Farmers Fight Coca-Cola as India’s Groundwater Dries Up
By Archana Chaudhary
October 9, 2014

Savitri Rai winces as she recounts how police beat her when she protested against groundwater extraction at a Coca-Cola Co. (KO) plant near her farm in India. A decade later, she said her water supplies keep dwindling.

“We have to dig ever deeper wells,” the 60-year-old said outside her mud house in Mehadiganj village in Uttar Pradesh state, blaming the beverage company’s bottling line a kilometer (0.6 miles) away. Coca-Cola, which declined to comment on Rai’s allegations, in August scrapped a $24 million expansion at the site, citing delays in permits to extract more water.

Such flashpoints add pressure on Prime Minister Narendra Modi to improve groundwater management in the world’s biggest user of the resource as he seeks to transform India into a manufacturing hub. Growing aquifer overexploitation by farms, businesses and cities imperils India’s development goals, according to the World Bank, signaling challenges for industries from mining to brewing in need of reliable water sources.

“You have unregulated use of a resource which is not easily renewed,” said Upmanu Lall, a professor of earth and environmental engineering at Columbia University in New York. “It’s a really significant concern over the whole country.”

India draws 230 cubic kilometers of groundwater a year, more than a quarter of the global total, World Bank data shows. Agriculture uses the most, growing about 70 percent of India’s grains with it, followed by industry.

Arm’s Length

The $1.9 trillion economy operates the world’s biggest food subsidy program, and about 742 million people live in rural areas, making farming an economic lifeline.

While groundwater is the main drinking water for more than 1.5 billion people worldwide, pollutants such as arsenic make it unfit for humans in a third of India’s 600 districts, WWF India and Accenture Plc said last year. The country faces some of the world’s worst water challenges, they said.

In Mehadiganj, about 20 kilometers from the holy city of Varanasi, 28-year-old farmer Sabita Rai said she used to extract water with buckets attached to ropes only as long as her arm. Then the wells dried up.

“We’re too poor to drill deeper,” she said, adding that her searches for water now extend further from her home.

Her sister-in-law, 45-year-old Rajpatti Rai, said she’s traveled to cities including Mumbai and New Delhi and smashed cola bottles on roads to protest against the depletion of groundwater in the village.

Permit Delay

Kamlesh Sharma, a spokesman for Hindustan Coca-Cola Beverages Pvt., Coca-Cola’s Indian business, said the company had no further comments about the plant at Mehadiganj beyond an Aug. 22 letter to the Uttar Pradesh state government.

In the letter, the company said an “inordinate” delay in getting clearances from the Central Ground Water Authority for greater extraction set back the 1.45 billion-rupee ($24 million) expansion, causing financial losses.

The area is classified as “critical” for groundwater, according to the letter, and the company took required steps such as rainwater harvesting to recharge twice the amount of water to be abstracted.

Coca-Cola said it plans to find a new Uttar Pradesh site for the planned 600 bottle-a-minute plant while continuing to run its 15-year-old returnable glass bottle line at Mehadiganj.

Water quality and availability in India are “already interrupting operations for some companies,” said Joe Phelan, a director at the World Business Council for Sustainable Development in New Delhi. “The key is for more companies to engage with communities and fellow water users in reducing shared water risk.”

‘Go Dry’

A 2009 study by the University of California, Irvine, and the National Aeronautics and Space Administration showed groundwater depletion in northwestern India from 2002 to 2008 was equivalent to a net loss triple the capacity of Lake Mead, the largest manmade reservoir in the U.S.

Depletion in northwestern India, covering Rajasthan, Haryana and Punjab, has continued at about the same rate, said Matthew Rodell, chief of the Hydrological Sciences Laboratory at the NASA Goddard Space Flight Center in Maryland.

“As groundwater levels decline, people’s wells will continue to go dry and they’ll have to dig deeper,” he said. “Eventually they’ll reach the bottom of the aquifer or water quality will decline to the point where it becomes unusable.”

Modi’s Steps

Modi’s steps to address water shortages include initial implementation of a plan to connect 30 rivers, a project estimated a decade ago to cost $92 billion.

India’s Central Ground Water Board said in July it plans to build rainwater harvesting and groundwater recharge structures around the country.

The central government is trying to convince states, which administer the resource, to pass a law to curb overuse. Thirteen of India’s 36 states and union territories have enacted the legislation, the federal administration said in August.

Companies such as SABMiller India Ltd. and United Breweries Ltd., both based in Bengaluru, said they are taking steps to conserve water. SABMiller is working with farmers near its units in Rajasthan, Haryana and Andhra Pradesh to raise groundwater levels, vice president Meenakshi Sharma said.

SABMiller said it uses 3 liters (0.8 gallon) of water per liter of beverage, and United Breweries said it uses about 3.5 liters. PepsiCo India Holdings Pvt. said audited reports show it uses 2.08 liters. While Atlanta-based Coca-Cola didn’t provide its usage for this article, it’s reported a 1.9 percent annual improvement in water efficiency and has trimmed water usage 8 percent since 2010.

Soil Moisture

The risk is conservation steps fail to address the scale of the task. The river-linking initiative, for example, ignores the reality that groundwater dependence will last many years, the South Asian Network on Dams, Rivers and People has said.

Columbia’s Lall said technology can be part of the solution, such as soil-moisture sensors costing as little 450 rupees that help farmers prevent excessive crop watering. Once groundwater is depleted, dealing with drought becomes very difficult, he said.

Government data shows a groundwater drop in 56 percent of wells in 2013 compared with the average for the decade through 2012 based on levels before the July-to-September monsoon.

At the same time, tension over water is evident. Jayaji Suryavanshi, leader of Jayakwadi Pani Sangharsh Kruti Samiti, a farmers’ organization, said he led protests against breweries in Aurangabad in Maharashtra state last year. He plans to contest local elections to help farmers.

In Mehadiganj, 35-year-old Urmila Vishwakarma said she takes water from 240 feet down versus 65 feet in prior years.

“Our biggest battle is for water,” she said. “Our situation has become critical.”

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