The human right to water - Page 3

Corporate conference conveys concern, but activists decry the exploitation of dwindling fresh water supplies

"We've launched an international campaign to hold Coca-Cola accountable," he said, explaining that the goal is to "apply market pressure for the abuses they continue to commit in India."

Of particular concern is the village of Kala Dera, located in an area that was identified as a water-stressed region more than a decade ago, Srivastava said. Nonetheless, the construction of a new Coke bottling plant forged ahead there in 2000. A severe drought plagued the region this year, and Kala Dera experienced the sharpest drop in groundwater levels ever recorded, according to Srivastava. "When the rains didn't come, the crops failed, and there was a sharp increase in the use of groundwater," he said. "For all its talk, Coca-Cola continued to mine for water, even as the community did not have ready access."

According to Denise Knight, a Coca-Cola Company representative who spoke at the Corporate Water Footprinting Conference, the multinational giant uses a total of 313 billion liters of water annually to produce 129 billion liters of soft drinks, juice, water, and other beverages.

Knight said Coca-Cola is committed to "replenish" the places it operates by returning the equivalent of the water it uses to communities and water bodies. Trumpeting a splashy green catchphrase, "Water Neutrality," Knight acknowledged that the term itself might be somewhat misleading because, "as our business grows, no matter how efficient we are, we'll still use more water." This program essentially consists of making it a goal to live up to its self-guided wastewater treatment standards (wastewater is treated in 80 percent of its 1,000 facilities, Knight noted), stepping up conservation efforts and funding small-scale projects like rainwater harvesting.

Knight couched it in terms of fiduciary responsibility: in the past decade, Coca-Cola's Securities and Exchange Commission filings have listed water shortages and poor water quality as financial risks to company profits. A third area of risk for the company is public perception, an uphill battle in India.

Srivastava summed up his opinion of Coca-Cola's "Water Neutrality" pitch as "hogwash." In reality, the company is extracting clean, drinkable water from poor communities that need it, leaving behind processed wastewater that people can't drink and calling it "neutral."
"It really is lies dreamed up by their PR department," he said. "They're trying to suggest that Coca-Cola has no impact whatsoever on water resources. This is outrageous."
Srivastava said the conference is essentially a scam. "We see the Corporate Water Footprinting conference as nothing more than a greenwashing effort by companies that are the biggest abusers of water. We see it as just you guys in suits and ties. The communities that are suffering as a result, their voices are never there."