The oil spill and Sri Lanka’s incompetence

Few things are so cliché as an oil spill by a large multinational corporation in a third-world country. It would hardly make news nowadays. Oil spills in poor places are boring stuff, not dazzling enough for the media circus.

Except, perhaps, when that country is yours. When that oil is in the very water that you drink. When, one morning, you open the tap and smell diesel.

But if you’re Sri Lankan, perhaps not even then.

Kelani River contamination
There are conflicting reports of what happened on the morning of August 17. According to the Sri Lankan Water Supply and Drainage Board (WSDB), the officials at the water treatment plant in Ambatale noticed pools of oil floating on the water, and announced a water cut at 6.30 a.m. to allow for investigation.

The media reports are not clear about how they traced the issue back to an oil spill in the Kelani River: whether they found the problem independently or whether Coca-Cola informed them. Once they identified the oil spill, WSDB, Central Environment Authority (CEA) and the Marine Environment Protection Authority (MEPA) joined forces to flush water away from the area. Officers from the WSDB, CEA and the police went to the Coca-Cola facility to look for the source of the leak, but were unable to find it.

The government incurred a huge cost to clean up the mess: in addition to stopping water distribution and engaging in an extensive clean-up process, the CEA also had to release water from the Laxapana reservoir to flush out the contaminated river water.

cocAccording to Coca-Cola, on 17th August, its staff noticed a leakage of diesel from a fuel pipe line. The leak was plugged immediately by the staff on night duty. However, by the time this leak was plugged, some oil had escaped into the nearby Kelani River, through the storm water drainage system.

The Sunday Times report on this sounds like it came straight from a PR drone:
The company said local authorities were informed “as soon as we noticed it” and took corrective and precautionary measures in consultation with them. As an immediate measure, several corrective measures were taken at the plant. This included discontinuing the use of the affected fuel pipeline and blocking storm water drainage.

The services of an independent engineer were obtained to ascertain and verify the effectiveness of the corrective and preventive measures implemented. “Additionally, we initiated exhaustive preventive actions to avoid any such occurrence in future and are cooperating with the authorities,” the statement said.

Yes, of course Coca-Cola took corrective, preventive and precautionary measures. After all, it’s good for PR. Note that the only concrete action mentioned, however, is the cessation of use of the affected fuel pipe—something of a no-brainer. We’re not told what the other “several corrective measures” or “exhaustive preventive actions” are: we are simply expected to take the company’s word for it.

Coca-Cola’s Environment Protection License was suspended due to this issue, and production stopped at its Biyagama factory. On August 31, however, the license was reinstated, allowing Coca-Cola to restart production.

The public, the unimportant
While the government authorities were cleaning up the mess and Coca-Cola was busy taking many corrective, preventive and precautionary measures, the public was kept in the dark. We had no idea why many parts of Colombo had no water supply on a Monday morning, the day of a parliamentary election at that. I find this to be the most shameful and atrocious part of this story.

On the evening of August 17, WSDB recommenced water supply. To quote a Colombo resident:

For two days the water was oily and smelled bad. We had to buy drinking water because we were scared to give the other water to our children.

The Sunday Times, August 23
And yet, that man had no idea why his water was not fit for consumption. Like myself and many other Sri Lankans, he probably has a high tolerance for poor service, especially from government agencies, and silently blamed the WSDB.

The first public report of the oil spill did not emerge until a full week after the incident. Since then, the media coverage of this critical issue has been pathetically inadequate. They seem to be too busy airing their political fluff pieces to engage in a bit of proper journalism.

Coca-Cola seems to be playing the waiting game, hoping that this will all fizzle out. Nothing proactive has come forth from its side. This is not surprising, even if it is incongruent with the company’s recently released Water Stewardship & Replenish Report.
But why did the government withhold critical information about such a serious issue, and why did the media play along?

The Powerful, The Silent
Given the lack of transparency in Sri Lankan governments, it is not entirely surprising that the relevant authorities considered this a matter too serious for public disclosure.

Apparently this patronising attitude does not change even when an event poses significant health hazards to hundreds of thousands of people and costs millions in public money.

When the government fails to inform us directly, we usually rely on media to engage in a bit of investigative journalism and disclose these uncomfortable truths. However, the media have their limits too.

In Manufacturing Consent, Noam Chomsky and Edward Herman argue that corporate ownership of news media very strongly encourages systematic self-censorship owing to market forces. Even with supposedly liberal media, bias and (often unconscious) self-censorship is evident in the selection and omission of news stories, as well as in the framing of acceptable discussion, in line with the interests of the corporations owning those media.

Media outlets are not commercially viable without the support of advertisers. The media must therefore cater to their advertisers’ political prejudices and economic desires. Is this what’s happening with the Coca-Cola oil spill? It would be a shame if journalists—many of whom are probably victims of this incident themselves—are reluctant to talk about it due to the “market forces” influencing them.

What next?
Oil has been spilt, water has been contaminated, and a lot of public money has gone into fixing the problem. There are no easy fixes to the ways the government and media outlets operate, so talking about that is not a productive use of time. But what can the public and Coca-Cola do next?

Public action
It’s quite clear that the public is the most affected by this incident, and yet considered the least important by all parties involved. It is now up to Sri Lankans to decide whether they want to be treated like the usual third-world rabble.

At this point, I believe the best course of action for the public is to boycott Coca-Cola until the company is willing to open up, apologise with some semblance of authenticity, and engage with the local community in a meaningful way. But if we can’t give up on our sugar fix temporarily for our own well-being and dignity, we probably deserve to be treated like sheep.

Coca-Cola Community Engagement
The Coca-Cola brand has thrived despite a long list of issues, so it’s certainly within its capacity to ride this one out. However, there’s another way of looking at this incident: as an opportunity for Coke to build a closer relationship with Sri Lankans, and emerge even stronger than before.

When you’re in full blown PR-crisis mode—which I believe Coke now is, or soon will be if the current trend in Sri Lankan social media continues—it’s natural to be guarded and defensive, as has happened here. It takes courage and some creative PR manoeuvring to be (or at least to be seen as) honest, open and accessible. The former is easier. The latter is more difficult, but also more beneficial in the long run. We’ll see which path Coca-Cola chooses.

There’s also that small issue of ethics. But then again, if that were a concern, we wouldn’t be in this mess in the first place.

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