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TERI faults Coca-Cola for depleting community water resources

A recent report by TERI on six Coca-Cola bottling plants in India confirms that the plants have been located in water stressed areas and recommends that the plant in Kala Dera near Jaipur be closed down or relocated

In a strong indictment of soft drinks major Coca-Cola in India, a report by The Energy and Resources Institute (TERI) has recommended that one of its bottling plants in Kala Dera near Jaipur be either closed down or relocated.

Citing widespread water shortages being experienced by villages around the Coca-Cola bottling plant, the recent report by TERI recommends that the bottling plant should find alternative sources of water, which TERI said could be quite a distance away (and therefore not practical), or relocate or shut down the plant altogether.

The 500-page report titled 'Independent, Third Party Assessment of Coca-Cola Facilities in India', in its specific recommendations on the Kala Dera bottling plant said, "What emerges, however, is that the plant's operations in this area would continue to be one of the contributors to a worsening water situation and a source of stress to the communities around."

The report takes the company to task for locating its bottling plants in already water stressed areas, without much thought about the impact on communities. It validates the concerns of water scarcity and pollution that have been raised by communities in Kala Dera, Mehdiganj etc. It notes that farmers' rights to groundwater for farming must be respected and given precedence over industrial demands for water, particularly in areas that have been declared critical or overexploited in terms of groundwater resources.

The report points out the heavy pollution present in the immediate vicinity of the Coca-Cola bottling plants and calls for additional studies. It shows that the Coca-Cola company has failed to meet its own standards regarding waste management: "The presence of faecal coliform and several other physico-chemical pollutants in the treated wastewater in almost all the plants calls for an urgent and stringent definition (and implementation) of standards and practices as well as source identification."

In some plants, the report maintains, the company was not meeting the mandatory wastewater discharge standards of the pollution control board.

The report states that the company has hampered the TERI assessment by refusing to share the Environmental Impact Assessment for any of the six plants studied. The report by TERI assessed only six of Coca-Cola's 50 bottling plants in India.

Why these six plants were chosen remains unclear. Community activists would have expected to see the Coca-Cola bottling plant in Plachimada in Kerala, which has been shut down since March 2004, also included because the Coca-Cola company is still trying to re-open the plant. Similarly, a franchisee-operated Coca-Cola bottling plant in Ballia in Uttar Pradesh should have been included in the assessment because community members found industrial waste scattered all across the plant premises less than a year ago.

In a statement, Coca-Cola said, "TERI has observed that our plant in Kala Dera is a very small user of water and therefore whether or not we are present in the area will have little impact on the water levels. Also, we believe that we will be in a better position to serve the communities by being present in Kala Dera than being out of it."

It also said, "As a business that depends on water, and has expertise in water resource management, we are already making a net positive contribution to the water levels through the rainwater harvesting structures that we have installed. We have already created a potential to recharge 15 times more water than we use. Going forward, we are exploring ways we can contribute to more efficient use of water in irrigation."

However TERI's report does not say whether these water management efforts are proving beneficial. Sources said that many of Coca-Cola's rain water harvesting plants were not yet functional.

The report is the outcome of a high-profile student-led campaign in the US, Canada and the UK. Over 20 colleges and universities have removed Coca-Cola products as a result of the international campaign which aims to hold Coca-Cola accountable for creating water shortages and pollution in the areas where it operates in India.

The University of Michigan had placed the Coca-Cola company, which has the sole contract in the university premises, on probation in 2006 and had asked for an independent assessment of its operations in India.

Reacting to the report, Rameshwar Kudi of the Kala Dera Sangharsh Samiti, the local group that has led the campaign for the plant's closure, said, "We are absolutely thrilled that finally the source of so many of our problems, the Coca-Cola bottling plant, will be shut down."

Another activist, Nandlal Master of Lok Samiti said, "The report confirms what we have been saying all along. The groundwater situation in Mehdiganj is deteriorating, and we are not going to wait till we also become like Kala Dera. The company must stop its operations immediately."

It remains to be seen how the Coca-Cola company will respond to the recommendations by TERI. But activists in India have vowed to ensure that Coca-Cola meets the recommendations for Kala Dera.

Pleased with TERI's assessment, Amit Srivastava of the India Resource Centre, an international campaigning group said, "Enough is enough. Now even Coca-Cola's ally in India has found the company not up to the mark when it comes to protecting water resources and preventing pollution." The India Resource Centre had opposed the choice of TERI as the "independent" assessor of Coca-Cola because the two groups have worked together in the past: Coca-Cola has funded TERI and co-organised Earth Day. TERI had named Coca-Cola among the most responsible companies in India in 2001.

"The Coca-Cola company is part of the UN Global Compact and as a result, it has agreed to uphold the precautionary principle," Srivastava continued. "The Coca-Cola company must apply the precautionary principle and cease its operations in water stressed areas as well as areas with excessive pollution around Coca-Cola plants in India."

The precautionary principle states that "where there are threats of serious or irreversible damage, lack of full scientific certainty shall not be used as a reason for postponing cost-effective measures to prevent environmental degradation."

Coca-Cola's response to the TERI report

"Our engagement with TERI is another important step we are taking to ensure that our water management practices are consistently improving and among the best in the world. The TERI report confirms that we meet Indian regulations and on an overall basis our own TCCC standards, which are often more stringent. It also confirms that we are on the right track with many of the improvements we've made over the last few years. However, it identified some areas where we can do better. As a result, we are strengthening our plant siting requirements, our monitoring capabilities for both rainwater harvesting and wastewater treatment and our guidelines for source protection and operating in water scarce areas. We also are expanding our efforts to work with local communities to ensure sustainability of the local water resource and have launched The Coca-Cola India Foundation for Sustainable Development and Inclusive Growth. We will continue to work closely with stakeholders in our local communities to support community initiatives."

InfoChange News & Features, February 2008