In the northern Italian region of Veneto, drought has forced half the municipalities to ration water resources. In contrast, the region's Coca-Cola plant has upped production, using even more water that it gets for a cheap price.
NOGARA — On the morning of Sat., July 9, several hundred activists from the Rise Up 4 Climate Justice movement arrived at the Nogara train station from all over the Veneto region, in northeastern Italy, and then walked to the town's industrial area. They were headed to the local Coca-Cola plant to protest its "extractivist" policies, which are based on hoarding resources at the expense of the local community.
In the Verona region, drought has caused a severe water crisis that has forced half of the municipalities to restrict water use. On the other hand, Coca-Cola, which uses water as its main raw material, has not slowed production.
Indeed, a regional decree from July 31, 2020 allows it to increase the "average flow rate" of water drawn from the underground aquifer by 37%, and as demand for the soft drink continues to rise, production lines are running at full capacity.
All at a paltry price: one cent (in euros) per every 1,000 liters of water taken from the wells located inside the plant.
Water rationing for citizens — but not Coca-Cola
In cafés along the way to the factory, 400-milliliter bottles of Coca-Cola "produced in Nogara" are on sale for €3.40. The company has reduced the size of the half-liter bottles, but not the price, a trick used to mask the effects of inflation and pass it on to customers.
Arriving in front of the factory gates, climate activists blocked the road, displaying signs denouncing "speculation" and shouting slogans against the U.S. multinational.
"We talk about water rationing in homes and then there are companies that have direct access to water and use it for products we don't need," a young ecologist, Fabrizia Toninello, told Rainews24.
A group of protesters from northeastern social centers, recognizable by their white overalls, tried to go through the entrance gate, but were pushed back by police in riot gear. There was shoving, shouting, and a few batons flew in the air.
"We want to draw attention to the fact that water rationing applies to private citizens and not to Coca-Cola," explains Sergio Zulian, who arrived from Treviso, a city close to Venice, to participate in the demonstration.
Subservient to multinationals
The municipality of Nogara is the only one in the entire province of Verona that does not have an aqueduct. It has a network of pipes built in the early 1980s, but it never went into operation.
When the public water company, Acque Veronesi, tried to start using the pipes, it realized that many were lined with asbestos and was only able to connect a few homes in the city center to the water supply. Two-thirds of the 3,500 private homes and even the hospital get their water from their own wells. Since hardly anyone has meters, the water company estimates consumption at a flat rate of 64 cubic meters per year.
Coca-Cola is untouchable here
Coca-Cola draws its own water. It has obtained a "concession for the derivation of groundwater through a well" for "industrial, potable, hygienic and sanitary, and assimilated use" from the Veneto region.
In this way, the multinational company, while exploiting water for commercial purposes like the companies that bottle mineral water, pays much less for it. What's more, it is exempt from the costs of purification and disposal, which the rest of the population pays for in their bills instead.
"It is an example of how local institutions are subservient to the multinational," says former mayor Paolo Andreoli, of the Italian Left party. "The Nogara plant is one of the clearest examples of extractivism in our country," the protest organizers wrote in a press release.
Paying less than private citizens
Coca-Cola is untouchable here. When logistics workers organized by the grassroots union Adl Cobas went on strike for 40 days straight in 2017 protesting working conditions, private guards sent by employers used taser guns against the protesters and for the first time the factory suspended production. The U.S. Embassy in Rome asked then Prime Minister Paolo Gentiloni to intervene to stop the protests.
It is also unclear how many wells it operates. "There are at least five," says Roberto Malesani of Adl Cobas. "There are seven, all inside the plant," Andreoli adds confidently.
Three are mentioned in the permits, each of which is connected to a 1,400 cubic meter storage tank, from which "the three different distribution lines dedicated to their respective uses branch off."
All pump water at the rate of 173.80 cubic meters per hour, 24 hours a day, 365 days a year, for a total of 1.5 billion liters per year on average, three times the consumption of the entire population of Nogara. The final bill is about €14,000 per year. "An unheard-of disproportionate amount compared to consumption. They pay much less than private citizens," Andreoli says.
To demonstrate this, he shows a €39.74 bill for a consumption of 23 cubic meters of water. That's €1.72 per 1,000 liters, almost double what Coca-Cola pays. "A private home consumes between 60 and 70 cubic meters per year, while the plant reaches 1.7 million cubic meters, the equivalent of a municipality of 25,000 inhabitants," he calculates.
Po river running dry
In the aftermath of the demonstration, Italian Left issued an alert. "There is a risk that there will be no more water and this would harm the entire population of Nogara, including the Coca-Cola workers themselves," it wrote in a press release in which it called for the suspension of production. "I'm not saying they should stop altogether, maybe just slow down a bit," says Andreoli. "Managers should understand that if the water runs out, the plant will shut down for real."
Twenty kilometers to the south, the Po river is running dry, the underground aquifers are dried up by the drought, their levels have dropped, and the president of Acque Veronesi, Roberto Mantovanelli, was already forced in mid-June to write to all the mayors of the province, asking them to take measures to limit consumption.
The first to take action was the mayor of Nogara, who, on June 21, banned "the use of drinking water for purposes other than domestic and sanitary purposes."
In Italy, Coca Cola is the most widely drunk beverage
On July 1, as soon as he was elected, the center-left mayor in Verona, former soccer player Damiano Tommasi, extended a similar ordinance by his predecessor Federico Sboarina, of the right-wing Brothers of Italy party, recommending that citizens "conscientiously use water also in daily activities at home, reducing its waste."
His colleague in the neighboring municipality of Villafranca, Roberto Luca Dall'Oca, of the center-right, has banned filling swimming pools, watering vegetable gardens and washing cars all summer.
According to data provided by Acque Veronesi, 40 of the 77 municipalities served by the water company have adopted similar ordinances, allowing water to be used only for "hygienic and sanitary uses" and providing fines of up to €500 for those who do not comply.
13.7 billion liters
Coca-Cola, on the other hand, has not faced any restrictions.
At the Nogara plant, the ten production lines and the high-speed line, which cost €15 million and opened in 2020, have never stopped running at full capacity. In the warehouses, "the pallets are full to the ceiling," says a logistics worker. "We are in a phase of overproduction."
After a downturn in sales during the pandemic, the multinational has resumed making more money than before.
Worldwide, 13.7 billion liters of Coca-Cola in its different versions — original, Zero and light — were sold in 2021, 13% more than in 2020, and net profit reached €547 million, 32% more than the previous year. In Italy, it is the most widely drunk beverage. It makes €870 million, employs 22,000 people between direct jobs and the wider network of suppliers, and contributes 0.05% to the gross domestic product.
Staggering figures that make the one cent paid to the state for every thousand liters of water consumed stand out even more.
Giuseppe Ubertone a farmer on the dry field due to drought in Milan, Italy
Key to the economy
Among the 8,300 residents of Nogara, few dare question the favorable treatment of the multinational company.
"We have to take into account that this is a company that offers direct employment and linked activities too," says Mayor Flavio Pasini, of the far-right League.
The Atlanta-based giant arrived here in 1975 and over the past decade has invested €100 million in the 146,000 square meters of the Veneto plant, the largest in southern Europe. It employs 427 people hired by Coca-Cola, mostly office workers, while most of the workers depend on contracting companies and cooperatives. There are a total of 2,244 workers, plus another 5,200 in the supply chain. If it were to close, unemployment in the Veneto region is estimated to increase by 1.7%.
Climate activists argue this is just greenwashing
According to a study by the School of Management of Milan's Bocconi University, the multinational company distributes salaries of €22.5 million in Veneto each year, contracts to supplier or related companies for €77.8 million, and pays €400 million in taxes. These taxes are mostly contributions paid by employees, since the profits from the small bottles "produced in Nogara" go to the tax havens where the group has its headquarters: from the main one in Delaware, to the Cayman Islands, Ireland, Luxembourg, the Netherlands and Singapore.
Coca-Cola Italia HBC funds eco-days and park care in the Verona area. It has sponsored the Campiello literary prize in Venice, financed a project by the Arena di Verona Foundation to rebuild 67 columns of the outer city walls that collapsed in 1117, and supported initiatives to give advice to students as they transition from school to work.
"Thanks to the Nogara plant and the daily work of the more than 400 colleagues responsible for ensuring quality in Coca-Cola made in Veneto, we have built a solid bond with the region," Coca-Cola Italia HBC communications director Giangiacomo Pierini told news agencies.
Bubbles of greenwashing
The multinational company also shows great attention to environmental aspects. It has invested six million euros to replace plastic packaging with paper packaging and produces bottles with plastic caps that do not come off, to prevent them from ending up scattered and not being recycled.
Climate activists argue that this is just greenwashing to mask no-cost exploitation of the commons and favorable treatment by local institutions.
On the morning of July 9, as activists tried to force the police barricade in front of the gates of the Nogara plant, over their heads an electronic panel marked the amount of CO2 saved by the factory since the beginning of the year: 1,196 tons "thanks to the photovoltaic panels" installed in the factory and another 9,222 tons "thanks to the cogeneration plant."
The factory produces 100% of the carbon dioxide it uses in the 735 million liters of carbonated beverages bottled at the plant each year, from Coca-Cola to Fanta to Sprite.
That is why it has not been affected by the reduction in supply caused by increases in the price of methane after the Russian invasion of Ukraine, which has made carbon dioxide "unavailable," as some soft drink producers have complained. Acqua Sant'Anna in Vinadio, in the province of Cuneo, was forced to stop its production lines. In contrast, Coca-Cola, in addition to water, is also saving on bubbles.