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Coca-Cola at the center of conflicts over water in India

The U.S. giant is accused of draining groundwater. The state of Kerala demand compensation

Julien Bouissou
March 6, 2011

The Parliament of Kerala, a southern state of India, voted Thursday, February 24, setting up a special tribunal to rule on compensation claims against the U.S. giant Coca-Cola, accused of having polluted and overexploited aquifers, endangering the health of thousands. Agricultural losses, water pollution, diseases: the amount of damage is estimated at $ 48 million (34 million euros).

The plant in question was built in 2000 on farmland Plachimada, a village located in the middle of rice fields in high water consumers. A few months after starting the operation of the plant, residents began complaining about the taste of water, then the decline of groundwater levels.

Every day, 500,000 gallons were drawn on average 150,000 gallons of wastewater discharged. The plant was closed in 2004, following protests by residents and by order of the Pollution Control Board of Kerala. But Coca-Cola still claims the right to exploit it and brought the case before the Supreme Court, which has not yet decided.

Scientific studies are yet overwhelming. From 2003, Professor John Henry, toxicologist then at the Faculty of Medicine at Imperial College in London, warned "devastating consequences for the wastewater surrounding population." These waters contain high concentrations of chlorine and cadmium causing cancers, skin diseases and respiratory problems.

Despite similar findings in the survey conducted by the pollution control committee of Kerala, Coca-Cola continues to deny these accusations. Last week, the manufacturer has "deplored" the creation of the special tribunal judging the legislation passed in Parliament from Kerala "devoid of facts and scientific data."

There are, however, another scientific study that the U.S. giant can hardly be questioned since it has itself funded. It relates more of his plants in operation at sites where groundwater is overexploited. Conducted by TERI (The Energy and Resources Institute), the study indicates that the particular plant in Kalada, Rajasthan, is involved in "the deteriorating water situation, and tensions with neighboring communities. "

The institute headed by Rajendra Pachauri, also chair of the IPCC (Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change) does not really see how the situation could be improved and recommends the closure of the facility or its relocation. Coca-Cola believes it has persevered and established a system to harvest rainwater, "potentially", would recharge groundwater reserves.

This solution has yet been ruled out by TERI, for one simple reason: the rainfall in this region near the Thar desert, are low and irregular. Figures provided by the Office of the State Water Rajasthan speak for themselves: at the district level, water tables have dropped by three meters in the decade preceding the opening of the plant, and 22 meters during the next decade. Certainly, Coca-Cola is not the sole responsibility and made efforts to improve its production processes. It must not "only" 2.1 liters of water to produce one liter of the drink against 4.7 in 2004.

In recent decades, many industries have settled in the region and farmers began to plant crops that consume more water. "But why insist on tapping into groundwater while the situation is worsening day by day?" Annoyed Amit Srivastava, director of the NGO India Resource Center. Especially as early as 1998, two years before Coca-Cola to build its factory, the Central Agency for classified the groundwater in place "over-exploited area.

That was especially the tension with farmers is at its peak. In warm weather, farmers need to irrigate their fields while Coca-Cola to increase production to meet strong demand.

Protests have already taken place. And the police stopped the opponents of the plant from approaching within a radius of two kilometers. "Water is a common good and evil farmers perceive that a plant appropriates much water especially during drought," Amit Srivastava regrets

The absence of clear legal framework in some States, fueling tensions. While legislation regarding the exploitation of groundwater depends on the states, only 9 out of 28 passed a bill recently. "It is sometimes difficult to challenge the agreements signed ten years ago when the Law on Groundwater was not yet in operation or not when concerns about water did not exist," said Sujit Koonan, researcher Jawaharlal Nehru University in Delhi.

"What we need is a change of mentality among the farmers so they do not spoil the water with their traditional methods of irrigation, but they are prepared to accept modern methods such as the system Irrigation drip ", said Kamlesh Sharma, the head of communications for Coca-Cola to the news agency Inter Press Service, based in Rome in October 2009.

Beverage maker, who declined to answer questions from the world, has funded 331 projects of this type of irrigation. But this system requires expensive maintenance and know-how that is not accessible to all.

Many people are collecting water from further and further underground, with pumps that run on diesel. Lack of water is expensive, especially the poor.

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