Heat and drought make water a rare commodity, it has long ceased to be a natural resource. It is therefore hardly surprising that the distribution battle for the coveted raw material has long since begun. The conflicts over water are particularly evident where large international corporations pump vast amounts of water out of the ground and need it for their own purposes. As a result, whole communities or regions often sit on dry land and fear for their drinking water stock.
These scenarios no longer exist only in the distant future, for example in the Third World. The struggle for the distribution of the remaining water takes place very close, for example in France or Germany. The most prominent example is provided by the food company Nestlé in Vittel: the large corporation is doing a profitable business with the bottling of spring water, while the residents are literally digging the water and the groundwater level is dropping dramatically.
Another distribution struggle can be observed in the north-east of Lower Saxony, in the Hanseatic city of Lüneburg: While the region is increasingly struggling with heat and drought, “Apollinaris Brands”, a subsidiary of the beverage manufacturer Coca-Cola, wants to excavate a new well in order to double its production volume. Although there is resistance, the construction site has been set up since the end of July, the excavators are on site.
New well - even though existing facilities are not busy
The Coca-Cola Group extracts groundwater from a depth of 200 metres in the district of Lüneburg. Because the quality of the water is high, it is marketed as mineral water (Vio). To date, the Group has produced 350 million litres of water per year at two locations. Although the group says that the existing facilities are underutilized, the Coca-Cola Group now wants to dig a third well and thereby double the amount of water extracted. “Our Vio brand is growing, demand is increasing,” Dieter Reckermann, who is in charge of the well project, told “NDR”.
The water authority of the district has already approved the third well for a pumping test: In the autumn, 118 million liters of water are to be extracted from the earth. With more than 60 measuring points, it will then be checked whether this will further lower the groundwater level of the region.
So while the Coca-Cola Group is allowed to pump, the region is struggling with drought: in 2019, lower rainfall fell in Lower Saxony by around 36 percent compared to the previous year. And even in the last 12 months, nine had significantly less rainfall compared to the long-term average.
Coca-Cola puts pressure on
Despite the permit granted, Lower Saxony’s policy seems to be aware of the problem of drought. In September 2019, the Lower Saxony Environment Minister Olaf Lies (SPD) told the ARD magazine Panorama: “Water is no longer a natural resource in northern Germany.” In the last two years, it has been established for the first time that water is a high good and its presence is not a matter of course.
Lies had already set barriers for local farmers in the past when it came to water abstracting: to water their fields, they either use surface water from lakes – or they extract groundwater. However, watering with groundwater should be made more difficult for them: a “new permit for farmers is extremely difficult,” Lies said in the past. In the use of groundwater, drinking water production is a priority. Beverage bottlers such as Coca-Cola also benefit from this.
As “NDR” reports, Coca-Cola does not rely solely on it. Thus, the future of the production site with its 200 jobs was made conditional on the additional approval. If the well is not finally approved, it will be “a bad signal for our Lüneburg site,” says Reckermann. And on its own website, Coca-Cola declares that it has awarded contracts of 11 million euros to companies from the region between 2013 and 2019. Arguments that are now being used in the battle for water.
Residents organize themselves
However, the citizens' initiative “Our Water” does not want to stand idly by. According to the NDR, the initiative consists of more than 100 people who fear a further subsidence of groundwater – and are worried about the future of the region. “We are the first generation to see the effects of climate change and feel obliged to do something to preserve the precious groundwater,” said Cornelia Höllger, one of the two founders of the initiative.
“In recent years, the groundwater level has steadily declined,” says the initiative’s chairwoman, Bettina Schröder-Henning. It is irresponsible to authorise such a well. The state of Lower Saxony has a duty to help municipalities with sustainable water management.
The approval for the pumping test also strongly criticizes “Our Water”. The citizens' initiative accuses the Authority of having created facts even before a decision has been made as to whether long-term support should be given at the site in question. Critics also question the independence of a report that Coca-Cola must submit to the water authority for permanent funding. An expert report prepared by an “independent” expert – and paid for by Coca-Cola.
Coca-Cola sees no problem
Despite all the criticism, Coca-Cola is sticking to its plan. The amount of water that Coca-Cola plans to extract in the future corresponds to about two percent of the total amount that can be extracted there, the group said. One is sure that this has little effect on the environment, but will observe this closely.