“Water water everywhere
Nor any drop to drink”
– The Rime of the Ancient Mariner
The above-given couplet by Coleridge explains the thoughts of a thirsty sailor who is surrounded by nothing but seawater. It is ironic how these lines perfectly describe the everyday life of the residents of the Chiapas state in Mexico.
To give my readers context, the Mexican state of Chiapas receives close to 50% of annual rainfall. This is the reason why the state claims to account for the largest surface water in the country. Ideally, if anything, Chiapas should be a model state where easy access to clean water makes headlines. But the reality is far from this. The state has time and again been in news for the unsustainable practices of big corporations like Coca Cola. From water scarcity to ruining of cultural heritage – the state has faced it all!
The Nexus between Big Corporations and Unsustainable Water Management
Whenever big soda companies like Coca Cola enter a foreign country, they bring promises of job creation and economic growth. More often the host countries (in most cases the “developing nations”) give a full-fledged red carpet welcome to them. While there is absolutely no harm in foreign companies investing and improving the economy of a nation, but often the aspect of environmental and social sustainability is compromised.
For instance, in this case, the Coca Cola bottling plant in San Cristóbal de las Casas, Chiapas has a permit to extract 300,000 gallons of water every day from local water sources. This in turn has left the people of San Cristóbal with limited to no access to surface water. With the availability of running water limited to just a few times a week; the citizens of Chiapas drink Coca Cola instead of water to keep themselves hydrated. The domino effect of this lifestyle change has led to diabetes claiming more than 3000 lives in this state every year! After heart-diseases, diabetes is the second major cause of death in Chiapas. Health experts believe this link between water shortage and diabetes will soon result in juvenile diabetes as well.
It is appalling how one wrong step in sustainable water management will affect a whole generation of citizens in Chiapas.
The Connect Between Unsustainable Agriculture Practices and Lack of CSR
It is not the problem of unsustainable water management alone. When companies do not take their CSR (corporate social responsibility) seriously, there are good chances of unsustainable agriculture practices to creep in as well. A good case study for this is the way sugarcane cultivation was pushed in the water–scarce states of India.
As it is, sugarcane is a water-intensive crop. In India alone, Coca Cola and Pepsi are among the top three buyers of sugarcane. As farmers see more profit in sugarcane, the crop is now being cultivated in non-native states as well. This change in cropping pattern damage the local crop diversity and creates an imbalance in the groundwater levels. The number of fertilizers used to cultivate sugarcanes also degrades the soil quality. While in the case of El Salvador, the high demand for sugarcanes has encouraged child labor. If any of the sugary soda companies really cared about CSR and supply chain transparency, products of child labor would not be running so rampant.
A section of my readers might think that the connection between CSR, water mismanagement, and unsustainable agricultural practices is far-fetched. As it’s not just the soda companies but the state governments as well who are responsible for this development. I totally agree with them. The onus does fall on the short-sighted policy plans of the host countries as well. But don’t you think “proper” wastewater treatment is not just a CSR but rather the foundation of a clean and sustainable business?
In the state of Uttar Pradesh, India, the soda corporations have been off-loading the contaminated waste-sludge as fertilizers. The worst part is the cadmium-laden sludge is labeled as “free fertilizer” and distributed to the tribes living near the plant. This clear apathy on the part of big corporations calls for the need for stricter rules, more accountability, and implementation of CSRs.
The Way Ahead
I have often come across friends and colleagues who do not see the “connect” between unsustainable practices and CSR. In the above-given examples, the link between a lack of proactive CSR and unsustainable water management or unsustainable agri-practices is clear.
The way ahead to build sustainable solutions is not just having some good concepts in place, but to proactively implement them as well. Another crucial aspect, which I notice is missed out, is the inclusive participation of the local people. The indigenous communities in the Chiapas are not recognized by the Mexican government. This lack of inclusivity is a major hurdle in drafting policies that adhere to all the three pillars of sustainability. Only when the economic policies match with the cultural and environmental aspects as well we can be sure that big corporations and their CSRs are actually benefitting the society in particular and country in general.
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