The Right to Life and Water:
By Keith Schneider, Circle of Blue –
TIRUNELVELI, India – Just after dusk on a warm mid-January evening, attorney DA Prabakar greeted several visitors on the dimly lit street in front of his home here in southern India. The air was desert-dry and dusty in this rain-scarce river city.
All of Tamil Nadu, from Chennai in the north to this city of 500,000 residents near India’s southern tip, has wilted in the state’s worst drought in 140 years. The Thamirabarani River, which runs through the city and is famed for its steady flow even in dry years, meandered through a sickly progression of shallow ponds and mudflats.
All of Tamil Nadu, from Chennai in the north to this city of 500,000 residents near India’s southern tip, has wilted in the state’s worst drought in 140 years.
A lawyer with decades of courtroom experience, Prabakar was in high spirits despite the wearying dry spell. The law office on his home’s ground floor is a hive of legal activism. He explained that the next morning the Madurai Bench of the Madras High Court would consider motions in his high-profile “public interest litigation,” a judicial complaint filed last summer that temporarily halted the city’s Coca-Cola and PepsiCo bottling plants from drawing water from the Thamirabarani.
Prabakar was convinced, he said in an interview, that the panel of justices would eventually rule entirely in his favor and shut down the American soft drink bottling plants permanently. “The Indian Constitution includes clear protections for the right to life,” Prabakar explained. “There is no right to life more precious than water. People don’t have water now. There is no water. These bottlers take precious water from a river that doesn’t have water. It has to be stopped. It will be stopped.”
Water Upends Status Quo
Even in a region of India accustomed to periodic dry spells, the drought that has baked Tamil Nadu over the last 18 months has put the state’s 78 million residents and its businesses under unaccustomed stress. About 125 kilometers (78 miles) downstream from Tirunelveli, where the Thamirabarani River empties into the Bay of Bengal, low water levels forced the 1,050-megawatt Tuticorin Thermal Power Station to shut down in the last week of February. The plant could not acquire enough water for operations and cooling. Up the coast, in the Cauvery River Delta, crop failures caused by the drought produced a spate of farmer suicides and heart attacks. Wilted harvests led to higher food prices.
The state’s record low water levels illustrate how rising population growth, increasing demand for water, and changing moisture patterns converge to produce dangerous consequences.
The drought produced convulsive waves through politics and civic life. Riots last year erupted in Karnataka, a neighboring state, and in Chennai, the capital city, after the national Supreme Court ordered authorities to release water to the Cauvery River that was stored in Karnataka reservoirs. All over Tamil Nadu, in cities big and small, water supplies are so tight that municipal utilities often deliver water to homes for just a few hours a week. Tens of thousands of people wait in long lines daily to fill plastic jugs from tanks supplied by water trucks.
The state’s record low water levels illustrate how rising population growth, increasing demand for water, and changing moisture patterns converge to produce dangerous consequences. Tamil Nadu, in sum, has become another of the planet’s regional laboratories for understanding human responses to uncommon water stress.
In California, after four years of drought, hundreds of thousands of acres of cropland and orchards went uncultivated. In Peru, 15 large mining projects stalled or permanently shut down because of water scarcity. China stopped construction of 300 coal-fired power plants in the past two years, in part due to not having enough water for cooling and for washing coal. The flood of migrants into Europe is caused, in part, by deep drought in the farm regions south of the Sahara. A 12-year drought caused Australia’s rice industry to collapse in 2008, contributing to soaring global food prices that were a significant factor in igniting the 2010 Arab Spring.
Just as in other regions, where scarce water closed mines and power plants and curtailed operations at farms and manufacturing industries, the shift in rainfall and the disruption of two wet seasons have influenced the operations of virtually every water-consuming business in Tamil Nadu. Water use is being measured and evaluated for its social benefit like never before. Dropping groundwater levels are closely followed in news reports, as are changes in reserves. Hotels that use low-flow showerheads are applauded. Those that don’t are criticized.
In this season of drought, no business has been more forcefully scrutinized than bottlers of American-branded soft drinks. The Coca-Cola Company and PepsiCo are widely viewed in Tamil Nadu as foreign interlopers determined to reap billions of dollars by commanding scarce water that should be reserved for local farmers and citizens.
The resistance is deep and fierce. In 2015, in Perundurai, an agricultural region 350 kilometers (220 miles) north of Tirunelveli, hundreds of farmers demonstrated for weeks against a plan by Coca-Cola to build a 5-billion-rupee ($75 million) bottling plant. Nevertheless, Tamil Nadu development authorities initially approved the plant’s request to withdraw 4 million liters (1 million gallons) of groundwater a day.
Opponents worried that the plant would deplete water supplies for irrigation and pollute groundwater, points that the company disputed. When data on the plant’s proposed water consumption was made public, the protests intensified. In April 2015, after four months of civic opposition, Tamil Nadu cancelled the construction permit.
Later that year, PepsiCo proposed building a new bottling plant near Tirunelveli for its Aquafina water brand. The plant would be in the same industrial park that hosts a Coca-Cola plant.
The rival facility, opened in 2006, survived protests and then expanded in 2014. The state authorized Pepsi to draw 1.5 million liters of water a day (396,000 gallons) from the Thamirabarani River, a little less than Coca-Cola has permission to use.
The reaction from city residents and farmers was swift and aggressive. Demonstrations against the new Pepsi plant were so intense that dozens of protestors were beaten and injured in clashes with the police.