Coca-Cola Misleading Public on Water Issues

4-29-06, 9:29 am

The Coca-Cola company is misleading the University of Minnesota by making unsubstantiated claims about its relationship to water. The Coca-Cola company has a dismal record of protecting water resources. It neither protects nor preserves water. By placing an advertisement in the Daily Minnesota on March 22, the Coca-Cola company is attempting to manufacture an image of itself that it clearly is not - a responsible steward of water.

The reality of Coca-Cola on the ground globally, and particularly in India, is a far cry from what was printed in the Daily Minnesota. The company has conveniently omitted pertinent data, and the advertisement is designed to deliberately mislead the public.

The Coca-Cola company is guilty of denying thousands of people access to water in India by affecting the quantity of water - through its massive water use, and the quality of water - through pollution. Its operations are affecting the very lifeline of India - where over 70% of the population derives a living from agriculture- and taking water away from these communities has resulted in drastic consequences.

Coca-Cola's flaunting of their increased water efficiency in the advertisement fails to provide an accurate picture of the company's relationship with water. According to the company itself, 75% of the freshwater they extract in India is turned into wastewater. And Coca-Cola extracts huge amounts of water, in some cases using up to a million liters of water per day in some facilities in India. Globally, the company extracted 283 billion liters of water in 2004, and turned two-thirds of it into wastewater. No matter how you look at it, that's a lot of freshwater, and unfortunately, a lot of wastewater, courtesy Coca-Cola.

Omitting such relevant numbers when discussing water stewardship is designed to deliberately mislead the public.

We agree with Coca-Cola's assessment that freshwater is a precious and shared resource that is under increasing stress. But for a company that converts the vast majority of the large amounts of freshwater it extracts into wastewater, responsible is hardly the word to describe its relationship to water.

Coca-Cola's abuse of water is particularly striking in a world where lack of access to clean, drinking water is a reality for over 1.2 billion people - about 20% of the world's population. Does Coca-Cola's current relationship with water - turning billions of liters of water into wastewater - qualify it as a responsible steward of water resources in the world, as the advertisement suggests? We think not.

Coca-Cola's claims in the advertisement of 'substantially' returning the water they use to local aquifers in India is also absurd. Just last week, Coca-Cola's top public relations official in India admitted that rainwater harvesting in their Mehdiganj facility 'harvested' only 8% of their annual water use. 8% is not 'substantial' by any measure, and is indicative, once again, of the deliberate attempt by the company to mislead.

Rainwater harvesting is not, as Coca-Cola may suggest, an altruistic measure on their part. It is the result of the formidable community campaigns all across India challenging the company's water abuses that have forced the company to adopt rainwater harvesting. But rainwater harvesting alone is not enough to meet Coca-Cola's supersized thirst for water.

The Coca-Cola company does not mention in the advertisement that it has been indicted for polluting water and land in India, which has resulted in further hardships for thousands. One of Coca-Cola's largest bottling plants in India has remained shut down for over two years now because the State Pollution Control Board will not allow it to operate-citing the company for gross pollution. Numerous tests conducted by government and independent agencies have confirmed that the water around Coca-Cola's bottling plants have been severely polluted and are unfit for human consumption.

Twenty villages in the vicinity of Coca-Cola's bottling plant in Mehdiganj, in northern India, have embarked upon an indefinite vigil on March 23, demanding that the plant shut down before summer begins, when water shortages are particularly acute.

The misleading advertisement in the Daily Minnesota does nothing to assuage the serious concerns of the thousands of people living near Mehdiganj.

As a prestigious institution of higher learning, the University of Minnesota plays a key role in advancing a global society based on the principles of fairness, justice and equality. We believe that continued business with Coca-Cola negates these principles. We invite the University of Minnesota to become part of the solution by refusing to do business with the Coca-Cola company until it cleans up its act in India.

We welcome a thorough investigation into Coca-Cola's crimes in India. Indeed, we expect no less from the University of Minnesota.

We challenge the Coca-Cola company to a public debate on the issues in India for the benefit of the University of Minnesota. The facts tell the true story. The full-page advertisement by the Coca-Cola company does not.

--Amit Srivastava is the coordinator of the India Resource Center, an international campaigning organization that works directly with communities in India affected by Coca-Cola's practices. this article originally appeared on IRC's website.