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ORIGINAL FRENCH ARTICLE: Gaza. L’ouverture d’une usine Coca-Cola menace les ressources en eau

by Marion D’Allard

Gaza. The opening of a Coca-Cola factory threatens water resources

Translated Thursday 3 March 2016, by Alison Tomblin

Planned in the next few weeks, the opening of a Coca-Cola production plant is fuelling debate in the Palestinian enclave. Although it creates 1000 jobs, the water it needs risks making the Gazans’ problems of accessibility to this vital resource worse.

A Coca-Cola production plant located in the industrial zone of Karni, in the south-eastern suburbs of Gaza City, is to be opened in the next few weeks, at the end of March/ beginning of April at the latest. Linked to the the Palestinian subsidiary of the American company, which already operates three production plants in the West Bank (Ramallah, Jericho and Tulkarm), this new industrial establishment has been sitting for two years in the desk of Zahi Khouri, director of the Palestinian National Beverage Company (based in Ramallah). It was he who had the idea to create this new production plant. “The buildings have been constructed, but the inauguration and commission of this production unit have been postponed due to the Israeli air strikes in the summer of 2014,” Ziad Medoukh, the Head of the French Department at the University of Gaza explains.

Accessibility to drinking water is a real problem for Gazans

However, in the Palestinian enclave, although the Coca-Cola plant has its supporters, not everyone is taken with the idea. “There is a debate here between those who see the benefits, based on economic and social criteria, and those who feel that priority should be given to industrial projects more essential to the daily lives of the people of Gaza than a manufacturer of consumer products which, moreover, require large quantities of drinking water,” Ziad Medoukh continues. It is not a simple equation, in fact.
On the one hand, basing Coca-Cola in Gaza means that 1000 jobs are created, in an area severely afflicted by unemployment, which, according to figures published by the World Bank in 2015, has reached “a rate of over 44%, probably the highest rate in the world (…) with 39% of the population living beneath the poverty line”. Coca-Cola’s plans envisage the creation of 127 jobs, as of this coming April, with a further 600 staff to be hired between now and September 2016, meaning 1000 jobs being created in total by January 2017.

On the other hand, opponents are raising their voices against the production plant’s astronomical needs for drinking water, when 95% of the water available in the Gaza Strip is unfit for human consumption. “Access to water is a real problem for Gazans.
A treatment plant has been built but it is not yet up and running. The blockade imposed upon us by Israel is preventing the movement of materials needed to get it started,” says Ziad Medoukh. For certain experts, the situation is so alarming that the Palestinian enclave could find itself facing a total lack of clean water between now and 2020. The only groundwater in the area, lying between the Gaza Strip, Egypt and Israel, is inexorably drying up. The thousands of hand-dug wells - sometimes dug illegally and mainly to irrigate crops - are threatening the replenishment of this natural source, already contaminated by industrial farming pollutants and by the absence of functional sewage disposal facilities in Gaza.
“The groundwater level is falling every year, and one of the most serious consequences is the influx of seawater therein, meaning it’s being polluted by chlorine,” explains Najima Fares, a Gazan engineer and a specialist in water and the environment. Every day in order to obtain drinking water, the Gazans watch the private company water tankers going by. However, “not only is that water more expensive than if it were distributed via a public network, but above all, we question the reliability of some of the quality controls it is subjected to,” she continues.

In this context, the opening of a Coca-Cola production plant is causing much gnashing of teeth, even more so, given that the two soft drink giants 7 Up and Pepsi-Cola are already being manufactured in the Gaza strip, as of 1962 and 1997 respectively. These production plants, depending on the situation, can extract between 1-1.5 million litres of water a day. The ratio is a simple one: nine litres of drinking water are needed to make one bottle of soda. “Water is the main ingredient of Coca-Cola (85% – 99%) and it is also used in the plants for washing and rinsing down,” the multinational company itself admits.

This debate is still unresolved, yet, for a number of Gazans, if the prospect of new jobs is undeniably good news, they are still having to face the question of protecting a vital resource, already seriously under threat.

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