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The Dam

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It says a lot about Hungary in the 1980s that the movement that represented the biggest challenge to the Communist authorities was an environmental one. In Romania, dissidents focused on a tyrant. In Poland, striking Solidarity activists protested against working conditions and in support of labor rights. And in Hungary, the rallying point of the opposition was a dam.

It was actually an entire dam complex on the Danube, with one part of the water works at Gabcikovo in Czechoslovakia and the lower section at Nagymaros in Hungary. The two Communist governments were attracted to the potential energy, while the opposition movement in Hungary focused on the environmental consequences. Of course, the primary civic group on the Hungarian side, the Danube Circle, was not just concerned about the environment. It protested the lack of transparency on the part of the government. And that struck at the very legitimacy of the Communist state, and the anti-dam movement attracted more than just environmentalists to the cause. By 1989, 150,000 Hungarians had signed a petition against the dam.

Even before the political changes of the summer and fall of 1989, the Hungarian government withdrew from the project in May. Eventually the Slovak side went through with the construction of its facility at Gabcikovo, which entailed the diversion of the Danube waters. The Slovaks argued that the failure of the Hungarian side to build their part of the complex reduced the efficiency of the Gabcikovo water works. The Hungarians were upset over the consequences for Hungary of the diversion of the Danube. The two countries took the case to the International Court of Justice. In 1997, the ICJ ruled that both sides were at fault for breaking earlier agreements, and both sides owed damages. The dispute remains unresolved.

"I used to say that for both countries, the dam became a symbol," Tamas Fleischer told me in an interview in Budapest last May. "For Slovakia, it symbolized independence, over and above the technical issues. From the Hungarian side, it became a symbol of the anti-Communist and anti-industrial movement." Because the dam project had such powerful and contrasting symbolic value, it was very difficult to achieve a compromise.

Fleischer was involved in the dam movement in the 1980s and continues to follow the twists and turns of the issue. An engineer who specializes on sustainable transportation, he nevertheless understands the technical issues involved in subjecting the Danube to this half-finished effort to harness the river's power.

"For Slovakia, it is very convenient because they are using the water," Fleischer points out. "For Hungary, theoretically, we won because we didn't build the dam. But our water resources are being used by another country. From that point of view, the water management people are right that we have lost money over the years."

The conflict has a technical dimension related to the navigability of the Danube, the displacement of gravel from the riverbed, and the impact of the Danube diversion on water quality downstream. But the major problems between Slovakia and Hungary on the dam issue remain political.

"Such a problem can only be resolved by reliable politicians," Fleischer concludes. "This is not an issue that a politician can use to advance a career. But there are no such politicians who have enough authority that they can afford to lose some of their power by resolving this issue. De Gaulle did this in France when he withdrew from Algeria. He risked the reputation he had from World War II in order to solve the problem. We would need something similar, but first of all both Slovakia and Hungary would need a 'de Gaulle.'"

The Interview

In the paper you sent me, which I think was from 1993, you talked about the trajectory of the Nagymaros-Gabcikovo dam project. In the 1993 paper, you write that the Hungarian government cancelled its side of the dam, but Slovakia went ahead with Gabcikovo. I understand that there is still a dispute between Hungary and Slovakia over this issue. Are you surprised that this issue is still going on?

If you mean surprised because I thought the problem would be solved after 20 years, yes, I am surprised that it isn't. I used to say that for both countries, the dam became a symbol. For Slovakia, it symbolized independence, over and above the technical issues. From the Hungarian side, it became a symbol of the anti-Communist and anti-industrial movement. In the Western countries, for instance in France, the anti-nuclear movement was the symbol of anti-industrial feeling.

The water management people always complain that non-experts are talking about the water issue. But that's the way it is in society. It's the same in a restaurant. You don't have to be a very good cook in order to say something for or against the meal. Transportation people are the same, and maybe I made the same complaints when I was working within the transportation institute. Experts think they know better about transport, and everyone who doesn't have the same understanding is against rationality and good development.

Time works for us in the movement as more and more people begin to understand the general importance of the environment as a whole and how the systems are embedded within each other so that you can't just deal with one of them. The other side of the problem was that probably, because of its symbolic effect, the Danube movement overachieved what it wanted. For a long period, it was important to the movement not to build the second dam at Nagymaros on the Hungarian side. This was a symbolic place, near Visegrad, where King Matyas had a palace. The movement was not really against the upper dam in the common Czechoslovak-Hungarian section of the Danube. As the political turn came closer - and as the Communist government became weaker and the movement became stronger -- we won on the upper dam as well. The last Communist government stopped it just one year before the first free elections. I'm absolutely sure that if the common Gabcikovo dam had been built at the time, then already the second dam at Nagymaros would be there. Eventually the Slovaks diverted the Danube in 1993, and Slovakia now produces electricity with a hydroelectric project on a side canal - using practically the whole amount of the water of the Danube. The two countries went to the International Court of Justice in The Hague. There was a decision.

Such a problem can only be resolved by reliable politicians. This is not an issue that a politician can use to advance a career. But there are no such politicians who have enough authority that they can afford to lose some of their power by resolving this issue. De Gaulle did this in France when he withdrew from Algeria. He risked the reputation he had from World War II in order to solve the problem. We would need something similar, but first of all both Slovakia and Hungary would need a "de Gaulle." This is almost the last political issue that a government wants to address. Only the Gyula Horn government did something in 1998. He wanted to do something behind the scenes. But then he lost the election. He'd been in a very good position, and he lost -- not only because of the dam issue but it played a role. So, the politicians probably learned from this experience that the dam was not an issue on which to win votes -- even if so many people say that something should be done.

I understand that there are still consequences from the Slovak dam for people living in Hungary, especially up in the area where there are a lot of small islands.

Szigetkoz? Yes, but not only there. This is always the problem with dams. When you dam rivers, it cause changes in the lower part as well. If you stop the water, the gravel decreases. Normally, the river brings gravel from the Alps and the riverbed. The river's power to carry the gravel and the speed of the water flow eventually balance each other out. Because of the dams, the water slows down and the river puts down a big part of the wash. Under the dam, the bed of the river becomes deeper and deeper because the water pulls up the gravel and washes it downstream. That would seem to be good for navigation because the water is deeper. But no, the river is only deeper in certain places - not where there are large rocks. The deeper river is also not good for agriculture, because it means a lower water level and a lower level for ground water as well. After a while, the wheat -

The roots don't go down far enough to get at the water?

Yes. So, there are problems. It's always a question of who caused what and what we have to do. The water management people keep saying that we have to make more dams. This is one solution. Another solution would be take the gravel from upstream and bring it downstream. At the time they made the dams, this consequence was not clear. Nobody wants to pay for this, or to pay for another dam. And it's not just a question of money. It's also whether we even want another dam. Five years ago, the Hungarian ministry asked the water research institute to do research, with Dutch money, to prove whether it is possible to solve the river problem with traditional methods -- to blow up those big rocks, for instance, and to stabilize the riverbed. There was a big quarrel. The hard water management people said the researchers were not asking the right question because they didn't analyze the case of the dam. These people insisted that without a dam it was not possible to solve the navigation issue. But just because they always stated this, the important research question was to see whether it was possible to solve the problem without another dam. The institute's research proved that we could resolve the problem with traditional methods at a certain cost. It's another question whether we really need a deepened riverbed that's 180 meters wide, because it is very expensive and sometimes narrower is sufficient. So this research was attacked from both sides. The water management people said it was not fair. The environmental people said that it planned for larger parameters than would be necessary. That shows that maybe the research was good!

Both sides were equally unhappy with it.

To read the rest of the interview, click here.