GUADALAJARA, Mexico – Residents of two suburbs of the western Mexican city of Guadalajara are holding out hope that federal and state governments will finally take action to clean up the Santiago River, whose heavily polluted waters are blamed for hundreds of kidney disease and cancer cases over the past two decades.
The dumping of industrial heavy waste into a 72-kilometer (45-mile) stretch of the river by some 250 companies is evident in its black water and toxic white foam, while those who take in that watercourse’s fetid odor for just a few minutes experience headaches, nausea and skin itching.
Thousands of people live on the banks of this river that begins at Lake Chapala – Mexico’s largest – and empties into the Pacific Ocean. Most of them are residents of the Guadalajara suburbs of Juanacatlan and El Salto, a town where the pollutant-filled Santiago comes crashing down as a waterfall.
On nearly every street in these communities, people tell of neighbors, friends or family members who are suffering from cancer or kidney disease. Many of these individuals have died, causing a local cemetery to triple in size.
Speaking to Efe from his home, Jesus Mercado said he was diagnosed with testicular cancer in November and that disease could jeopardize the integrity of the kidney transplant he underwent a few years ago to alleviate his chronic renal insufficiency.
Although doctors are unable to pinpoint the root cause of his diseases, they suspect they stem from his exposure to the polluted waters of the Santiago River and the contaminating particles it sends into the atmosphere.
“That’s the suspicion because I can tell you of 15 to 20 cases I know of in (El Salto) municipality (of people) who suffer from kidney disease, and many more who suffer from cancer. But I don’t think it’s a coincidence; there are a lot of us suffering from diseases, both here and in (other) municipalities along the river,” Mercado said.
A few streets away, Joaquin Contreras is convalescing from a catheterization he underwent a day before at a private hospital.
He told Efe that at least 20 of his former elementary school classmates currently suffer from chronic kidney disease and five others have died of that illness.
The 32-year-old Contreras said he has suffered from that illness since the age of 13 and was forced to undergo a transplant 15 years ago. But the condition returned a few months back because he continues to breathe in the same toxic fumes and drink the same contaminated water from the river.
“My wish is for them to clean up that river so more people don’t suffer these types of problems. I don’t think we’ll get justice because life is practically slipping away from us,” he said.
Graciela Gonzalez, a member of a group – Un salto de vida – that comprises several people sickened by the polluted river, told Efe it is too late for remediation efforts.
“Even if the factories were removed, the damage is done. The damage to the environment is permanent. It’s not going away and will only increase. The future generations are already jeopardized, and no matter what’s done (in terms of clean-up), our children and grandchildren will face a critical situation,” she said.
Even though various organizations and universities and environmental watchdogs like Greenpeace have denounced the health risks and industrial waste problems in the area, local authorities in recent years had denied that the river was heavily polluted.
That changed when a local media outlet in late January revealed the results of a scientific study commissioned in 2010 by the government of Jalisco state, whose capital is Guadalajara, and conducted by the Autonomous University of San Luis Potosi.
It found that the health and environmental problems associated with the toxic river dated back at least a decade.
The study had been kept hidden by the state government because it revealed that 98 percent of children in six nearby towns had levels of heavy metals such as lead, arsenic, benzene, cadmium (which can cause kidney damage) and mercury in their blood that exceeded the allowable limits set by the World Health Organization.
Following its publication, the Jalisco state government announced a “comprehensive strategy to recover the river,” including the clean-up of its most heavily polluted 72-kilometer stretch.
That announcement came days after the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights issued a resolution calling on Mexico to adopt measures “to preserve the life, personal integrity and health of the residents of areas up to five kilometers from the Santiago River in the municipalities of Juanacatlan and El Salto, San Pedro Itzican, Agua Caliente, Chalpicote and Mezcala.
But the time allotted for state and federal governments to take these precautionary measures expired on Feb. 29. To date, there has been no change, Gonzalez said.
The intervention of the IACHR offers new hope for some local residents, who have resumed protests that had waned in recent years. But that resolution was issued too late to make a difference, she said.
“We do have that joy that finally an international organization is telling the government that what it’s doing isn’t good enough. That’s what we’ve been saying repeatedly,” she said.
Mercado, for his part, said he hopes authorities can be pressured to take action for the benefit of young people.
“We don’t matter to either business people or the government. I truly hope they do something. We already had to suffer from this. I hope they do something for the new generations. There are already a lot of us, but there will be a lot more of us later.”