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PRI's Environmental News Magazine

Danube Donnybrook

Air Date: Week of January 22, 1993

Alexa Dvorson reports on the political battle raging between Hungary and the newly-independent nation of Slovakia over a hydroelectric dam Slovakia is building on the Danube river.

Transcript

In Hungary, they're calling it river robbery. In the newly independent nation of Slovakia, they call it an engineering triumph. The two countries are deadlocked in a dispute over a massive dam on the River Danube that forms the border between them. The Gabcikovo hydro-project was part of a two-dam construction scheme developed by the two former Communist governments. But with the advent of democracy, Hungary backed out, saying the dams pose too great a threat to the environment. Slovakia went ahead anyway and diverted 24 miles of the river to make electricity, and now Hungary says it wants the river back. Alexa Dvorson reports.

(Sound of water over dam)

DVORSON: This is not the River Danube of lilting waltzes and romantic landscapes of Central Europe. This is a fifteen-mile-long greenish-brown canal whose water has been squeezed off from its original riverbed a few miles away. As construction workers put the finishing touches of cement on the Gabcikovo Dam, hundreds of villagers say their wells have run dry and their fishing holes have vanished, along with the fish. But Slovak engineer Miroslav Liska says all the residents' worries are unfounded. Speaking for Hydrostav, the Slovak construction firm building the dam, Liska admits the concrete hulk and power station at Gabcikovo don't add much aesthetic appeal to the region. But he denies the project will threaten the ethnic Hungarians living on the Slovak side of the river.

LISKA: Do you think that production of electricity is harmful for anybody? I can assure of one thing: that this project was never meant to do any harm to the Hungarian people living in this country. On the contrary, they worked on the construction, they had many very good possibilities of employment, they built new houses, they renewed the whole villages, and the whole region will be very much economically developed.

DVORSON: The director of a Hungarian environmental group, economist Gyorgy Dropa of the Danube Circle, disagrees.

DROPA: This is simply not true, because if you dam the river you have to face the question of the poisoning of the drinking water, and nothing can be done against that.

DVORSON: The Danube Circle, along with other environmental groups like the Worldwide Fund for Nature, say the Gabcikovo Dam has disrupted the river's natural flushing processes that once kept the drinking water for five million people free of pollution. They say the project will demolish the habitat for five thousand species of plant and animal life, including deer, otter, beaver and birds. It was warnings like these that led Hungarians to the streets in 1989 to demand that the self-dissolving Communist government drop out of the joint effort with former Czechoslovakia. Two years later, Hungary declared the 1977 project treaty null and void, and suspended construction of the Nagymaros Dam near Budapest, which was to be the first of the two dams built. To the government of former Czechoslovakia, this step was a violation of international law. Now Slovakia has inherited responsibility for the Gabcikovo Dam since its break with the Czech republic. Roman Bruzak, who heads the Slovak Foreign Ministry's press department, blames Hungary for hurling the river issue into the political arena.

BRUZAK: The unilateral cancellation of an international treaty is an entirely political step. There is a dam already built, we are ready to discuss all questions, all proposals, but first of all, let us reaccept the original treaty from 1977, and discuss the project as a whole.

DVORSON: Crossing the border by train from Slovakia to Hungary is fairly routine. At the customs post, a young man wheeling a pushcart sells burnt coffee and cola through the windows of the train. But part of the border between Hungary and Slovakia is the River Danube itself. And here, the dispute over the dam has intensified. Hungary defines its border with Slovakia as the navigable waters of the Danube. But since Slovakia built the diversion dam to funnel the water into its own territory, the old riverbed is no longer navigable, so Hungary says its border has been violated. Foreign Ministry spokesman Gyorg Tatar says it's Slovakia that's broken international law, but he hopes the political tension of the Danube dispute will diminish now that it's up to the International Court of Justice to decide the Danube's future.

TATAR: We know that we have to live together with Slovakia. If we want to live in peace, and we want to develop as a nation, then we have to settle the whole dispute by peaceful means.

DVORSON: But the decision of the International Court in the Hague could take two to three years. In the meantime, there's no resolution on how the Danube's water should be managed. In defiance of an agreement last fall, the Slovaks are already generating electricity at the Gabcikovo Dam and they refuse to return the water to the Danube's old channel. Slovak dissident Martin Simecka isn't surprised. Although the Danube issue is extremely complex, he says nothing could be more blatant than the contrast between the portrayals of the issue in Slovak and Hungarian media.

SIMECKA: It's black and white. As in Hungary it started to be in fact a symbol of ecological disaster and symbol of political success to stop Gabcikovo from the Hungarian side, from the Slovak side on the contrary it is to finish it and fulfill our job as a big Slovak success. All over the newspapers, radio, TV, Gabcikovo is good.

DVORSON: On its nearly twelve-hundred mile journey through nine nations from the Black Forest to the Black Sea, the Danube flows past Budapest and Bratislava, the Slovak capital. It's as though the Danube itself has become a metaphor for the ideological differences between Hungary and Slovakia. Martin Simecka says Slovak censorship has all but denied critics a chance to voice their opposition to Gabcikovo. In Hungary, it was precisely freedom of the press that opened the Danube issue to public debate. Now environmentalists warn if the waters aren't returned by mid-March, an area of wetlands twice the size of Toronto could die, and a vast agricultural area will lose its groundwater. But with the dam nearly finished, Slovaks say they can't just erase it off the map. After investing over a billion dollars, they claim it would make neither economic nor ecologic sense to abandon the project now. Whatever the International Court of Justice in the Hague decides in two to three years' time, the odds are the Danube will be the loser in this dispute long before that.

For Living on Earth, this is Alexa Dvorson at the Gabcikovo Dam on the River Danube.

 

 

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