Simply put, more water is being extracted from the underground water source than is being replenished. The area around the factory is the most water stressed area in the entire district.

When Coca-Cola began operations on the site, the groundwater was categorised as ‘safe’, but in 2009, the national government changed the designation to ‘critical’.

“As the single largest user of groundwater in the area, Coca-Cola bears major responsibility for the water resources becoming over-exploited, and that too at the expense of water for residents and farmers,” said Amit Srivastava of the India Resource Center, which has campaigned against the factory since 2003.

“If Coca-Cola and its investors had any conscience and sense of responsibility, they would stop bottling operations in Mehdiganj immediately because water for drinking and farming is far more important than water for Coca-Cola.”

Dwindling groundwater is not just a localised problem. A Nasa researcher warned last month that a global ‘free-for-all’ on underground water sources could cause mass starvation and international conflict.

Boiling point

The Coca-Cola factory in Mehdiganj has long been a source of contention. It was shut down by regulators in June this year because it violated pollution norms and did not have the necessary permits. The bottling plant has been permitted to stay open while the ruling is being appealed.

Likewise a fully-built $25m expansion to the plant will never be operated, following activist and government opposition.

Coca-Cola has released a statement responding to what they term a ‘misinformation campaign’, saying: “The bottling plant at Mehandiganj is a very small user of water in comparison to the overall groundwater usage in the Varanasi region.

“In India, we set a goal to replenish more than 100 % of the water we use in our manufacturing operations nationally. To date, we have surpassed that objective by creating a replenishment potential of more than 130% of the water we use in India through the support of projects across the country.” 

Coca-Cola’s most recent sustainability report claims the company replenished 108.5bn litres of water last year – about 68% of its total usage – and is on track to being water neutral by 2020.

Rival soft-drink operator PepsiCo has also been the target of environmentalist action this week, as a flood of bad reviews forced Amazon to temporarily remove the new Pepsi True drink from its site.

Brad Allen

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