A girl drinks from a can of soda on her way out of a church in San Juan Chamula. In San Juan Chamula, bottled soda anchors religious ceremonies cherished by the city’s indigenous Tzotzil population. Many Tzotzil believe carbonated soda has the power to heal the sick. Inside the town’s whitewashed church, tourists step gingerly across carpets of fresh pine needles as copal incense and smoke from hundreds of candles fill the air. But the main draw here for tourists is to watch the faithful, who pray over bottles of Coke or Pepsi, and also over live chickens, some sacrificed on the spot. Photo: Adriana Zehbrauskas / The New York Times

By Oscar Lopez and Andrew Jacobs
14 July 2018

SAN CRISTÓBAL DE LAS CASAS, Mexico (The New York Times) – Maria del Carmen Abadía lives in one of Mexico’s rainiest regions, but she has running water only once every two days. When it does trickle from her tap, the water is so heavily chlorinated, she said, it’s undrinkable.

Potable water is increasingly scarce in San Cristóbal de las Casas, a picturesque mountain town in the southeastern state of Chiapas where some neighborhoods have running water just a few times a week, and many households are forced to buy extra water from tanker trucks.

So, many residents drink Coca-Cola, which is produced by a local bottling plant, can be easier to find than bottled water and is almost as cheap.

In a country that is among the world’s top consumers of sugary drinks, Chiapas is a champion: Residents of San Cristóbal and the lush highlands that envelop the city drink on average more than two liters, or more than half a gallon, of soda a day.

The effect on public health has been devastating. The mortality rate from diabetes in Chiapas increased 30 percent between 2013 and 2016, and the disease is now the second-leading cause of death in the state after heart disease, claiming more than 3,000 lives every year.

“Soft drinks have always been more available than water,” said Ms. Abadía, 35, a security guard who, like her parents, has struggled with obesity and diabetes.

Vicente Vaqueiros, 33, a doctor at the clinic in San Juan Chamula, a nearby farming town, said health care workers were struggling to deal with the surge in diabetes.

“When I was a kid and used to come here, Chamula was isolated and didn’t have access to processed food,” he said. “Now, you see the kids drinking Coke and not water. Right now, diabetes is hitting the adults, but it’s going to be the kids next. It’s going to overwhelm us.”

Buffeted by the dual crises of the diabetes epidemic and the chronic water shortage, residents of San Cristóbal have identified what they believe is the singular culprit: the hulking Coca-Cola factory on the edge of town.

The plant has permits to extract more than 300,000 gallons of water a day as part of a decades-old deal with the federal government that critics say is overly favorable to the plant’s owners.

Public ire has been boiling over. In April 2017, masked protesters marched on the factory holding crosses that read “Coca-Cola kills us” and demanding that the government shut the plant down.

“When you see that institutions aren’t providing something as basic as water and sanitation, but you have this company with secure access to one of the best water sources, of course it gives you a shock,” said Fermin Reygadas, the director of Cántaro Azul, an organization that provides clean water to rural communities.

Coca-Cola executives and some outside experts say the company has been unfairly maligned for the water shortages. They blame rapid urbanization, poor planning and a lack of government investment that has allowed the city’s infrastructure to crumble.

Climate change, scientists say, has also played a role in the failure of artesian wells that sustained San Cristóbal for generations.

“It doesn’t rain like it used to,” said Jesús Carmona, a biochemist at the local Ecosur scientific research center, which is affiliated with the Mexican government. “Almost every day, day and night, it used to rain.” [more]

In Town With Little Water, Coca-Cola Is Everywhere. So Is Diabetes.

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