May 12th, 2005.

Just for the taste of it.

Like millions of people around the world, I enjoy an ice-cold coke from time to time despite the horror stories of what it's doing to my insides. However I've decided that as futile as this may be, I am going to stop drinking Coca-cola, not out of health concern, but out of protest.

It would seem that Coca-Cola has been engaging in some highly questionable corporate behavior in a region of southern India not far from the area I visited last year. The soft drinks giant extracts up to half a million liters of water per day from the common groundwater resource at its Plachimada facility close to some of the poorest communities in the world.

On my visit to southern India, I learned much about the region's growing water crisis, a crisis that is affecting more of the world every single day. The need for water in the region of Tamil-Nadu is so great that the area is often ravaged by drought. Rural village wells quickly dry up and underground water supplies become scarce. Crops fail and so the cycle of poverty, and the hardships that brings, continue for yet another year.

One village I visited was occupied only by women and children with the men are forced to leave and find work to send money back. The little water they were able to get from the drying well was so strong with the taste of salt it would be undrinkable to you or me.

The daily menu of the people in that village was merely rice mixed with a few peppers cooked in the salty water from their well. Only on the various festivals throughout the year would they vary this diet. It was sobering to come face to face with this kind of poverty, yet despite their situation, the women still offered us a glass of water and something small to eat.

I'll never forget the looks in their eyes. It was as if they were looking at us as the white men who were coming to save them. The almost unfathomable distance between our world and theirs was never more obvious than when we standing right there with them. As we drove away from that village in our air-conditioned SUV with ample supplies of bottled water, none of us said a word, there really was nothing we could say.
The struggle for water in many parts of the world is no less dramatic than a struggle for life. So to learn that a huge corporation like Coca-Cola is using its vast facilities and power to extract and contaminate water supplies in southern India angers me greatly. The wells and groundwater sources supply a large community of farmers, Adivasi (indigenous people) and Dalits (oppressed castes) in the Plachimada region, and while their struggle for water might not be as desperate as the villagers I encountered in rural Tamil-Nadu, it is nonetheless a grave situation revealing a most arrogant and disgusting display of corporate greed, abuse, and exploitation on the part of Coca-Cola.

Local villagers near the Coca-Cola plant have formed the Coca-Cola Virudha Janakeeya Samara Samithy (the Anti Coca-Cola Peoples Struggle Committee). The group, backed by a growing number of groups around the world, are seeking to highlight that Coca-Cola is not only guilty of causing severe water shortages for communities in the region, but also that the company is polluting groundwater and soil around its bottling facilities, distributing its toxic waste as "fertilizer" to farmers, and selling drinks with extremely high levels of pesticides.

According to Anita Roddick, founder of The Body Shop, writing for AlterNet, "The global politics of water, especially corporate-led privatization fueled by dire shortages in developing countries, is at the heart of everything wrong with globalization. Children in developing countries now drink more soft drinks than they do freshwater, often because a can of Coke is cheaper or more readily available than a clean-running tap. And nowhere is that more evident than in Kerala, India."

Every time I turn on a tap and fill a glass, kettle, bowl, or watering can with water, I think of the people I met in southern India. For them water is a luxury, not just a necessity. Yet their daily struggle for water, and the struggle of more than a billion people around the world, does not attract worldwide media attention, shock or action. It does not make headlines, it does not lead the evening news, it does not gain airtime on radio bulletins. It's the world's quietest crisis that somehow seems to be unnoticed, or worse yet, accepted.

Coca-Cola needs to understand and accept the fact that as a corporate body commanding vast sums of money and considerable influence, they should behave in a way that is responsible and fair. It's a shame such that corporations like Coca-Cola don't start listening until their shareholders start complaining. It might seem futile, but until they do I for one will no longer be buying the drink that I've enjoyed for years.