‘Teslastoppen’ Elon Musk’s Water War in the Heart of Europe

“Welcome to the Utopian Gigafactory,” reads a banner hung across a path in a Brandenburg Forest outside Berlin, Germany. At the end of the path, Tesla’s -very real- Gigafactory is visible behind the trees. The banner has been hung by activists of the “Teslastoppen” (Stop Tesla) initiative, who have occupied part of the forest since late February, aiming to prevent Tesla from expanding its only European Gigafactory. 

The occupation consists of approximately 100 activists, rotating between Berlin and Grünheide,  who have set up around a dozen treehouses and platforms suspended with ropes between trees, several meters up in the air. In the entrance of the camp, another banner reveals more about the reasons behind the protest — “Water is a human right,” it reads. 

Tesla’s Gigafactory in Grünheide, located just 30 km from Berlin in the state of Brandenburg, has a production capacity of 375,000 cars per year and employs around 12,500 people. In 2023, the factory used almost 450,000 cubic meters of water, while it is licensed to use up to 1.8 million cubic meters, equivalent to the water consumption of a city with a population of 40,000 people.

The Strausberg-Ekner Water Association (WSE) supplies water to the factory as well as to the 170,000 residents of its 16 associated municipalities. However, the Brandenburg area has suffered from drought during the last few years. It has one of the lowest rainfall areas in Germany. Moreover, the increased water needs of neighboring Berlin mean there isn’t enough water for both Tesla and the surrounding cities.

In 2022, the same year the factory began its operations, the Strausberg-Ekner Water Association imposed water rationing on its 170,000 consumers. Starting in 2025, residents will only be allowed to use 105 liters of water per person per day, while the national average use is 128 liters per day. Anyone exceeding this limit will have to pay a fine. Water rationing is already in effect for new residents.

As a result, last July, when Tesla announced its plans to expand the Gigafactory to around 100 hectares of the neighboring forested water protection area to increase its production capacity to 1,000,000 vehicles per year, residents became furious. They feared that this expansion would mean Tesla would use even more valuable groundwater reserves.

In late February, the residents of Grünheide, a small city of around 9,000 people located only about two kilometers from the factory, rejected the expansion in a referendum. A few days later, dozens of environmental activists from various organizations occupied part of the forest, which was targeted to be cut by Tesla.

Teslastoppen Camp tree houses line a forest near Tesla’s Gigafactory in Germany. Image from video contributed by Aris Dimitrakopoulos.

“Paul,” a young activist who had been at the occupation for three weeks and did not reveal her real name due to fear of persecution, explained to Unicorn Riot why the forest is important for the local water reserves.

“If you didn’t have the forest here, [water] would just all run off and not go into these water reserves. This is a really important piece of land,” the activist going by Paul said.

Activist “Paul” at Teslastoppen Camp in March 2024. Image contributed by Nicole Thyssen.
Activist “Barchen” at Teslastoppen Camp in March 2024. Image from video contributed by Aris Dimitrakopoulos.

“Barchen,” another activist who also did not want to reveal his real name, has experienced the water shortage first hand as he is a resident of the area. 

“Our farms, which we run with the family actively, have losses on the water and so do others,” said Barchen. “The lakes in the region lose a lot of water. The groundwater level simply drops rapidly, especially in summer,” he added.

In March, a court decided that the occupation is permitted to stay in the forest until late May. However, Paul explains that there have been instances where the activists faced intimidation by the police, who have a steady presence at the forest’s entrance.

“It’s not been a good relationship with the police,” said Paul, explaining that the police would briefly detain activists without a real cause to intimidate them.

Tesla has also increased security around its factory with security personnel, called “Mobile CCTV Unit” guarding the factory’s fence. Their cars’ hoods are decorated with eyes and their licensed plates read “SAURON.”

Security personnel with “Mobile CCTV Unit” written on their vehicle watch protesters around the Teslastoppen Camp. Image from video contributed by Aris Dimitrakopoulos.

While the “Teslastoppen” initiative activists protest peacefully, other groups have resorted to more forceful methods against the factory. In early March, the left-wing militant group “Vulkangruppe” conducted an arson attack on a power pylon providing electricity to the factory, resulting in production being halted for one week.

Local residents who have also organized against the factory visit the camp and coordinate with the activists. At the camp, Unicorn Riot spoke with Manuela Hoyer, one of the founders of the Grünheide Citizens Initiative.

Manuela Hoyer, one of the founders of the Grünheide Citizens Initiative, speaks from the center left of the circle during a meeting in the forest in March 2024. Image from video contributed by Aris Dimitrakopoulos.

Manuela explained that there is also the danger of groundwater pollution, stating that there have been 26 known incidents where diesel and other substances from the factory have leaked into the ground. She also raised concern that a potential groundwater contamination may even affect large parts of Berlin. Recently, the WSE threatened to cut off the factory from the wastewater pipeline due to excessive discharge of phosphorus and nitrogen.

In March, Tesla submitted a revised plan for its factory expansion, halving the proposed area. However, this plan was also rejected by the Strausberg-Ekner Water Association, which stated that it cannot supply any additional water to the factory.

It seems that Musk underestimated the challenges of the Grünheide Gigafactory’s water supply. In 2021, during a visit to the construction site, the Tesla CEO had laughingly dismissed a reporter’s concerns about the area’s water shortage.

“This region has so much water, look around you,” said Musk, before adding, “it’s like water everywhere here, does this seem like a desert to you?”

At the moment, the region may not be a desert; however, many local residents are afraid that it is on the way to becoming one. As water resources are further depleted, the conflict with Tesla is bound to intensify.

“I would tell [Musk] that maybe he should take care of the world that he is destroying, and perhaps inform himself about what he is actually doing here with this factory,” said Manuela.

“And perhaps he should then fly to Mars and never come back,” she added.

Tesla and the Strausberg-Ekner Water Association did not immediately respond to Unicorn Riot’s requests for comment.

“Welcome to the Utopian Gigafactory,” reads a banner hung across a path in a Brandenburg Forest outside Berlin, Germany. Image contributed by Nicole Thyssen.

Cover image contributed by Nicole Thyssen.

Related: Tree House Villages Defend Ancient German Forest Against Expanding Coal Mine – Sept. 2019

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