Danube Project Sours

By , Juliet Serenyi is a research associate at the Environmental Law Institute in Washington. The views expressed are her own.

EXACTLY 36 years after Soviet tanks stifled Hungary's first real cry for democracy, another supposed ally has turned a deaf ear. Slovakia's Oct. 23 decision - to complete the Gabcikovo Dam and divert the beloved Danube - defeats the three-year-old struggle by Hungarians to stop the project, a movement so strong it led to the toppling of the communist regime in 1989.

Three years ago, more than 100,000 Hungarians signed petitions, distributed pamphlets, and successfully rallied to stop construction of a huge international hydroelectric project that threatened to forever alter the historic Danube River and the regional environment. The new government, siding with the people, has continued work against it.

But the enormous Gabcikovo-Nagymaros Dam Project, so typical of centrally planned economic endeavors, did not die with the old regime. The leaders of the neighboring Slovak Republic of Czechoslovakia are continuing their half of the venture, hoping to pressure downstream Hungary to complete the original proposal.

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At risk is the ecosystem of the primarily agricultural lands on both sides of the river, which flows along the border between the two countries before turning south to the Hungarian capital of Budapest. If it is completed, the dams would ruin the natural water filtration system of the river bed and destroy an underground reservoir.

Twenty-four square miles of wetlands and forests would be flooded. Fish yields could drop by more than 90 percent. Because the channel between the two dams is lined with plastic to improve flow, surrounding forest and farmland will dry up unless expensive irrigation systems are built.

Recognizing the symbolic importance of the project to the country, Hungary's new leaders reneged on a contract signed with the old Czechoslovak government in 1977 to build two dams along the river. They have already abandoned construction on the downstream dam, inside Hungary at Nagymaros, despite the $265 million the country had already invested in it. It has also refused to continue work on the upstream dam in Gabcikovo, Slovakia, and has called on Slovakia to do the same.

The Slovaks are as emotionally tied to the project as the Hungarians are against it. To the Slovaks, it has meant not only an economic boost in a time when jobs and money are scarce, but also an assertion of independence from the Czechs, who are against the project. Slovakia has invested even more money in the project than Hungary - more than $800 million to date. It does not believe that the environmental repercussions will be as bad as Hungary says. As a result, when Hungary first backed out of the con struction agreement in October 1989, Slovakia began to examine options for proceeding without Nagymaros.

The Danube moves too slowly in Slovakia to turn electric turbines; multiple dams are needed to create speed. Still hoping that Hungary would change its mind, the Slovaks began to build what they refer to as the "temporary solution" - a smaller dam built on Slovak soil. However, the recently completed project only produces 30 percent of the hydroelectric power predicted for the original design.

The "solution" has turned into a diplomatic problem of major proportions. Slovakia refused to halt construction and Hungary refused to compromise. Finally, as the Slovaks put the finishing touches on the project, both sides have agreed to let a special commission of the European Community decide what to do about the original 1977 contract and how to handle the impacts on the region and its people. The Slovaks hope the likelihood that the commission will ask them to destroy the complex is diminishing. The y have been working around the clock to complete Gabcikovo. It was so near completion when the commission was called on to intervene that Slovakia could not stop the diversion without creating massive flooding. By the time the commission comes to a decision, the ecological benefits of reversing the diversion may have trickled away.

Meanwhile, the environmental damage caused by the diversion is quickly progressing. The level of the Danube has dropped more than two meters below the previously recorded low in some areas, and wells have gone dry in nearby villages.

The irony is that, even if the Slovaks win in this conflict, they still lose. They have so angered their neighbor that there is little chance that Hungary will finish the Nagymaros dam. It is questionable whether the limited output of the "temporary solution" will even equal the energy and profit necessary to purify the contaminated water and irrigate the dehydrated fields, not to mention covering the costs of construction. And if the European Community is unable to reach a solution acceptable to both si des, the conflict will be taken to the International Court of Justice in the Hague.

As the wall between the two countries continues to rise, both sides need to work with the special commission to find a solution that protects not only the environment, but regional harmony as well.

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