Michael Blanding Talks Water Wars and Coca-Cola

Curious about the dark side of multinational corporations? On September 30th Michael Blanding, a Boston-based investigative journalist and Williams alum, told log lunchers a part of the grim and complicated story of the Coca-Cola company’s international ventures. Blanding just published his first book, The Coke Machine: The Dirty Truth Behind the World’s Favorite Soft Drink, and for his presentation he focused on one chapter about Coke’s “water wars” in India. Demonstrating that within multinational corporations “environmental laxity is more the norm than the exception,” Blanding discussed three case studies in which Coca-Cola factories were accused of taking water away from local community sources and infecting their leftover reserves with illegal levels of pesticides and metals.

In the town of Plachimada in the state of Karala, citizens’ wells began to dry up soon after a Coke factory moved in. After protesting for four years, the plant was successfully closed down. Why the success? Throughout the revolt, the protestors gradually scaled the political ladder, finally reaching the state authority.  The protests gained the international support of Greenpeace and India Resource Center and validation through news reports. In 2003, pesticides were discovered in the Indian brand of coke, causing an uproar from the middle class and bringing them into this formerly lower-class-heavy protest. Blanding argues that the two keys to victory against corporate entities are: 1. pressures on brand image and 2. binding legal consequences. In Karala, getting the state government on board was essential in achieving those goals.

Other attempts to fight the water war against Coke in India have been less successful. In both Mehdiganj and Kala Dera wells near the new Coca-Cola plant dried out while unsafe levels of chemicals were found in the local water supply of Mehdiganj. However, in contrast to the active nature of Karala, Mehdiganj and Kala Dera have much more conservative governments, making a successful protest virtually impossible.

In the US, young activists began to catch on to the international buzz, beginning the “Killer Coke Campaign,” encouraging universities to cancel their contracts with Coke. Coke responded by instigating a Corporate Social Responsibility Movement and agreeing to investigation by an Indian Energy and Resources Institute (TERI). Coca-Cola publicized that through rainwater harvesting it would give back as much water as it had taken out of local reserves by 2012. However, Branding says this plan “falls short of the mark,” because it is based on potential recharge rather than actual recharge and because it relies on rain, though Kala Dera is currently experiencing drought. “I’m pretty skeptical,” he added. The TERI results indicated that Kala Dera’s water resources were “obviously overexploited,” but that Coke generally met government standards for pollution and that no pesticides were present in Kala Dera’s water supply, causing the University of Michigan to re-sign their broken contract with Coke.

Currently, Coca-Cola is still going strong in India and has a large untapped market to grow into. “I wish there were a happier ending but that’s the reality of the situation,” conceded Blanding.

Written by Claire Lafave ’12, CES Research Assistant, 10/7