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ORIGINAL FRENCH ARTICLE: Ressources. À Vittel, l’eau ne coule plus de source

by Alexandra Chaignon

Resources: In Vittel, Water no longer Flows from the Spring

Translated Sunday 23 December 2018, by Henry Crapo

Published in l’Humanité on Thursday, December 20th, 2018

It is a story of monopolizing the common good: in the Vosges, Nestlé has appropriated the water table in order to sell bottled water, at the risk of running it dry.

Nestlé Waters may claim to be "drawing without exhausting", but the multinational food company continues shamelessly to pump Vittel’s water table, even though it is in the process of drying up.

Every year, hundreds of thousands of litres are extracted from the mineral-rich Vosges subsoils to ensure a supply for the inhabitants, and even more to augment the profits of the giant Swiss industry. This is where the multinational company fills its bottles with Con-trex, Hépar or Bonne Source, sold throughout the world. Their exploitation is such that one of the deepest and most important groundwater tables - the Lower Triassic Sandstone aquifer - is threatened with depletion. For local environmental organisations, Nestlé would be responsible for 80% of the deficit, estimated at between 600,000 and 700,000 m3. However, rather than forcing it to reduce its pumping, the public authorities plan to turn off the local tap for the inhabitants of the territory, and to pump water from a nearby groundwater table. A choice synonymous with the privatisation of a common good, long practiced by Nestlé.

In the 1970s, the multinational joined forces with the Vittel Water Company, which markets Hépar and Contrex. At that time, the damage had already been done: the first groundwater surveys, carried out in 1975, showed a deficit of 2.5 million cubic metres per year. According to BRGM (Bureau de recherches géologiques et minières), the cause is: "A particular hydrogeological context" - the source being isolated, it regenerates very slowly - and "a high concentration of withdrawals", particularly industrial withdrawals.

One must wait until 2010 for the issue to be finally addressed squarely. In the meantime, in 1992, Nestlé acquired the Water Company, increasing the number of bottles. The multinational also cut back on the workforce. From 4,500 in 1975, the number of employees has fallen to less than 1,000 today (The company’s wage policy did, moreover, lead to a major strike in 2008).

Do not touch the industrialists and the economy of the territory

In 2013, the associations discovered that only one solution seemed to be discussed: "The postulate of elected officials and public authorities was not to touch the industrialists and the economy of the territory", explains Jean-François Fleck, president of Vosges Nature Environnement. "As it was necessary to find a way to pump less, they decided to fetch water elsewhere for the inhabitants, and to transport it over tens of kilometres of pipelines. »

In 2016, the local water commission (CLE) presented a project in this direction. The associations are multiplying letters to request other solutions that would involve the manufacturers in the collective effort. In vain. At the same time, a case of possible illegal conflict of interests broke out, due to the proximity of a CLE member with a Nestlé employee... also president of an association involved in the water development and management scheme. The investigation is still ongoing.

Nevertheless, last March, the strategy was confirmed. "It is incompatible with the 2006 Water Act, which stipulates that the priority of use must be to provide drinking water to the population," says Jean-François Fleck. The additional cost of the works, estimated at between 30 cents and 1 euro per m3, will be charged to the inhabitants of Vittel via their water bill.

An additional 100,000 m3 sample from another groundwater table

Nestlé Waters defends itself, explaining that it has reduced the withdrawals from 973,000 m3 in 2008 to 744,000 m3 in 2017. It plans to further reduce them by "100,000 m3 by 2020". "What the management is not saying is that the prefecture will authorize, in 2019, an additional 100,000 m3 from another groundwater table, located above the first one," says Jean-François Fleck. "In 2015, the prefect had already granted Nestlé two additional levies for 300,000 m3. All in all, it can be assumed that the group’s ambition is to exploit it even more. » In addition, the latter has submitted a request for 10 additional boreholes to be drilled into surrounding groundwater.

Despite the objections, the principle of transfer was voted by the CLE on 3 July. In France, but also in Germany, where the water table also extends, and Nestlé fills its bottles of Good Source, the disputes have grown, providing other solutions. "It is enough to reverse the reasoning," asserts Jean-François Fleck. We start with the resource to be preserved and prioritize its use: first, the service of local populations, and lastly, only, its market value. "Nestlé seems to have pushed the latter to its peak: at the beginning of October, the group had to stop its bottling lines for four days, due to an accumulated production surplus since the summer. A forecasting error denounced by the CGT and the CFDT the burden of which the multinational almost managed pass on to the employees, by trying to force them to take, over this period, days of leave or RTT. The High Court ordered otherwise when the unions brought the case before it.

Everything else is still to be decided. Since 13 December, citizens have been asked to give their opinion in a public consultation. After that, the CLE will decide whether or not to reverse its decision. On the public side, opinions are divided. "The population is linked to Nestlé through employment," says Jean-François Fleck. The multinational does not hesitate to play on this aspect. "If you touch the first largest company in the area, you will be the ones to bear the consequences," replied the plant manager, interviewed by Reporterre. The threat is clear.

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