardo to take me outside into the shade to play a game called tronpo. I look foolish trying to tightly coil a string around a wooden top and make it hit the bare ground spinning, but Gerardo seems glad for the chance to laugh at me.

The Bottom got its name because, geographically, it’s in the lowest part of Managua. But it’s also the ecological and economic pits.

“All of Managua’s waste goes to the lakeshore: the trash, the sewage,” Ligia López, one of the barrio’s 1998 founders, once told me. Thirty-five drainage ditches slope down from the Sierra de Managua on the city’s south to the lake on its north. Two ditches transect The Bottom’s backyards, bringing whatever Managuans throw into the ditches or into the streets to their doorsteps when it rains.

When I asked 34-year-old Ligia if she visits the lakefront, she said, “No, because it’s contaminated. It carries many diseases.” Sometimes when the local children go to play on the lakeshore, she added, they get diarrhea and stomach problems.

Mosquitoes thrive in the marshy lakefront, as well. Almost half of the people in The Bottom have had malaria or dengue fever, according to resident Yadira Castellon, who recently suffered dengue’s constant burning for fifteen days. Often, they can’t afford the medications doctors at the free clinics prescribe. They suffer through or get sicker.

In the over-developed world, we would call The Bottom a shantytown or another term you often see in the papers to categorize such neighborhoods: a slum. Officially, it’s known as the “annex” to a barrio with paved streets and city services called La Primavera. The Bottom has no paved streets. During the rainy season, the streets sometimes get so muddy that children can’t walk to school. The Bottom has no legal, reliable connections to water and electricity and no garbage service either.

“Somos clandestinos,” Yadira once told me. She spoke in the first person plural because everyone in The Bottom is in the same boat: being clandestine means that they connect to city water mains and power lines with whatever materials they can muster. Sometimes the connections work, sometimes they don’t. Sometimes they only work a little.

“We have just enough power to light our house a bit,” she said, “and the water disappears sometimes, for a day, sometimes two days.”

You could call The Bottom a settlement, because almost no one there owns the land they live on. They are squatters who migrated from isolated farms or more crowded Managua barrios. They live in one-to-three-room houses made of corrugated sheet metal and scrap wood; most have dirt floors and yards of packed brown earth. Rutted streets wide enough for a single vehicle crisscross the packed space between the lake and a patch of scrubland that serves as an unofficial garbage dump. During the day, the streets are never empty, though virtually no cars drive them. Voices, bachata, and reggaeton reverberate from the metal walls.

A man collects recyclable items at Managua's municipal garbage dump, known as La Chureca, near Lake Xolotlán.
A man collects recyclable items at Managua’s municipal garbage dump, known as La Chureca, near Lake Xolotlán.
A new wastewater treatment plant helps reduce the number of pollutants going into the lake, but Xolotlán will never be drinkable.
A new wastewater treatment plant helps reduce the number of pollutants going into the lake, but Xolotlán will never be drinkable. Douglas Haynes

Like their more than one billion fellow settlement dwellers around the world, the people of The Bottom are both left behind by the global economy and a clear consequence of it. For every bottom there is a top. As Nicaraguan Sandinista leader Luis Carrión told journalist Stephen Kinzer, “When I lived in the United States, I saw the great contradictions of life there. I saw that the relative luxury of a few countries had its necessary counterpoint in the misery and suffering of countries like Nicaragua.” All of us at the top make decisions, unconsciously and consciously, about how money and justice will be distributed in the world. The squatters of Managua’s Bottom have little of either: they live on less than one dollar a day and could be removed by the Nicaraguan government anytime.

“I don’t know what’s going to happen tomorrow,” Ligia López once told me. “One has to always live with the fear that at any moment one could be evicted.”

Another searing July day: steely clouds build all afternoon over the lake and a stiff wind rises. Gusts sweep plastic bags over the dump and blow a whiff of latrine off the lake. The sudden coolness draws me out into the street for a respite from sweating that I otherwise only get in cold showers. Rain slaps down. Its clean smell mingles with rank garbage, soapy gray water, and smoke from kitchen fires. New rivulets of plastic-wrapper-ridden water twist toward the drainage ditches now raging through the barrio like whitewater rivers.

A woman I know named Esperanza Brenez fell into one of these ditches after a heavy rain. Because the nearest bridge is about a mile away, she was crossing it on a line of rocks to go to church on the other side of the ditch. As the greenish, silty water coursed around her feet, she slipped and got swept away. Like most Nicaraguans, Esperanza doesn’t know how to swim. The water washed her about twenty feet before two men jumped in and saved her.

“I was sick for a week after I fell in the water,” Esperanza told me three weeks later. I was amazed she survived at all, given the ditch’s toxic soup, which is inching ever-closer to Esperanza’s house as the dirt banks erode.

Long after the rain stops, the drainage ditches still brim with water coming down from the deforested mountains. The sun soon emerges from shifting cloudbanks, and the rainwater seems to rise to head-level and amplify the solar rays. I run into two friends, sisters Yadira and Celia, who invite me to their house.

When we reach a chained wooden gate between two rusty sheet metal shacks, Yadira calls out, “Hola!” Her nephew Byron opens the gate from inside. We enter the dirt yard surrounding the Chevy Suburban-sized home Yadira and Celia share with eight family members. Yadira offers me coffee, and I relent when she assures me that she has to start a fire for dinner anyway. She lights a few sticks on her open, cement hearth and fetches a yellow plastic cup that appears to be from a children’s tea set.

Though not quite five feet tall, 38-year-old Yadira exudes authority. She insists I sit in the family’s only chair and serves me coffee. Her nephew Byron—whose otherwise black hair bears the orange-blonde tint of malnutrition— flips a bucket over next to me and sits on it to do his homework. His blue school pants are rolledup; he’s scratching a battlefield of inflamed scabs below his knees.

“They’re mosquito and fly bites,” Yadira says. “Most of the kids have them here.”

It’s obvious why when I look at the lot behind Yadira and Celia’s yard. Grass, fruit trees, and a small garden cover much of it, but the rest is inundated with a six-inch-deep pool of gray water from the family’s outdoor sink and shower.

Six months earlier, I had helped install an underground gray water drainage system in that lot, but the two plastic tubes were overwhelmed by the volume of water Yadira uses to do laundry for the ten people in her house. Yadira says she would like to connect her sink and shower to a pipe below the barrio that ends in a nearby drainage ditch, but she doesn’t have the money to buy the tubes.

I think about how this solution would still send the gray water into the lake instead of through the gravel and sand filters in the drainage system. I don’t say anything, since this seems trivial in the face of Byron’s angry-looking legs. I drink my sweet coffee.

Around 5:30, the light suddenly lowers, and I say goodbye to walk home before dark, when The Bottom becomes more dangerous. On my way back to the family’s house where I stay in the paved part of La Primavera, I pass kids playing baseball by the dump in the black smoke of garbage fires. I pass teenagers in blue-and-white school uniforms winding home around the puddles and whistling at each other. The sun plummets behind horizon-obscuring palms.

The next day I learn that while I savored the coolness of the previous afternoon’s storm, a wave kicked up by the wind knocked three teenage boys fishing on the brewery pier into the churning lake. Two of the boys made it to shore, but the third boy’s family searched for him all night in the shallows. The police found the seventeen-year-old from the neighboring barrio drowned in the morning.

Down by the lake, Bottom resident Norma Blanco tells me she saw the boys fall in. “It was like during a hurricane,” Norma says, as she cuts firewood with a rusty machete below Edda’s place. Another storm stews in the sky behind her. A gaunt white horse noses through garbage beneath the high-tension power lines that stretch for miles along Managua’s lakefront.

My friend Yadira witnessed the police set-up yellow tape around the scene and dive for the lost boy in the dense lily pads along the shore. “The whole world is talking about it,” Yadira tells me.

The Acción 10 TV evening news shows the boy’s body covered with a bed sheet on a cot in his family’s sheet-metal house. The boy’s father says, “I have no work. I have nothing.” His chin quivers. The story ends with the news anchor warning parents to not let their children play unsupervised near the lake.

“That the waters will look like the Blue Danube in a couple years—no,” Dr. Katherine Vammen tells me in her office at the Center for the Study of Nicaraguan Aquatic Resources (CIRA). Vammen, who has studied Nicaragua’s water at CIRA since 1985, says Lake Xolotlán will never be drinkable or usable for agricultural irrigation again.

The lake has only been kept alive and capable of sustaining fish populations, because “it’s a shallow lake, and that it has a lot of wind action over it, so a lot of oxygen gets in there.”

Vammen’s reassurance that Xolotlán still contains life reminds me of the blue signs and brochures that ENACAL (the public Nicaraguan water and sewer utility) posts at tourist destinations stating: “Managua, the lake is alive. Let’s treat it well,” and “Lake Xolotlán is alive. Help us save it!”

But what does saving the lake really mean?

In order to truly decontaminate the whole lake, “we would need to take out all of the water, extract all of the contaminants, and then put the water back in,” Marvin Chamorro told me a few weeks before at the suburban Managua office of Germany’s KfW Development Bank. Chamorro is the Nicaragua Project Coordinator for KfW, the lead funder of Managua’s new $86 million wastewater treatment plant. Despite the new plant, Chamorro was cautious about predicting Xolotlán’s future: “It doesn’t smell as bad as it did before, but it’s very difficult to say that in five or six years the water will be better.”

Katherine Vammen agrees. “You can’t bring it back. The quality that it has, you can keep it there, and you can decompose most of the organic substances that go in, and you won’t have a lot of sanitary risk with it.” This means that the lake will be able to be used for boating, tourism, transportation. But, according to Vammen, “for other uses, I don’t think it will reach that. Ever.”

The British company Biwater—which built and currently operates the new wastewater treatment plant—speculates more optimistically about Xolotlán’s future in a summer 2009 company newsletter: “If all goes well, in twenty years it could be possible to once again go for a swim in Lake Managua!”

To find out more about Biwater and the workings of the new plant, I arrange to tour it and talk with the plant’s senior advisor Joanne Barlow and the plant manager Javier Nuñez. When I arrive at the lakeside plant on a blazing August morning, Barlow leads me to her office overlooking the plant on one side and Lake Xolotlán on the other.

There, Barlow points out a whitish ribbon in the lake roughly eight hundred meters offshore which indicates water moving over the plant’s outfall pipe. Fishing dories gather around it. Javier Nuñez notes that local fishermen are reporting more fish near the clean water outflow from the plant, which removes 90 percent of the biological-oxygen demand, chemical-oxygen demand, and suspended solids of the Managua wastewater entering the plant.

Still, to decontaminate the lake, “you’re talking about twenty years,” says Barlow, a 39-yearold from England who’s the only non-Nicaraguan working at the plant.

Already, though, the plant has gained international recognition. Managua is the first capital city in Central America with anything more than a primary treatment plant, Barlow tells me, and on the table in front of us, a small crystal trophy commemorates the plant’s Environmental Contribution of the Year award for 2010 from the company Global Water Intelligence. The award recognizes Biwater’s construction of the world’s largest solar sewage sludge drying facility at the Managua plant.

“The solar dryers have been more successful than anyone had hoped for,” adds Barlow. The dryers provide a low-cost, low-energy way to convert the solid waste left after the wastewater treatment process into a usable product for agriculture.

Later, out in the massive greenhouse-like drying facility, Nuñez scoops a handful of dried sludge from the ground and drops it into my cupped hands. The nearly odorless sludge is pale gray, stony and surprisingly light, like pumice.

The plant’s smell is not as foul as I expected, either, considering that up to 120,000 cubic meters of sewage a day enter the plant through an open-air canal and circulate through a series of bars, canals, sedimentation tanks, trickling filters, and anaerobic digesters. Still, the acrid scent seeps into your clothes.

“The smell is harmless,” Barlow assures me.

I return to La Primavera impressed with what I’ve seen and heard at the new wastewater treatment plant. I also know, however, that even if it continues to work flawlessly, the plant alone won’t clean up the lake.

I’m left with a nagging question: where are the residents of the world’s bottoms supposed to go when the people at the top decide that the bottoms are worth sacrificing or better used for something else?

Only about 65 percent of Managua’s households have sewer connections to the plant, according to Biwater. This means that the rest of Managua’s sewage still either goes into the lake untreated, into the ground, or is collected by septic tanks. The 2005 Nicaraguan census reported that 30 percent of Managuans use latrines in settlements like The Bottom—where none of the houses are connected to city sewers.

Currently, two projects funded by the World Bank and the Inter-American Development Bank are partly addressing the inadequacy of Managua’s sewer network by providing connections to an estimated 140,000 people. ENACAL could not expand services without financing from transnational development banks, according to Ruth Selma Herrera, former president of ENACAL. But the remaining work is not entirely dependent on outside funding for infrastructure projects. Herrera says, “The plant isn’t worth anything if people continue throwing their garbage in the drainage ditches. And not just poor people. Rich people, too.”

For this reason, Herrera led an unprecedented environmental education campaign as ENACAL’s president. Three hundred ENACAL officials visited more than fifteen hundred schools, and the utility brought university students to the new wastewater treatment plant, published children’s stories about water and pollution, and opened a museum of water in Managua.

“One day this seed will grow,” Herrera says, “but this is about five percent of the work that needs to be done.”

They’re alive,” eleven-year-old Gabriel Sanchez says, holding out his mudstreaked hands. I can’t tell if he’s surprised, in awe, or if he thinks he needs to convince me. In his palm, Gabriel cups three black snails each the size of a child’s fingernail. He has just found them in one of the streams of gray water running down from The Bottom to the lake. We’re standing by the lake with my friend Héctor Cruz Feliciano, who’s visiting the barrio for an afternoon.

Gabriel offers me a snail, beaming with pride in his find. I unfurl my hand, and Gabriel drops a snail into my palm, where it wriggles slightly, trying to right itself. Once upright, it starts almost imperceptibly moving across my palm, leaving a faintly glistening strand of slime in its wake. I watch it slide, then, when Gabriel returns to his house, throw it back into one of the gray water streams.

Like most Managuans, my friend Héctor has seen frequent public service announcements on television about the importance of the new wastewater treatment plant. The ads begin with black sewage pouring out of a pipe at the plant and end with a blue Lake Xolotlán glistening in the sun. Upon witnessing all of the polluted water and garbage going into the lake below the settlement, Héctor says, “It’s a lie that the wastewater treatment plant is going to clean the lake, isn’t it?”

Seeing The Bottom makes it clear that decontaminating Lake Xolotlán isn’t just a technological challenge. It involves addressing poverty and people’s attitudes. To truly clean the lake, all households and businesses need to be connected to the wastewater treatment plant and Managuans need to stop throwing their garbage on the ground. But for many there’s nowhere else to put it. Some in The Bottom bury trash in their yards. Others carry it to the makeshift dump nearby, which city bucket-loaders clear every month or so. Inevitably, the black mud of the dumpsite fills with the barrio’s garbage again in days.

“This could be a really beautiful place,” Héctor says, gazing at the lake’s backdrop of two cone-shaped volcanoes called Momotombo and Momotombito.

The Nicaraguan government sees the beauty, too. When I interview the Minister of Environment, Juana Aregñal, in her office a few days later, she tells me: “The government has already demonstrated that it has its eyes on the lake. It has already constructed Puerto Salvador Allende, where there’s a recreational space for the ordinary people of Managua to come and enjoy the scenic beauty of Lake Managua.”

Two days before I leave Nicaragua, I visit the two-year-old Puerto Salvador Allende and take a boat ride on its flagship, The Sweetheart of Xolotlán, which no one in The Bottom can afford. Bars and restaurants with thatch-covered outdoor tables overlook the lake. A playground of two swings and a slide hides behind two small Ferris wheels. Concrete steps painted blue, green, pink, orange, and red descend toward the water. Two signs stating danger rise above the water’s edge, where a ceramic alligator guards the port against an encroaching tide of beer bottles and plastic.

Later that day, I’m standing behind Edda’s house in The Bottom staring at the lake and she tells me, “They say the water could rise to the level of the houses.” The lake is already at the bottom of the knoll her house rests on, leaving nowhere for her husband to graze his cows but the local dump. The water has completely covered the concrete pier where I watched Edda’s cousins fishing.

Five weeks later, Puerto Salvador Allende is underwater. Photos in La Prensa, a leading Nicaraguan newspaper, show an army boat pushing off from a yellow bench where I sat overlooking the lake.

“It appears the $1.3 million invested in the construction of the Puerto Salvador Allende were in vain,” La Prensa reporter Jeniffer Castillo Bermúdez writes.

During one storm, the lake level rises more than 3.5 inches overnight. By the beginning of October, Lake Xolotlán is just 25 inches short of its 1933 highest recorded level, higher than its level after Hurricane Mitch in 1998, when thousands were killed. This time, few have been killed in Managua, but more than five thousand people have been evacuated from twenty-three lakeside barrios. I wait for word from friends that The Bottom has been evacuated, but no word comes.

Finally, on October 10, my friend Jazmin, who lives near The Bottom, emails me. “The rain has been a catastrophe,” she says—but The Bottom was not evacuated. Some of the houses closest to the largest drainage ditch have been partially flooded. And most families have been fighting water leaking through their roofs and under their houses. Parts of the neighboring barrio of Santa Clara have completely disappeared underwater, however, and many of the more than five thousand lakeshore evacuees will likely never return to their homes. Nicaragua’s Institute of Territorial Studies (INETER) projects that it will take three to five years for Lake Xolotlán to return to normal levels, if it ever does. According to Dr. Salvador Montenegro, Director of CIRA, climate change is causing more rainy seasons like 2010’s, which will push the lake higher and higher.

So, what’s the truest image of The Bottom’s future: the diversions of Puerto Salvador Allende, the underwater port, or kids like Gabriel still scooping snails from polluted water? None of my travels have given me the answer. The pollution of Lake Xolotlán is a primary reason why the people of The Bottom can live there, why they are allowed that space, but it adds misery to their lives. If the lake were made substantially cleaner, they probably wouldn’t be able to stay beside it. A 2009 Inter-American Development Bank report, “Let’s Save Xolotlán,” states that the value of lakeside land “will tend to increase when the lake is in a more advanced stage of sanitation.”

Ana Narvaez, coordinator of the Women in Action project in The Bottom, confirms this scenario: “The government would definitely take out the settlement, throw us out, and begin building hotels and making it more touristy.” The only change for residents “would be location, nothing more.”

Storm clouds gather and waters rise at Puerto Salvador Allende, forcing The Sweetheart of Xolotlán to dock.
Storm clouds gather and waters rise at Puerto Salvador Allende, forcing The Sweetheart of Xolotlán to dock.

I’m left with a nagging question: where are the residents of the world’s bottoms supposed to go when the people at the top decide—through government policies, demand for recreational space, carbon emissions—that the bottoms are worth sacrificing or better used for something else?

In anticipation of more climate change-induced flooding, the Managua City Council declared much of the city’s lakeshore a no housing zone in December 2010. In addition to policing the lakefront to prevent squatters from building houses, the city government is constructing coastal roads and pedestrian paths. Rudimentary houses for the lakeshore evacuees are slowly being built east of Managua, where there are few public services and employment opportunities.

For the time being, however, the people of The Bottom can remain. They live just over 42.76 meters above sea level—the declared no housing zone’s upper limit. The Nicaraguan government’s official position, though, is that the lakefront “should not be inhabited,” as Environment Minister Aregñal told me.

I don’t know if the Nicaraguan government will one day move the residents of The Bottom or if flooding will force them to move first, and I can’t claim to understand the complexities of how they feel about their uncertain future. I do know that the future is not the first thing on their minds.

As Ana Narvaez says, “For us every day— every day that we live—is the future.”

In indigenous Nahua cosmology, the lake’s namesake god Xolotl guides the sun through the underworld every night. Standing in the trashridden, still-warm Managua streets after dark, it’s easy to imagine dog-headed Xolotl smuggling the sun through the lake’s black depths. The breeze off the lake brushes your face with Xolotl’s rank breath. Only the god knows what sacrifice the lake will surface in the morning.

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