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Coca-Cola Charged with Groundwater Depletion and Pollution in India

Coca-Cola bottling plants may be taking groundwater from local villages

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River Pollution
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Dear EarthTalk: I heard that Coca-Cola is depleting groundwater around bottling plants in India so surrounding villages have no safe water supply? Is this true?
--Dan Ehl, Centerville, IA

An ongoing drought has threatened groundwater supplies across India, and many villagers in rural areas are blaming Coca-Cola for aggravating the problem.

Coca-Cola operates 52 water-intensive bottling plants in India. In the southern Indian village of Plachimada in Kerala state, for example, persistent droughts have dried up groundwater and local wells, forcing many residents to rely on water supplies trucked in daily by the government.

Groundwater Problem Began Several Years Ago
Some there link the lack of groundwater to the arrival of a Coca-Cola bottling plant in the area three years ago. Following several large protests, the local government revoked Coca-Cola’s license to operate last year, and ordered the company to shut down its $25 million plant.

Similar groundwater problems have plagued the company in the rural Indian state of Uttar Pradesh, where farming is the primary industry. Several thousand residents took part in a 10-day march in 2004 between two Coca-Cola bottling plants thought to be depleting groundwater.

“Drinking Coke is like drinking farmer’s blood in India,” said protest organizer Nandlal Master. “Coca-Cola is creating thirst in India, and is directly responsible for the loss of livelihood and even hunger for thousands of people across India,” added Master, who represents the India Resource Center in the campaign against Coca-Cola.

Indeed, one report, in the daily newspaper Mathrubhumi, described local women having to travel five kilometers (three miles) to obtain drinkable water, during which time soft drinks would come out of the Coca-Cola plant by the truckload.

Coca-Cola Offers Sludge "Fertilizer" and Beverages with Pesticides
Groundwater isn’t the only issue. The Central Pollution Control Board of India found in 2003 that sludge from Coca-Cola’s Uttar Pradesh factory was contaminated with high levels of cadmium, lead and chromium.

To make matters worse, Coca-Cola was offloading cadmium-laden waste sludge as “free fertilizer” to tribal farmers who live near the plant, prompting questions as to why they would do that but not provide clean water to local residents whose underground supplies were being “stolen.”

Another Indian nonprofit group, the Centre for Science and Environment (CSE), says it tested 57 carbonated beverages made by Coca-Cola and Pepsi at 25 bottling plants and found a “cocktail of between three to five different pesticides in all samples.”

CSE Director Sunita Narain, winner of the 2005 Stockholm Water Prize, described the group’s findings as “a grave public health scandal.”

Coca-Cola Responds to Charges of Pollution and Groundwater Depletion
For its part, Coca-Cola says that “a small number of politically motivated groups” are going after the company “for the furtherance of their own anti-multinational agenda.” It denies that its actions in India have contributed to depleting local aquifers, and calls allegations “without any scientific basis.”

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