Vexed in Vittel French Town Becomes a Focal Point in War over Water

A battle is brewing in Vittel over Nestlé. The groundwater is running low in the French spa town and the multinational conglomerate is fighting for its rights to the commodity -- and for its reputation.
Von Barbara Supp und Maurice Weiss

Monsieur Guy de la Motte-Bouloumié is sitting in his villa, located on a hill with a sweeping view. He has polite things to say about Swiss multinational Nestlé, which acquired his family inheritance, the Société générale des Eaux minerales de Vittel, almost 30 years ago. The bottled water, sold around the world under the Vittel brand, has been in the company's hands ever since, along with all the challenges that come along with the marketing of it.

In the times back when the Bouloumiés were in charge, locals weren't writing things like, "Stop, stop the drilling!" on hay bales on the road. They didn't wear yellow vests to protest the elites, and they didn't have the internet for putting together detailed protest pages. The times have indeed changed. People are feeling more anxious these days, and Vittel is starting to feel it too.

Monsieur de la Motte-Bouloumié is a relaxed man of 97 has coffee served on a silver tray. He was the first person to sell mineral water in plastic bottles - he essentially invented the bottled water industry.

Some things were simpler back when Monsieur de la Motte-Bouloumié was the patron of the Société des Eaux. People had the choice of accepting his decisions or not accepting them. In any case, capitalism had a face, and in Vittel, it was his.

Today's capitalism has a different, more abstract, form. Nestlé doesn't seem to be the kind of company to have face. But perhaps it does.

There is, after all, Monsieur Klotz, Christophe Klotz. "He does a very good job," says de la Motte-Bouloumié. His wife adds: "That's true. He does it his own way."

'I Am Nestlé'

A man in heavy boots stomps around a frozen meadow in the foothills of the Vosges Mountains, with a view of the pastures and hedges of wild plants. "I am Nestlé," he says without hesitation.

Christophe Klotz isn't a big man, but he is broad-shouldered, and his heavy boots suit him well. He would rather talk about the kinds of things people in heavy boots like to talk about, but he's mostly been discussing other things lately - stuff like the economy and ecology, and democracy and geology.

It's January. It has been almost a year since the outcry in Vittel first made its appearance in the headlines. French national daily Le Monde wrote how, "Residents want to keep their water." And the regional daily Ouest France described a "Battle over water between locals and Nestlé." Not exactly positive headlines.

Vittel is a town in eastern France with hot springs and 5,000 inhabitants. The town has become a microcosm for a global conflict over the ownership of water. The water table from which Vittel's inhabitants obtain their own drinking water is sinking dramatically. In 2017, 830,000 cubic meters (219 million gallons) disappeared. Nestlé was responsible for extracting 740,000 cubic meters of that water, which is sold in Europe, including Germany.

Nestlé is the world's largest food and beverage corporation, and water is a big business, one that spurs protests around the globe. Critics claim that Nestlé profits from the fact that some people are no longer able to access clean drinking water from their taps. Some argue the company may even be causing that shortage, only to turn around and sell its own brand of water to people in a plastic bottle.

The documentary film "Bottled Life," which came out seven years ago, portrayed Nestlé as a company that steals water in countries including Nigeria and Pakistan. Nestlé rejects these types of accusations on its home page, but its reputation hasn't improved. Calls for Nestlé boycotts, which have been making the rounds for years, can now also be heard for Vittel.

A lot of the questions about the company's practices are directed at Christoph Klotz these days. Klotz isn't a spokesman. He's an agronomist and biologist, and the head of Agrivair, a Nestlé subsidiary specializing in water and source protection. He views the nexus of Nestlé, nature, agriculture and tourism as a kind of "ecosystem" - "if you remove something from it, it all comes apart." If Nestlé were to leave Vittel, he warns that it could have "potentially dramatic consequences." Klotz says this "isn't blackmail, but simply the way things are."

"We recognize the situation," he adds. "We aren't hiding anything. Everything is on the table, everything is transparent."

Shrinking Groundwater Reserves

Geologically speaking, the situation is this: About 200 meters (around 656 feet) beneath the ground, sandstone layers that are millions of years old channel the groundwater that people are now fighting over. That water is exported to Germany by Nestlé under the brand name Vittel.

The drinking water supplied to residents of Vittel comes from the same layers, but these groundwater reserves are shrinking. The water table has been going down for decades, by up to 36 centimeters annually, and politically speaking, something has to be done about that.

"There are solutions," says Klotz. "Speak to Madame Begel."

Begel responds by saying, "Stop Nestlé? That would be radical."

Of course, the busy, slightly tense lady sitting behind a desk in the departmental council in Épinal is familiar with Nestlé's reputation. As the capital of the department, Épinal has jurisdiction over the issue, and Begel is a member of the departmental council as well as the chair of the local water commission (CLE).

Begel has a problem to solve that is much bigger than her region. It's one that is a fundamental question for humanity itself. The United Nations says the right to water is a human right. But if that's true, then how is it even possible for it to be treated as a normal commodity? And who comes first? The people or industry? And who is to be allocated how much of the water below the ground in this corner of the Vosges?

The Vosges area was always a wet region. It rained, there was enough for everyone to drink and the sources were full, but that hasn't been the case for a long time now. So much of the water is being pumped out that it can't be replenished quickly enough.

But here are the economics: Nestlé pays 14 million euros in mineral water tax to the department every year, with about 4 million of that going into Vittel's budget. The company is responsible for about 1,000 jobs in an area that has little beyond agriculture, tourism and a cheese factory.

A majority of the commission voted in favor of a solution that would allow Nestlé to continue piping water from the area. Under it, locals will get their water via pipeline from an area 15 kilometers to the east and Nestlé is to make a financial contribution to ensure that people's water costs don't rise.

Blown Out of Proportion?

Begel believes this would be a sensible solution were it not for the "associations," the environmental groups that are also on the water commission alongside government and business representatives and form a vocal minority.

She accuses them of trying to blow a local, pragmatic decision entirely out of proportion.

"Ethics. Yes, of course, that's what it's about," says Bernard Schmitt a retired doctor with the Oiseaux Nature (Birds of Nature) conservation organization, who lives in a house with a bird-filled yard. As a member of the water commission, he's making Begel's life more difficult. "Is it normal," he asks, "to take the water from local inhabitants, fill it into plastic bottles and then export it to Germany? You must have taps in Berlin? Perhaps even bottled water?"

He sees Vittel as being part of an international battle. A meeting with Nestlé opponents from Canada and Brazil is planned for mid-February. The issues expected to be covered at the meeting include civil rights, human rights, climate change and, possibly, corruption.

Schmitt had noticed, he says, that the former head of the water commission, Begel's predecessor, shared the same name as a former Nestlé executive. The organization Anticor got involved and the authorities are now investigating. The public prosecutor's office in Nancy currently has jurisdiction over the investigation. Was there inadmissible interference on plans affecting Nestlé and its water rights?

That hasn't been determined yet, although it is the kind of thing that does sow distrust and doubts.

But it's exhausting to question everything and not to want to trust anything. Verifying credibility. Questioning the claims. Thinking ahead. Possibly even asking the question about how it came to be in the first place that the water, a public good, fell into private hands.

'A Different Kind of Capitalism'

This development began in Vittel in the middle of the 19th century. It was a time when the entrepreneur was becoming a role model, the kind of person who sees the world primarily as a place for business acumen -- and the movement of goods. And so it happened that the idea of the common good vanished like some distant, unworldly memory.

"But, oh, it was a different kind of capitalism back then," says 74-year-old Jacqueline Verrier, a woman bubbling over with vitality, as she walks through the local history museum of Vittel that she created. It's a one-stop museum dedicated to the history of capitalism and the Bouloumiés, the family that has shaped the city for generations.

Louis Bouloumié, a lawyer from Occitanie plagued by kidney colic, sought treatment in the neighboring spa town of Contrexéville, but he had trouble with the water. He bought a swampy meadow with a spring from a farmer in Vittel in 1854 and created the "Cité thermale" in the area, which had been home to a bit of agriculture and some lace-making, but mostly to extreme poverty.

Then came the era of his sons, the Belle Époque. An era of well-heeled people picked up by the hotel carriage at the station to care for their livers, arteries and gout-stricken limbs, and stroll through the arcades, sipping water and initiating business, affairs or marriages. When the spa business seemed to be slowing, Guy de la Motte-Bouloumié, the lawyer's great-nephew, brought Club Méditerranée to Vittel.

The first Bouloumié filled the first bottle early on, in 1855, in stoneware. By 1875, they had already created something resembling an assembly line. In 1968, inspired by the cooking oil company Lesieur, Guy de la Motte-Bouloumié switched to plastic, which led Nestlé to acquire a 30-percent stake in the company.

In the showcases of Verrier's museum, mineral water bottles rest like jewels in a shrine celebrating the Boulomié family's inventive spirit. As if it were a matter of course, that inventive talent dominated not only in business, but also in the arena of politics. For generations, a number of heads of the Bouloumié family also served as mayor of the town of Vittel.

The End of an Era

When Nestlé acquired the remaining shares of the Société des Eaux in 1992, an era came to an end. There was no longer a patron you could see walking around town and to whom you could write if you needed to find a traineeship for your child. And you could always count on an answer, says Madame Verrier.

Today's era is different. It is machines, and not individual bottles, one would have to place in those museum showcases to keep telling Madame Verrier's version of the history of capitalism. Because what a visitor to a Nestlé Waters bottling plant will see is a mechanical ballet of conveyor belts and highly developed structures that form, sterilize, fill and label the water bottles and pack them in containers before loading them onto pallets that are delivered by a driverless forklift to the freight car. You see very few people. A poster hanging above the sink in the bathroom reads: "Water is life. Don't waste it." You encounter managers and press spokespersons talking about responsibility and promising sparing use of plastic and water. If you're looking for the real face of Nestlé, you're not going to find it here in the factory, although you might find it outside in the form of Christophe Klotz.

Klotz trudges through the rural parts of the Vosges Mountains. He's an agronomist and biologist with an MBA in "sustainability," as he describes it. So, why's he at Nestlé, and what's he doing there?

He's here to make farmers happy -- at least the one he's visiting right now.

Dominique Sautré, a dairy farmer in Dombrot-le-Sec near Vittel, tells it like this: He was a farmer with 80 hectares (198 acres) of land. Thanks to Nestlé, he now has 160 hectares. And he doesn't have to pay anything for it, either. Nestlé, through its Agrivair subsidiary, picks up the dung and brings it back as compost. Agrivair has installed a hay drying plant in his barn so that he can use hay for feed rather than corn. Agrivair also planted the hedges in the fields. Ladybugs were deployed for pest control and care is provided for bats they hope will eat unwanted insects.

And what does Sautré have to do in return? Follow the rules. He's forbidden from growing corn, because it requires considerable amounts of fertilizer. And he can't use pesticides. He also has to use less fertilizer than permitted by law and keep fewer cattle.

Nestlé has 2,500 hectares of agricultural land that it makes available to farmers. This allows Nestlé to protect not only the soil, but also the water beneath it.

A free service. Free land use. How could a farmer say no? Still, some do. Some farmers in the area don't want to adhere to the rules. Others would like to have biodynamic compost management. Sautré, who's also an organic farmer, has no such desires. "Gagnant-gagnant," he says: "Win-win."

"We're selfish," says Klotz. He sounds content. He shows off a stream for which he is responsible. Then a park. Then golf courses. Klotz lectures in the cold -- it's freezing, but he's enthusiastic and offers his ideas on what a golf course ought to be like: "Full of biodiversity," he says. One can, for example, install raptor poles to attract birds of prey to combat problems with mice on the golf course.

The people at Agrivair also take care of roadside greenery in order to ensure that no pesticides or poison are used.

Burnishing Nestlé's Image

Klotz's efforts can be viewed as an investment. He's protecting Nestlé's sources -- and, thus, its shareholders' dividends. But what if the shareholders decide at some point that it's all too expensive? What if they ask why they should be paying for landscapers to plant wild hedges?

Klotz says the company still allows him to get on with his job.

Nestlé needs good stories. Good stories are all the more important when a company is trying to sell a product that doesn't look like much, smell like much or even taste like much. Is that Klotz's job then? To be the good story?

On a wintry meadow, standing in the cold next to a stream that has to be kept so clean that you can drink from it, Klotz says, "Greenwashing -- it pains me." The funny thing is that he says it in a way that's convincing.

Klotz cares. He walks through the countryside, greeting people frequently along the way. People know him as the Nestlé guy, but with his ladybugs, birds of prey and biodiversity, he seems more like one of the people you would suspect of being one of Nestlé's opponents.

Does he feel like he compromised his integrity by taking a job at Nestlé seven years ago?

"No," he says, before adding very quickly, "When you're on the outside, you can criticize and perhaps even prevent things." And by that he means on the outside with the environmentalists. And on the inside? "You have people and a budget." People who can "do something right" on his command, says Klotz. Is he the modern version of the family patron? "No," he says. "It's not like that. Come next Wednesday. You'll see that democracy is alive and well here."

A consultation publique is to be held at an event center in the neighboring town of Contrexéville the following Wednesday. The public hearing has been convened by Begel of the water commission and her administration.

A Reckless Model?

"If it weren't for us, they would have simply done everything," says Bernard Schmitt, who is trying to find out if this sentiment reflects the majority here. Begel and Klotz also work the auditorium as they put feelers out for the evening and for the roughly 200 people who will be discussing the issues at 11 different tables.

The proposed solution with the pipeline is introduced -- and also the criticism of it, presented by a colleague of Schmitt, the head of the group Vosges Nature Environment. His presentation is extensive, full of details and substance.

The most serious criticism lodged by the associations is that they consider the pipeline model to be reckless. They expect nature to be severely affected in the extraction area. The groundwater layer there isn't 200 meters deep like it is in Vittel. It's shallower, in conjunction with the river flows. If 500,000 cubic meters of water are extracted annually, or even a million, the water level would probably fall in the streams, rivers and marshes. How, they ask, can the company even be planning with this water even before the possible effects of the extraction have been studied?

The people at the tables: mostly serious, often waving their arms about, are debating. Sentences fly through the air, reflecting doubts, pragmatism and even rebelliousness. It is no longer the era of the patrons and there is no Monsieur Bouloumié to carefully weigh what should happen. And even if he were here, it probably wouldn't help. The people here want to have a say.

The meeting is attended by environmentalists, but also by people who work at Nestlé. People who passionately delve into geological maps and people who see the whole thing first and foremost as political. Global politics.

"But you can't say 'yes' or 'no.'"

"Now, in times of climate change ..."

"But the jobs!"

"But this is blackmail!"

"Young man, if you don't want to join the discussion, you can go."

"Nestlé! We all know Nestlé! Think of the wells in Pakistan!"

The negative stories are always there.

But also the positive story: that of Klotz and a company that is creating something good -- out of selfishness.

Klotz walks from one table to the next. This won't be the last evening of debate, there will be more discussions between residents, but this evening isn't going badly.

It hasn't grown hostile. The word "jobs" has been used often enough.

He is even greeted warmly by some of the environmentalists.

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