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Mainstream, VOL 61 No 3, January 7, 2023

Punjab Struggle Focuses Attention on Ecological Ruin Caused by Liquor | Bharat Dogra

Saturday 14 January 2023, by Bharat Dogra


During recent months a determined struggle by villagers in Zira area of Ferozepur district, Punjab, has been demanding the removal of a highly polluting factory to save the soil and water of their region. As a result of this pollution water and soil have been badly damaged and groundwater was found to be very contaminated. The recent crackdown of the police on protestors has only strengthened their resolve to fight this pollution, and following this some organizations of farmers have also been coming forward more than before to extend their support, giving further strength to the movement. People of Mansurwal and several other nearby villages have been increasingly expressing their determination to save their land and water from the menace of pollution.

Instead of responding recently with heavy handed methods, the government could have responded in a different way. The precedent of a different response is available from this report in The Tribune( November 7, 2019)—The Pollution Control Board , acting on the directives of the National Green Tribunal, has ordered the closure of a distillery and asked it to pay a compensation of Rs. 1 crore which will be used for ecological rejuvenation as its waste water had harmed fields and groundwater. This could have been the government response in the present context also and such a response can still show the way forward.

While the immediate aim of this struggle has been to provide protection from pollution at a local level, this struggle also has a wider significance in terms of focusing attention of the many-sided serious environmental harm caused by increasing liquor production and consumption. This issue has been examined generally in the context of its highly adverse social and health impacts, but the ecological aspects have received much lesser attention. We know for instance that consumption of alcohol causes 3 million deaths and is involved in about 200 kinds of physical and mental ailments, apart from being a leading factor in many serious crimes and violence against women, but discussion of ecological adverse impacts is rare. People are generally familiar with the foul smell emanating from several liquor factories, but a comprehensive analysis has been missing. Besides, some of the limited analysis available is funded by the liquor industry and presents its views.

According to a paper on distillery pollution by Mikucka and Zielinskna—Distilleries are among the most polluting industries because ethanol fermentation results in the discharge of large quantities of high strength liquid effluents with high concentrations of organic matter and nitrogen components, low PH, high temperature, dark brown color and high salinity. According to another paper on distillery wastewater by Yogita Kharayat—distilleries are one of the most polluting industries as 88% of their raw materials are converted into waste and discharged into the water bodies, causing pollution. This has very adverse impact on aquatic flora and fauna.
A report for year 2015 tells us that despite strict environmental norms having been set, seven Scotch whisky distilleries had been condemned by Scotland environment watchdog for failing to meet pollution guidelines relating to wastewater disposal, leakages and monitoring, while many plants got a poor or very poor rating.

High energy use and GHG emissions are other problems related to the liquor industry. As an article in Whisky Magazine by Ted Bruning describes the whisky production process— Bringing 5 billion litres of wort up to mashing temperature, holding it there while the sugars are extracted, cooling it down to pitching temperature, then heating up again in the still, then…90% of the water and all the grain used in the water ends up as a waste.” Another report by Movendi tells us that calculating for emissions from one pint of beer –taken 3 to 5 times –can lead to 139 kilo GHG emissions in a year.

Generally the higher the alcohol content of a drink, the higher is the carbon impact; hence those who move from beer and cider to wine and spirits have a bigger adverse impact on climate change. If the entire cycle of raw material production (where more intensive, fertilizer guzzling intensive methods of cultivation are often used), production, packaging, refrigeration, transport, storage and consumption is considered, GHG emissions involved can be very high. As special types of liquor are produced in limited areas but consumed all over the world, transport costs can be very high. Packaging ecological costs are particularly high in this industry.

As recent opposition of communities in Mexico to big alcohol companies has revealed, opposition of alcohol industry is also growing due to its impact of aggravating water shortages. In India such highly adverse impact is seen even in drought prone areas. A report in India Today (Oct. 15, 2010) by Kiran Tare on serious water scarcity in Marathwada region says, "Indiscriminate release of water for sugarcane cultivation and alcohol production has depleted the (water) reservoirs. There are some 200 distilleries in Aurangabad, which use enormous quantities of potable water."

The two are related as sugurcane provides raw material for many distilleries. In other areas water situation in threatened by fast increase in wine production and the increase in grapes production to feed wine units with raw material.

When the prestigious Economist journal reported some time back that 960 litres of water are used for one litre of wine, there were several reactions of disbelief, but if you examine the actual cycle of production of raw materials to actual bottling, then this is actually quite close to the real position. A more recent article in The Independent ( 2021—It is not just a hangover) also gave shocking figures—a 500 ml bottle of beer uses up 148 litres of water while a 110 ml. glass of wine uses 100 litres of water.

If the total impact of these two aspects - diversion of huge quantities of potable water to distilleries (as well as for the availability of their raw material) and the pollution of various water sources by effluents released by distilleries is considered, this can be very adverse for the water situation at a time when there are growing shortages due to other factors as well. The combined impact should be assessed in well-planned water audits of increasing liquor production.

In addition alcohol increase can have a very adverse impact on food security as a lot of nutritious food is converted into harmful drinks ( apple into cider, wheat and barley into whiskey, barley into beer, sugarcane into rum, grapes into wine , and so on). A lot of scarce land and water are devoted to the ultimate production of harmful beverages at a time when millions of people do not have adequate food.

Keeping in view all these factors, struggles like those in Zira can play a wider role beyond local factors also to draw attention to the many-sided adverse ecological aspects associated with the production and consumption of liquor. Such movements deserve wide support of people.

Alcohol consumption has been increasing at a fast pace, or has remained at a very high level, in many countries. The discussion so far has been on on the disastrous health and social impacts of this increase. We also need to understand the wider ecological impact, the water impact, the food security impact and the climate change impact.

(Author: Bharat Dogra is Honorary Convener, Campaign to Save Earth Now. His recent books include Planet in Peril, Man over Machine and A Day in 2071)

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