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Water and Community Health

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HealthWiki > A Community Guide to Environmental Health > Chapter 6: Protecting Community Water > Water and Community Health

Water is nature's gift. And water security (regular access to enough safe water) is a necessary part of community health. When people make decisions together about how to collect, store, and use their common water resources, they can ensure community water security.

To have enough safe water, most people are willing to do the work required or to pay a reasonable price. But in many places, water people need for drinking is contaminated by germs, worms, or toxic chemicals, is taken instead by industry or industrial farming, or is sold at a price people cannot afford. People's needs for water for survival and health must have more importance than other uses when decisions are made about how much it costs and how it is protected, conserved, distributed, and used.

A man kneels to wash a shirt in a bucket.
A woman wearing an apron drinks from a cup.
A woman squats to wash a baby in a large bowl.
Everyone needs water

A woman farms in a marshy rice field.
A woman squats to stir a pot over a small fire.
Industry takes a community’s water
Coca-Cola bottle

Plachimada is a small village in the south of India where farmers grow rice and coconuts. Farmers used to make a good living there because there was plenty of rain and good soil. But a few years ago this began to change after the Coca-Cola company built a bottling factory on the edge of the village.

The company drilled deep wells to get to the groundwater they needed to bottle the sugary drink. Every day the factory used 1½ million liters of water. 2 years after the factory opened, the villagers' crops were dying and their household wells were drying up. When they cooked rice, it turned brown and tasted bad. When they drank or bathed in the water, they suffered skin rashes, hair loss, pain in the joints, weak bones, and nerve problems. They learned that the company had polluted their groundwater with toxic chemicals. To protect their health, the villagers started collecting water far from their homes.

One year, the rains didn't come at all. But the Coca-Cola company continued to take water during the drought. Villagers watched as trucks left the factory day after day, carrying away the precious liquid that once gave life to them and their crops. Even sources away from the village dried up. As more and more people began to get sick, they gathered together to talk about how they could get the Coca-Cola company to stop taking their water.

After the meeting, more than 2,000 peaceful protestors marched to the Coca-Cola factory and demanded the company leave and pay the villagers for the loss of their water. The company responded by sending a truckload of water to the village every day. But this was not enough water to meet the villagers' needs. After 50 days of protests, police arrested 130 women and men. Months later, 1,000 people marched to the factory and again the police arrested many of them.

The struggle caused hardships for the people of Plachimada, but it also brought them together to demand respect of their right to safe water. After several years, the local government began to support the people and ordered the company to stop using groundwater in times of drought. But the state government said the company should be allowed to continue using groundwater. The conflict went to court where finally the people of Plachimada won the case and the Coca-Cola factory was closed.

When the people of Plachimada fought for their right to water, their campaign received attention throughout India and the world. Their struggle has inspired many others. In a world where people do not have enough safe drinking water, it makes no sense to use this limited resource to produce sweet luxury drinks, especially if a factory's use of the water makes people sick.