Not a Drop To Drink

The Lerma Santiago River Is One of the Most Contaminated Waterways in Mexico. So Why Do Government Officials Want People to Drink It?


photo of a river through a neighborhood, the surface completely covered in sick looking sudsMarco Von BorstelA thick foam chokes the El Salto Falls outside Guadalajara. “What was once a river of life has become a river of death,” a local resident says.

The Rio Lerma Santiago, Mexico’s second longest river, begins at 10,000 feet above sea level in Mexico’s central plateau, and is known as the Rio Lerma until it empties into Lake Chapala, near Guadalajara. From there, it resumes its course as the Rio Santiago, to run into the sea near San Blas, Nayarit. Considered Mexico’s most important watershed in terms of agricultural and industrial production, the Lerma Santiago is notorious for its pollution. At its source, silt from deforestation has narrowed the river and slowed its course; downriver at Salamanca, pollution from a PEMEX plant has killed everything along the banks. There is a story of a boy dropping a match at the river’s edge there and being hospitalized by the resulting explosion. But it is just below Guadalajara, near the famous waterfall of El Salto, that the contamination reaches epic proportions. And it is here that the government, with support from the Inter-American Development Bank, plans to build two dams and a reservoir to supply water to the city of Guadalajara.

In January 2008, an eight-year-old boy named Miguel Angel Lopez Rocha fell into the Santiago River near the El Salto Falls. The boy was rescued immediately, but within two days, he had fallen ill. Nineteen days later, he was dead. One medical report said the cause of death was septicemia, a general term for a septic infection of the blood. Another autopsy indicated heavy metal poisoning; arsenic in Miguel Angel’s blood was 10 times the fatal dose. The boy’s death caused a shock and brought revived attention to one of Mexico’s worst environmental disasters.

For local organizers, the tragedy was anything but surprising. “When Miguel Angel died, an invisible problem became visible,” says Maria Gonzalez of the Mexican Institute for Community Development (IMDEC is its Spanish acronym), a nongovernmental organization in Guadalajara. There had been deaths in the region before, many of them related to the toxins of the El Salto industrial corridor. “But,” Gonzalez points out, “there is the whole problem of multiple factors: We have tremendous cancer rates here, and we’ve had many, many deaths. But there have been no epidemiological studies, so technically you can’t draw the connection. Miguel Angel’s death is a death you can count.”

Twenty miles downstream from Guadalajara, the twin cities of El Salto and Juanacatlan straddle the Rio Santiago, connected by a bridge that passes over the waterfall. The El Salto Falls, tumbling 65 feet over an escarpment amid wetlands where the river flows slow and wide, were once known as the Niagara of Mexico.

In October 2008, I visited El Salto and Juanacatlan, where I met with a local community group called Grupo Vida Juanacatlan. For two hours, the Grupo Vida members told horror stories about the river and the health problems they associated with it. Most of them asked that their names not be published, due to fear of local authorities.

“But we can’t be afraid,” Raul Delgado, one of the older men, said to the others. “It’s better to speak today than to fall into silence tomorrow.”

“These falls were the pride of Jalisco,” Inéz García, a woman in her 60s, told me. “When we first came here, I would lie awake at night enjoying the sound. There was always poverty here, but there was enough to eat – fish, shrimp, mangoes that grew along the river. But what was once a river of life has been turned into a river of death.”

The falls are no longer famous for their beauty, but for the disaster they represent. A thick foam chokes the river and billows in clouds above the water, accompanied by a smell that burns the nostrils and provokes tears.

Dr. Elvira Martinez is a local physician and member of Grupo Vida. “If you want to kill a community,” she says, “kill its river. Some will die quickly and others slowly, but surely the community itself will be killed.”

Don Ezequiel, a peasant farmer who has been experimenting with organic crops and harbors dreams of one day turning El Salto into a model of sustainability, added with a mirthless laugh, “What we have here is ‘integral contamination,’ that is, poisoning of the water, the air, the soil, and the human body. And the saddest part is how it has destroyed the community.”

Like the vast majority of cities in Mexico, Guadalajara has no treatment plant for its municipal sewage, and very little treatment for its industrial effluent. Some 215 gallons of raw sewage flow every second into a pair of canals that pass through some of Guadalajara’s poorest neighborhoods. Surrounding these neighborhoods is an industrial zone where, since the 1980s, dozens of factories have dumped untreated effluent into the same canals. Of 280 sources of effluent identified in Guadalajara’s industrial corridor by the Mexican National Water Commission, 266 flow into the Rio Santiago. According to the water commission, 36.5 percent of the effluent comes from chemical and pharmaceutical companies, 15 percent from food and beverage giants, 12 percent from textile firms, and the rest from paper mills and tequila production. (For each liter of tequila, ten liters of vinaza, a highly acidic fluid, are created.) Multinationals IBM Mexico, Nestlé, and Ciba are among the sources of untreated waste.

photo of children playing in puddles close to a brickworks; there are hardhatted workers near a shackCarlos Murguía Cárdenas

Investigations have revealed dangerous levels of toxicity in the Rio Santiago. One study from 2001, conducted by the Jalisco state government and using samples taken at the El Salto Falls, found the water “unacceptable as a potential source of potable drinking water; for non-contact recreational use only; in need of treatment for industrial use; and capable of supporting only very resistant organisms.” A second study, conducted by a local NGO in 2004, looked at water samples collected along the entire length from Lake Chapala to El Salto and determined that “the waters analyzed at all points of the watershed are beyond the permissible limits to be considered adequate for irrigation, or direct or indirect contact for people or animals. In addition, these waters constitute a source of exposure to chemical and bacteriological risk.”

In Juanacatlan, the leading cause of death is respiratory disease; the second is cancer. For years, local medical professionals have seen a steady increase in the incidence of leukemia, stillbirths, and birth defects. To date, there has been no extensive epidemiological investigation that would confirm the relation between the toxic spume of El Salto and the rising incidence of illness, but, as Dr. Francisco Parra Cervantes, a local MD, told me, “You shouldn’t need a study to recognize what’s right before your eyes.”

Indeed, the smell of rotten eggs hangs in the air along the length of the Santiago River, becoming overwhelming upon reaching the falls. One of the locals’ greatest concerns is for the children who study at Martires del Rio Blanco and Maria Guadalupe Ortiz, two schools right at the river’s edge. Sulfuric acid, the source of the rotten egg smell, causes fatigue, headache, dizziness, and compromised motor function – symptoms that have been seen with some frequency in 39 out of 100 students surveyed, according to a state-sponsored study. Another study showed that children at Martires del Rio Blanco suffer a rate of illness four times greater than children not exposed to sulfuric acid. Prolonged exposure can be fatal.

photo of a dead fishPablo Prieto Gutiérrez

Despite evidence of a grave health crisis that can only get worse, Mexican health officials have refused to acknowledge the problem. The Secretary of Health of Jalisco did not respond to repeated interview requests.

“The environment here is totally devastated,” Dr. Martinez says. “It is so sad that the authorities have abandoned us to live with this total contamination. What’s worse is the way the health authorities do nothing, saying that we have no health problem. It’s almost as if we’re being punished.”

As Mexico’s second largest and second fastest growing city, Guadalajara has a desperate need to expand its public water system. So local officials have turned to their nearest source of water – the Santiago River. In 2003, Guadalajara leaders launched a plan to construct a dam, El Arcediano, to capture water that will then be treated and piped to the city’s neighborhoods. Not surprisingly, the Arcediano Dam has generated strong opposition. Many people wonder: If the river is so polluted, how can it possibly be safe to drink?

The brainchild of Jalisco’s State Water Commission (CEAS), the dam will be located 1,150 feet below the confluence with the Rio Verde. The 410-foot-high dam will be able to store up to 14 billion cubic feet of water and will include a pumping station to move water 1,900 feet uphill to a treatment plant. It is estimated to cost $290 million, with the price being split 60/40 between the state and federal governments. A complete environmental impact assessment has yet to be submitted, but it is projected that the dam’s construction will require the deforestation of 1,300 hectares of land, with the reservoir submerging an additional 800 hectares.

The Inter-American Development Bank has provided funding to the state government to construct two water treatment facilities associated with Arcediano and another planned dam, El Ahogado, that could be finished as early as 2011. But critics charge that these facilities will not address the nature of the problem. The two plants will treat domestic wastewater from all of Guadalajara, which will then be stored in reservoirs for reuse as drinking water. Construction and operation of the El Ahogado plant was recently contracted to the US engineering firm Atlatec, but construction has stalled due to lack of funding.

While water treatment is an urgent need, the plan suffers some serious flaws. Maria Gonzalez of IMDEC points out, “These plants will not treat industrial effluent. Treating domestic waste will not solve the problem. There will be no inspection of the industry, and there is no plan to stop dumping industrial waste. During the rainy season, the plant will not have the capacity to treat all the water that comes in. Beyond that, the storm drains in Guadalajara are mixed. They include industrial waste, and even what they call ‘domestic sewage’ is not merely domestic – there are small workshops, garages, and all kinds of industry that dump their waste.”

Data collected by CEAS itself indicates that the presence of excess nitrogen and phosphates in the river basin will lead to eutrophication in the reservoir, even when the wastewater treatment plants are in operation. Eutrophication involves excessive growth of phytoplankton that use up any oxygen in the water. Eutrophication also stimulates the growth of cyanobacteria, which have been linked to liver cancer.

An evaluation of the water quality data for the Verde and Santiago Rivers by Mercedes Lu, technical advisor of Environmental Law Alliance Worldwide, found benzene, toluene, trichloroethane, and heavy metals such as chromium, cobalt, mercury, lead, and arsenic; several of these substances are known carcinogens. Based on her analysis, Lu concludes that, “The technical report presented by the CEAS lacks information which would guarantee, technically and objectively, that the quality of the water to be distributed to the citizens from the Verde and Santiago rivers will be safe.”

On February 13, 2008, the Jalisco State Commission for Human Rights (CEDHJ is its Spanish acronym) issued a report about the contamination in El Salto and Juanacatlan. The report examined 94 testimonies along with information collected independently by the commission, and concludes that the contamination of the Rio Santiago has contributed to violations of the right to a healthy environment, the right to health, the right to water, the right to food, the right to social security, the right to a dignified life, and the rights of the child, as protected under international law. The Commission notes that several municipalities in and around Guadalajara have neglected their obligation of ensuring adequate sanitation. When the commission brought the report to authorities in El Salto and Juanacatlan and strongly recommended that the municipalities implement plans to avoid dumping untreated water, both refused. The commission noted that the one existing water treatment plant located in El Salto, contracted to receive sewage from the industrial corridor, was diverting untreated water into the Santiago River for fear of overloading the plant.

photo of a man in a respirator standing on a river beach, he is holding a scientific measuring meterRodrigo Saldaña LópezThe Rio Santiago reeks of sulfuric acid, which burns the
eyes and throat. Exposure to the fumes can compromise
motor functions.

Advocates at International Rivers concur. A document published on their Web site called “Evaluation of the Viability of the Arcediano Dam Project,” prepared by researchers from the University of Guadalajara, states “The known pollution of the Santiago River puts into question the proposal of the Arcediano Dam Project. Even if it were technically and economically possible to succeed in purifying the water, it is not an option that meets international standards.”

When the Human Rights Commission delivered its recommendations to the Federal Ministry of Health, officials there replied that its job is not to oversee water quality or pollution control. Indeed, a 2007 public hearing on the pollution indicated that part of the problem lies in the entanglements of bureaucracy. Notes from the hearing state: “The complexity of the environmental legal framework that prevails in the Mexican government hinders an efficient coordination of responsibilities, which leads to elusion of institutional duties.” Alma Durán, the Chief of Communications for CEAS told me, “There are many industries in the zone that dump industrial waste, which they should not do. But that is the responsibility of the municipality together with the National Water Commission.”

IMDEC and International Rivers have sent letters to the directors of the Inter-American Development Bank in Mexico and in Washington, DC asking for environmental and health impact studies of the plants. So far, they say, they have not received a satisfactory response.

“There are no proposals for short- or medium-term solutions – the megaproject is a long-term plan with an economic focus, not a community focus,” Gonzalez says. “We need a long-term plan, but we also need to address the state of emergency.”

IMDEC has worked with local communities and national and international advocates to protest the ongoing pollution and the proposed dam and treatment plants. MAPDER, the national anti-dam movement, convened a gathering of Mexican communities affected by environmental injustice in Guadalajara in May, and voiced strong opposition to the project. After several such gatherings, and significant attention from some Mexican media, awareness of the situation is growing. But government response continues to lag.

The Jalisco State Human Rights Agency recommends building small localized plants to treat the waste that flows toward the Rio Santiago. The Chief of Communications at CEAS told me that there is a plan in place to build plants to treat waste at each factory. “In fact, just yesterday we signed an agreement with all of the tequila producers in the zone,” she said on July 23. But she was unable to offer written documentation, or to indicate who is responsible for overseeing the construction and maintenance of these plants, and she failed to mention any such agreement with other, potentially more toxic industries such as tanneries or chemical companies, let alone to address the question of contamination from industry upriver.

Even if the two large treatment plants in the works and the many smaller plants that the State Water Commission claims are planned are built, they represent a classic “end-of-pipe” solution: Rather than minimizing pollution at the source and regulating businesses for the waste they create, the plan puts the burden on public funding to mitigate harm. There is no invitation for public participation in the decision-making process, despite the presence of many interested parties like IMDEC, MAPDER, and Grupo Vida. And there is no guarantee that the technological approach will work. In an effort to shift the discussion, local communities represented by Grupo Vida have developed visionary and far-reaching alternatives to the megaproject. For example, better maintenance of Guadalajara’s existing water system could save so much water that the dam would be unnecessary, since the city’s system suffers a rate of loss of up to 45 percent. Better water conservation, already promoted by groups like IMDEC, could save huge amounts. Rainwater harvesting could help fill the gap; the region enjoys precipitation of up to 10 billion cubic feet per year, none of which is collected for consumption.

In the meantime, the Jalisco State Human Rights Agency has called for a state of emergency to be declared, which would force a halt to the projects and bring the resources of all relevant state and federal agencies to bear to clean up the continuing contamination. According to Gonzalez, however, the Ministry of Environment has joined with the Ministry of Health to deny the problem, and has stated publicly that calling a state of emergency would devastate the local economy.

In the room where I met with Grupo Vida, the air was thick with the smell of rotten eggs, and with a studied awareness of what this smell means for the people of El Salto and Juanacatlan.

Don Ezequiel, the old peasant farmer, seemed convinced that the government would continue to do nothing.

“I always say that the solution is close to the problem. And there is no one closer to this problem than us,” he said looking to his compañeros. “So what are we lacking? Bravery, that’s what.”

Inéz García, leaning on a walking stick, disagreed. “I’m fighting this fight not because I want to, but because I have to. I’m not afraid. I know we can’t rescue the beauty we had here before. But we have to save what little we have left.”

A few hundred meters away, the Rio Santiago carried its choking burden of yellow foam ever onward toward the Pacific.

Jeff Conant is a researcher with Food & Water Watch and the author of A Community Guide to Environmental Health.

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