Cola Wars, Water Wars
If oil defines the present, water
might define the future. But at present, it take four litres of fresh
water to create one litre of cola, and the rest is rendered waste.
Toxic waste. And what do the MNCs pay? A pittance. So much for the
fizz and the celebrity-laden ads.
Last week, water experts from 140 countries gathered in Stockholm
for an international conference and predicted water wars. More than
two billion people already live with water shortages primarily in
India, China and the Middle East. Rivers, lakes and aquifers could
become strategic assets and economies could crash as the supply of
fresh water becomes as important as foreign investment. Water is already
considered strategic in the Middle East -- Israel not only destroyed
Lebanon's roads and bridges, it also bombed its irrigation canals
in the recent war. If oil defines the present, water might define
And believe it or not, the corporate world agrees. Including Coca-Cola.
Analysts paid by Coca-Cola, Shell, Cargill and others predicted scenarios
in Stockholm that lunged from civil unrest to economic chaos to mass
movement of people to Europe because of water scarcity. Conflicts
over water may become common as governments struggle to feed domestic,
agricultural and industrial demand, their report said. Over exploitation
could result on a massive scale. Of course, the main question for
businesses was how to overcome the water problem and "still make a
profit," as Lloyd Timberlake, a spokesman for the World Business Council
on Sustainable Development, which brought the corporations together
for the study, so honestly admitted.
So what is Coca-Cola's own relationship with water? Let's take India
for starters. While Coca-Cola paid lip service in Stockholm and attempted
to show its corporate conscience, it pays next to nothing for the
millions of litres of water it extracts daily in India, including
from drought-prone areas. Ditto for Pepsi. The government's own Central
Ground Water Board reported water tables dropping 10 metres in five
years since Coca-Cola started its bottling plant in Kala Dera. The
soft drink industry is shockingly wasteful with the precious resource
of water. It take four litres of fresh water to create one litre of
Coke and the rest is rendered waste. Toxic waste. So much for the
fizz and the celebrity-laden ads.
In the ultimate corporate subsidy granted to assuage "market forces",
Coke and Pepsi pay a miniscule cess on their raw material -- water.
In Mehdiganj plant, Coke used 13 million litres of water in 2003 and
paid a water cess of between 3 paise and 30 paise for every 1,000
litres. That too depending on the usage, according to a report in
Frontline this May. Is it any surprise that communities around most
of the bottling plants are angry? With water tables receding and price
for domestic use of water rising, why this freebie for a humongous
multinational for the most precious resource? Coke's profits were
around $15 billion last year.
Protests have erupted in Kala Dera in Rajasthan too because the story
is sadly the same. According to research by the India Resource Centre,
a San Francisco-based watchdog group run by Amit Srivastava, Coca-Cola
gets free water except for the tiniest of cess. Hold on to your seats,
but the multi-billion dollar empire paid the grand sum of Rs. 5,000
a year from 2000 to 2002 and then a slightly higher amount of Rs.
24,246 in 2003 for the water it pulled out. Wait, it gets worse. The
cess is calculated based on the discharge of effluents -- meaning
the wastewater -- and not on the fresh water it extracts. So Coke
improves even on the deal of its lifetime -- 30 paise per thousand
litres. This might be the freest ride Shining India is providing a
company soaked in profits to prove it is market-friendly. Turly, life
ho to aisi.
Given the dire warnings at the water conference last week, the magnitude
of Coca-Cola's global war on water is frightening. The true dimensions
of the attack may parch the future.
In 2004, Coca-Cola extracted 283 billion litres of water worldwide
and given the ratio of raw material to the end product it canned,
it turned two-thirds of it into wastewater -- unusable and laden with
chemicals. In India, unscrupulous executives reportedly even offered
the waste to local farmers as "fertiliser". The Central Pollution
Control Board (CPCB) did a study of 16 soft-drink plants across India
after complaints from Kerala and West Bengal and found that in eight
plants, the waste contained unacceptably high levels of cadmium, lead
and chromium. The sludge carried 220-538mg/kg of lead while the limit
in India is 100mg/kg. The report was tabled in the Parliament recently.
Even though this hazardous waste must be stored and treated properly
in concrete landfills, neither the government nor Coca-Cola is building
The company claims in advertisements that it is returning the water
to aquifers in India but in reality and by its own admission, rainwater
harvesting in the Mehdiganj plant was only eight percent of the total
annual use. This is neither substantial nor sufficient despite what
the full-page ads claim as Amit Srivastava rightly asserts.
If exploitation of water is one dark side of the ubiquitous Coca-Cola,
the report by the Centre for Science and Environment in Delhi on pesticide
levels in soft drinks is another. CSE tested more than 50 samples
and found unacceptable levels of pesticides in the drinks, sending
the corporate PR machine huffing and puffing along with its Indian
extension. Whitewashing by Health Minister Anbumani Ramadoss in Parliament,
calling the CSE evidence "inconclusive" was a blatant attempt to calm
official American tempers. Washington had hollered across the oceans
in the voice of Franklin Lavin, US undersecretary for international
trade, who called the ban on Cola sales "a setback for the Indian
economy". Kerala and five other states have imposed full or partial
restrictions. Indian industry gods issued reflexive statements through
CII and FICCI, bowing to Lavin. All these speak politics not concern
for the health of the people Mr. Ramadoss was elected to referee.
Sadly, most of the media coverage has been content to leave the whole
issue to a simplistic "charges- and-counter-charges" narrative. Some
have focussed on such inanities as how Coke's PR machine lost the
ball instead of getting a head start (New York Times). Editorials
in respected Indian papers have pontificated on how opposing multinationals
is an act of faith for knee-jerk populists. Others pointed out that
India's drinking water supplies and milk are contaminated, so why
focus on Colas? For them, one wrong justifies the other. The sanguine
edit page writers had nothing to say about the evidence CSE report
provided. There are notable exceptions but India's largest selling
mainstream and financial papers are not among them. There have been
more investigative reports in the British (The Observer, The Independent,
BBC) media than in the Indian press.
Here are some disturbing evidence collected by activists to ponder:
The US Food and Drug Administration rejected shipments of Coca-Cola
products from India on at least 10 occasions since January 2005 on
grounds they were unsafe for Americans. India Resource Centre has
tracked the US directives.
The government of Latvia banned the sale of Coke and Pepsi in schools
this August on health grounds. The ban will reportedly take effect
The University of Sussex, the University of Michigan, University of
Rutgers and more than 15 others have boycotted or banned the sale
of Coca-Cola in the student union buildings on grounds of health and
Coke's anti-labour policies.
Since 1989, eight union leaders from Coca-Cola plants in Colombia
have been murdered allegedly by paramilitary goons.The plant managers
have taken no action and instead colluded with union busters against
the workers, according to UK Students Against Coke.
In Turkey, Coca-Cola officials fired 105 workers in May 2005 because
they were attempting to form a union. A month later, Turkish riot
police beat up more than 150 workers inside the factory compound apparently
with the connivance of Coke officials.
After reading up on Coke over the past week, I know I am going to
try to wean myself off this drink even though I am only an occasional
sinner. I much prefer cold water with my pizza.
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