Water is essential to life and the lifeblood of our planet. Without water, we cannot sustain life.
Lack of access to clean drinking water is a reality for over 1.2 billion people- about 20% of the world's population, and mostly in developing parts of the world. Providing access to potable water remains one of the greatest challenges for the global community today.
From March 16-22, 2006, Mexico will host the fourth World Water Forum, an important international meeting aimed at ameliorating the water crisis in the world and "assuring better living standards for people all over the world and a more responsible social behavior towards water issues in-line with the pursuit of sustainable development," according to the forum organizers.
What then, we ask, is the Coca-Cola company doing as one of the leading sponsors of the World Water Forum? As a champion of unsustainable use of water globally, Coca-Cola's sponsorship of the forum puts the very credibility of the World Water Forum at stake.
The Coca-Cola company is the largest beverage company in the world, and according to its own admission, the company used 283 billion liters of water in 2004.
Any way you look at it, 283 billion liters of water is a lot of water-particularly in a world where over 1 billion people in the world cannot meet their basic water needs.
It is enough water to meet the entire world's drinking needs for 10 days! If we use the water that Coca-Cola used in 2004, we could meet the entire drinking needs of people who don't currently have access to clean drinking water for 47 days!
To add insult to injury, the Coca-Cola company doesn't just stop at extracting 283 billion liters of water.
The Coca-Cola company proudly boasts that it has a water use ratio of 2.7 to 1. That is, for every 2.7 liters of water (freshwater) it takes from the earth, it produces 1 liter of product. What happens to the remaining 1.7 liters (or 63%) of the water? It is used to clean bottles and machinery, and is discarded as wastewater.
In a world where one of 5 people do not have access to potable water, it is indeed preposterous that any company could extract such large amounts of life sustaining water, and convert the vast majority of the freshwater into wastewater. Especially given that freshwater is scarce- only 2.5% of all the water in the world is freshwater, the rest being salt water.
Coca-Cola's business practices, as well as its products, are coming under scrutiny from consumers worldwide. Coca-Cola products contribute significantly to a myriad of health problems, including obesity, diabetes and dental problems, and a significant campaign has emerged to remove such products from our schools.
Nowhere is Coca-Cola's blatant disregard for water and communities that sustain themselves from water more evident than in India.
Tens of thousands of people all across India are challenging Coca-Cola for its abuse of water resources. Coca-Cola bottling plants have dramatically affected both the quantity and quality of groundwater resources as a result of its operations, making access to water by communities even more difficult.
The company regularly extracts up to one million liters of water per day in some areas in India. The result has been sharp drops in groundwater levels, resulting in severe water shortages for tens of thousands of people.
Coca-Cola's water use ratio in India is 4 to 1 - that is, 75% of the freshwater it extracts is turned into wastewater. The company has indiscriminately discharged its wastewater into the surrounding fields, severely polluting the scarce remaining groundwater as well as soil.
The impacts being felt by the communities who live around Coca-Cola's bottling plants are no small matter. In a country where over 70% of the population still makes a living related to agriculture, taking away the water and poisoning the remaining water and the soil has had dramatic consequences.
Thousands of farmers across India are struggling to make a living because of crop failure as a result of the water shortages created by the Coca-Cola company.
Coca-Cola's abuses in India are being challenged vigorously by communities all across India. One of Coca-Cola's largest bottling plants, in Plachimada, in the state of Kerala, has remained shut down since March 2004 because the village council has refused to allow it to extract any more water from the common groundwater resource.
Yielding to the growing public outcry, the state government of Kerala has now challenged the Coca-Cola company's operations to the Supreme Court of India, arguing that "poor villages are deprived of drinking water due to overuse of ground water by Coca-Cola plant at Plachimada to produce bottled drinks for sale to people who have purchasing capacity in different cities of the country."
Similarly, in other parts of India such as Mehdiganj, Kala Dera and Gangaikondan, communities have organized themselves and are challenging Coca-Cola's abuse of water resources.
Communities in India are joined by a formidable international campaign to hold the Coca-Cola company accountable, which has resulted in increasing the pressure on the company to stop its abuses in India.
Coca-Cola's sponsorship of the World Water Forum is viewed incredulously by communities in India. How can a company with an atrocious record of abusing precious water resources be at the forefront of sponsoring an international forum whose goal is to promote the sustainable use of water?
Coca-Cola's sponsorship of the World Water Forum is clearly a public relations maneuver by the company to divert attention from the reality of Coca-Cola's relationship with water.
Communities in India and their allies are adamant that the campaign to hold Coca-Cola accountable for its crimes in India will continue to grow in size and strength until the company makes genuine efforts to deal with the water crisis it has created in India.
Until then the Coca-Cola company has no place at the World Water Forum.
Amit Srivastava is the coordinator of India Resource Center, an international campaigning organization working to challenge abuses by multinational corporations. India Resource Center will be at the World Water Forum in Mexico to challenge the Coca-Cola company's public relations exercise. For more information, visit www.IndiaResource.org.