In summer 1987, while living in Guadalajara, I entertained a fellow UK geographer, who arrived with a long list of places he wanted to visit. Over the next few weeks, we ticked them off one by one. Near the end of his visit, he asked why I hadn’t yet taken him to see the famous Juanacatlán Falls, the “Niagara of Mexico”, despite them being in his “top ten” places to see. “OK”, I said, “let’s go!”
Traffic was heavy and as we drove across Guadalajara, I could see his impatience building. Finally, he asked me, “Where are they? How close are we?” I replied that we were “fairly close” but that I was absolutely certain that he would recognize them before they came into sight. A few minutes later and he screwed up his nose and said, “Ughh. What’s that smell?” “See?”, I said triumphantly, “I knew you’d recognize them before you saw them!”
Even thirty years ago, long before NAFTA, the Juanacatlán Falls were a sorry sight (and source of a worse smell). Since then, and since NAFTA, they have only become worse. These once-majestic falls, the first Mexican landscape on a postage stamp back in 1899, have been reduced to a trickle of foul-smelling effluent. At the start of the twentieth century, the falls provided hydro-electric power for Guadalajara and turned the wheels of a cotton and woolen mill, the ruins of which now stand to one side.
A recent piece of investigative journalism about the River Santiago, the river which created these waterfalls, makes for disturbing reading. It provides plenty of evidence that the rapid increase in factories along the river, mainly post-NAFTA, may have provided 50,000 new jobs, but has also led to worsening water quality to the point where exposure to the river presents a serious public health risk.
In “River of Death“, Steve Fisher lays bare the terrible reality faced by those living and working close to the river. This is a harrowing tale, with heart-rending testimony from several local residents. On a positive note, the related video, Fusion Investigates: Silent River (below) describes how Sofía Enciso and her family have defied death threats and are determined to confront the factories responsible, while demanding that the relevant authorities take action to enforce federal water quality regulations, and start to clean up the river.
Perhaps the most telling single statistic is that precisely zero companies were fined for failing to comply with water discharge regulations between 2005 and 2011.
In the video, the mayor of El Salto, the main town near the Juanacatlán Falls, claims that the river has become polluted in the past thirty years. I guess he must be too young to remember that they were seriously polluted long before that.
Is it too much to hope that the government, corporations and society in the El Salto area can all come together to remedy this appalling tale of willful mismanagement? Local residents are right to insist on the enforcement of existing water quality regulations and on the implementation of remedial measures to reverse the decline of this major river and its once-famous waterfalls. Even more importantly, urgent measures are needed to reverse the deteriorating public health situation faced by all those living or working nearby.