In the Aravis massif, in Haute-Savoie, the town hall of La Clusaz wishes to create a hill reservoir of 148,000 m³ at an altitude of 1,500 m on the Beauregard plateau. If the project is successful, it would be the fifth development of this type in the town, making it possible to store water and thus have significant reserves (419,000 m3).
This project is presented by its promoters as a response to the scarcity of water resources and the best solution to deal with climatic hazards in the years to come. Except that it intervenes near a peat bog of 9 hectares and several wetlands classified Natura 2000 and that it will also allow the municipality to extend the artificial snow cover on 33 hectares of additional ski slopes (from 27 to 47% of its domain).
New forms of collective mobilization in the mountains
For 15 days, Extinction Rebellion installed a “zone to defend” (ZAD) in the Bois de la Colombière. By occupying the premises day and night, the objective of this non-violent direct action was twofold. Physically prevent deforestation and the effective start of work; obtain that the Prefect of Haute-Savoie does not sign the Declaration of Public Utility (DUP).
The first objective has been achieved: the work did not start on November 30 and will not take place this winter. For the second objective, the prefect has not yet spoken publicly. On October 22, 2021, the public inquiry commission issued a favorable opinion on the project, despite 76% of negative opinions from the public. In the event of authorization being granted, the opponents are already planning legal remedies before the courts.
Due to its unprecedented nature in the mountains, this ZAD has put a national spotlight on this controversial local development project.
The appearance of Extinction Rebellion on the mountain scene has indeed aroused the interest of the media beyond the Alps. It is however not so surprising contained in the context of the last decades:
– the repertoire of actions used by Extinction Rebellion has been used for a long time within the various ecological mobilizations;
– mountain development projects have always generated conflicts;
– there has been local citizen mobilization for several years in the Aravis massif with which Extinction Rebellion has forged links and articulated complementary tactics.
Conflicts of use around water amplified by global warming
Beyond the mobilization itself, this controversial project reminds us that water resources are not unlimited in the mountains and that their management reveals the social relations and power relations at work in these territories.
A management that must deal with particular socio-environmental constraints:
-the specificities of the natural environment: water is difficult to store in groundwater because La Clusaz is on limestone terrain;
-peaks of attendance in the winter period linked to winter tourism: the demand for water increases significantly because La Clusaz multiplies its population by 13 during school holidays;
-pastoral activity: La Clusaz is located in the reblochon AOC production area.
These constraints are now amplified by two factors generating strong uncertainties: the consequences of global warming (rise in temperature, decrease in snow cover at medium altitude, increased episodes of drought, etc.) and the increase in the use of snow cover artificial due to the decrease in natural snowfall itself linked to global warming.
This sums up the current situation: a decrease in available water resources in the face of a growing need for this same resource, leading to inevitable conflicts related to its use (drinking water for the population, artificial snow and pastoral activity). In the fall of 2018, following a strong episode of drought, the mayor of La Clusaz had anticipated a possible shortage of drinking water by drawing on the reserves intended for snow cannons.
The accentuation of global warming suggests an increase in this type of conflict. What solutions to bring? It is on this point that the actors oppose, as shown by the current conflict around this hill reservoir project.
On the one hand, the municipality proposes to increase the available water resource in order to then distribute it among the different needs. On the other hand, the opponents propose to distribute the existing resource between the different needs, by stopping the increase of the latter.
Spatio-temporal issues around the mountain transition
Behind this conflict is another issue: the future of mountain territories and their identities.
It bears witness to the tensions generated by the challenges facing the mountains and reminds us that the “transition” towards greater sustainability is a concept with a false air of consensus. Including in a town like La Clusaz that has chosen to change its economic model, by initiating a gradual exit from “all skiing” and “all tourism”. For example, by refusing the establishment of a Club Med project or by launching an experiment to encourage new residents to come and live and work in the village.
There is not one but several possible transitions according to different socio-political and cultural references and more or less ambitious forms of social innovation. Initiating the transition of a territory is difficult but inevitable. It means having to arbitrate between several issues: economic, social, environmental, political, cultural, etc.
What is at stake today in La Clusaz is precisely the reconciliation of these antagonistic issues, articulated around spatio-temporal tensions:
– issue of spatiality: the mountain is plural and each territory is specific, hence the importance of a territorialisation of the transition and the associated public policies;
– issue of temporality: the urgency to act in the face of global warming to change the territorial development model and no longer depend solely on winter tourism.
A territorial transition to be debated
The question is therefore the following: should we invest 10 million euros today in order to guarantee 30 years of income from skiing and have as much time to change the model of territorial development, or should we stop these developments? to invest today these 10 million euros in activities other than tourism?
In one way or another, this question of transitions arises or will arise in all mountain territories due to the effects of climate change. The challenge is therefore not to avoid at all costs the emergence of a public debate around this change in the territorial development model. On the contrary, it is to encourage it and rely on disagreements to collectively imagine sustainable solutions allowing people to live and work in the mountains.
La Clusaz can choose to play a pioneering role, as an open-air laboratory and demonstrator of these social innovations.