pic 1Thanks to social media, the Coca-Cola Medhiganj plant story is all over the place 1. The allegations on Coke are that they have depleted and polluted groundwater sources 2 at Medhiganj. However, this is just the visible part of the issue; and within easy media reach. The larger, less visible part is the water footprint of cola production. A water footprint (WF) is the total water consumed in a product’s entire life cycle.

In the case of cola, the biggest water guzzler is sugar. Sugarcane farms in India have consistently contributed to water deficits in many irrigation projects. Sugarcane depends almost entirely on irrigation sources. In 2008, sugarcane farms in India consumed 70 billion cubic meters of water3.

What is a water footprint

The WF for sugar is calculated by adding water consumed in the crop life, water polluted by fertilizers and pesticides and water consumed in sugar factory. Similarly, for a cola the WF is got by adding WF of sugar plus water consumed in producing other ingredients, cola production, cola distribution and cola consumption. In real life, water audits and water footprints need elaborate data from each stage and from every supplier. But we can do a simple (and almost accurate) estimation of the WF of cola manufacturing. For this, I take actual data from Coca Cola reports (I mention which ones, in the references). For cola lovers, its WF may come as a surprise.

A quick water footprint of cola

We can compute the WF for Coca Cola India, from five data sets. The five data sets are either from Coca Cola themselves, or from accepted public sources. If we analyse these figures, we get the WF for Coca Cola. These are the data sets which I will calculate the water foorprint:

  1. Coca Cola international website mentions that “…a 250ml bottle of Coca Cola (Classic) contains 27.5 grams of sugar 4.
    From this, I calculated that 110 grams of sugar is used for making 1 liter of Coca Cola (classic).
  2. Economic Times states that 710 million unit cases were sold in India in 2013 5. Coca Cola’s report to tax authorities defines a unit case as 5.678 liters 6.
    From these two figures, I calculated that in 2013 Coca-Cola India sold 4031 million liters of beverages.
  3. Coca Cola international water efficiency report 7 states that they use 2.03 liters of water to make 1 liter of cola.
  4. UNESCO Institute of Water Education research in India states that 1 ton of sugar (from cane) needs  1570 cubic meters of water.

I put these these figures in an excel sheet and calculated Coca Cola India’s water usage.

In 2013 they have consumed more than 704,403,027,400 liters (704 billion liters or 70 lac liters). However, the more important number for cola drinkers is this – 174.7 liters of water to make 1 liter of Coca Cola.

Note I have not calculated the real WF, which should include all the other ingredients along with water used in distribution and sales of the product.

Drinking water crisis in Raichur district. The Hindu. 29 April 2014.  Raichur grows many cash crops besides sugar cane.
Drinking water crisis in Raichur district. The Hindu. 29 April 2014. Raichur grows many cash crops besides sugar cane.

Every time I buy a 330 milliliter bottle of the beverage, I will have used up 58 liters of water; and buying a 2 liter bottle (supermarket size) has used up 350 liters water.

The water consumed is not from my city, but belongs to some sugarcane growing village. I am blissfully unaware that some woman in that village might have walked a few miles to fetch drinking water.

References. Where did I get the above figures from? Do check these sites…..

  1. Reported in all leading newspapers in India and abroad. Here is the news from  the Guardian, UK. http://www.theguardian.com/environment/2014/jun/18/indian-officals-coca-cola-plant-water-mehdiganj
  2. http://www.thewire.com/business/2014/08/coca-cola-abandons-india-production-expansion/379128/
  3. Leens, G; Hoekstra, A.Y. The Water footprint of sweeteners and Bio-ethanol from sugar cane, sugar beet and Maize. 2009, Published by UNESCO-Institute for Water Education. Available online here  http://temp.waterfootprint.org/Reports/Report47-WaterFootprintCrops-Vol1.pdf
  4. This is stated in the Coke India website, here http://www.coca-colaindia.com/archives/frequently-asked-questions/
  5. Read the news in Economic Times, here http://articles.economictimes.indiatimes.com/2014-07-04/news/51076433_1_pepsico-india-coca-cola-india-fanta For 2011 figures, visit Coke website here https://www.hindustancoca-cola.com/milestones.aspx
  6. This is taken from the report submitted by Coca Cola to US tax authorities, here http://ir.thecoca-colacompany.com/ Also available on their Hellenic countries website, here http://www.coca-colahellenic.com/site-services/glossary
  7. Reported on their international website, here http://www.coca-colacompany.com/setting-a-new-goal-for-water-efficiency