Living in a country where I can buy bottled water in bulk at any local gas station or grocery, or even simply turn on a faucet in the comfort of my home, I literally have control of clean water at my fingertips. So it's hard for me to grasp the concept that one in five people on the planet don't have access to safe drinking water (that's 20% of the world's population).
Of course, some areas are hit harder than others. A country like India, for example, with a population of over 1.1 billion people (a number that increases by 18 million each year), has very scarce water resources. (*1) So that's why when a major American company like Coca Cola hosts 13 bottling and manufacturing plants within the country, it sparks an international controversy.
Coca Cola "uses about 300 billion liters of water a year," (*2) and only 37% of that water actually goes into the product. The other 63% of the water is used for cleaning bottles, machinery, and other equipment, which later gets discarded as wastewater. (*3) In India, that wastewater is polluting the soil and remaining groundwater around the plant facilities. And in a country where 70% of the people still make livings based on agriculture, it's causing a huge problem not only for the safety and sanitation of the people, but also for their economy.
Many of the state governments in India have challenged the company in the High Court, not only for it's crimes against the land, but also for it's crimes against the people. Scientists have found that coke products sold within the country have traces of DDT and other pesticides. (DDT was outlawed in the United States in 1972, as a direct result of the publicity received from Rachel Carson's book Silent Spring, in which she argued that DDT could cause cancer in humans and was also killing off other forms of wildlife like birds, unbeknownst to the farmers who were using it.) In November 2004, the High Court decreed "that all soft drinks in the state must state the level of pesticides on the product label, in addition to the ingredients." (*4)
The Indian people have been protesting the company's actions for years. "In September 2003, over 500 people marched to the Coca-Cola factory gates and were physically attacked and beaten by police and private security guards." (*5)
So how has Coke responded to the international controversy? In May of 2006, the Chairman and CEO of the company at the time E. Neville Isdell, made a speech to address such issues, and stated "the last thing we would ever do is spend millions of dollars to build a plant that would run itself dry." (*6)
A lot of people are enraged by the company's history of apparent apathy to the issue. Groups like Coke Justice and Killer Coke have been up in arms, trying to organize people to ban the beverage from businesses and college campuses around the world.
But there may be some hope for the company yet. In July of 2008, Muhtar Kent was appointed new Chairman and CEO of Coca-Cola, and since then the company has "pledged to be 100% water neutral by 2020, meaning that it will return as much water to the system as it takes." The wastewater will also be recycled and treated before returned to the ecosystem. (*7) In a speech he made in March of 2009, Kent stated "We can't sit back and watch the water of the world continue to drain into a nonreturnable abyss." (*8) And in November 2009 Kent even made a trip to the Arctic to see the dwindling habitat of the polar bears, an animal that has been the face of Coke for many years.
So should you boycott this bubbly beverage? Hopefully you won't have to, because the company is finally making responsible decisions, but it's still hard to tell this early the game.
Regardless, you may want to think twice before the next time you pop open a soda of any kind, simply for health reasons. Ever wonder what makes it so bubbly to begin with? Carbonic acid, or H2CO3. That's the same chemical that eventually wears down solid rocks like limestone and creates underground caves. Not to mention the fact that soda generally has a pH around 2.5. That number may just be chemical mumbo-jumbo to most, but considering the fact that "battery acid has a pH of 1 and pure water has a pH level of 7" and that "a pH below 4...will kill most fish," it's not something to be taken lightly. (*9)