|United Nations University - Work in Progress Newsletter - Volume 15, Number 2, 1998 (UNU, 1998, 12 pages)|
By Libor Janský
When Czechoslovakia split up in January 1993, it left to one of the new states, Slovakia, a long-running environmental dispute with neighbouring Hungary - over a dam on the Danube reckoned to be the largest civil-engineering project in Europe.
The Danube has seen much history. The site for the dam is between Bratislava, the Slovak capital, and Budapest, capital of Hungary, a stretch of the Danube that has been a camping ground down the ages for Illyrian, Celtic, Slavic, Magyar and Germanic tribes. There are important industrial centres on both sides of the border along this part of the Danube - Gyor in Hungary and Komarmo in Slovakia, for example, are important cogs in a Central European economy daily growing more interdependent.
Some two decades ago, construction began on a barrier system on the Danube, aimed at improving management of the river's resources. Construction has since stopped, however, and the project has broken down into a war of words between Hungary and Slovakia about what is and is not ecologically and economically feasible. The following article about the dispute is by Libor Janský, of the Faculty of Natural Sciences, Comenius University, Bratislava, Slovak Republic, a member of the UNU multidisciplinary team examining river water issues. - Editor
The Danube River is a journey through the old and new states of post-Cold War Europe - a 2,857 kilometre-trip through Germany, Austria, the Slovak Republic, Hungary, Croatia, Serbia, Romania, Bulgaria, and the Ukraine. Before emptying into the Black Sea, the river also drains the catchment areas of Switzerland, Poland, the Czech Republic, Slovenia, Bosnia-Herzegovina, Albania and Moldova. The topography is as richly varied as are the bordering states - through jutting mountain gateways, lush agricultural plains, and deltaic interlacings of land and water near the river's terminus.
Some 80 million Europeans live in the Danube basin, which spreads across an area of mountains, plains and wooded hills totalling 817,000 square kilometres. For centuries the river has been used for fishing, navigation, and drinking water supply -satisfying the demands of agriculture and industry, as well as for the disposal of purified wastewater. Between 1950 and 1980, a total of 69 dams and more complex waterworks were constructing on the Danube. Since the Rhine-Main-Danube Canal opened in 1992, the river has become an artery for a continent, with the route connecting hundreds of inland ports from the North to the Black Seas.
The Danube is registered as an International Corridor 6C for transportation. The Danube Commission, consisting of representatives of the Danube states, regulates this agreement and oversees large-scale navigation measures. The natural topography along the river is as varied as are the different social and political situations in each country. Different countries have different priorities. This has resulted in a range of different approaches to river problems.
In 1977, Czechoslovakia and Hungary concluded a treaty for the construction of the Gabcíkovo-Nagymaros Barrier System along the Slovakian-Hungarian border some 50 kilometres downriver from Bratislava.
This immense engineering project was meant to improve utilization of the natural resources of the Bratislava-Budapest section of the Danube; it would aid in the development of water resources, energy, transport, agriculture and other sectors of the national economies of both countries. The joint investment was thus essentially aimed at the production of hydroelectricity, the improvement of navigation on the relevant section of the Danube and the protection of the areas along the banks against flooding.
In 1989, Hungary suspended and subsequently abandoned completion of the project alleging that it entailed grave risks to the Hungarian environment. Slovakia (created by the split of Czechoslovakia in 1993) denied these allegations and insisted that Hungary carry out its treaty obligations. It planned and subsequently put into operation an alternative amendment to the project. While the new work was located only on Slovak territory, its operation had effects on Hungary's access to the Danube across the river.
The UNU work on this question is part of the activities focused on sustainable resources management. Particular concerns are instances where transboundary waters have gone beyond the purely technical and become political. The dispute over the Gabcíkovo-Nagymaros Barrier System on Danube River between Slovak Republic and Hungary seems to be such an example.
Discussions about the UNU Danube project started in 1993, shortly after the documents on the Gabcíkovo-Nagymaros Barrier System dispute were submitted by the Slovakian and Hungarian governments to the International Court of Justice in The Hague. A multidisciplinary and multinational core team has since been established, consisting of the author; Dr. Miklos Sukosd, a political scientist and sociologist at Central European University, Budapest, Hungary; and Prof. Masahiro Murakami, Kochi University of Technology, Japan, an authority on water engineering and hydropolitical geography.
Since 1993, the UNU Danube project has held three conferences, all in Bratislava and organized by the City University Bratislava (CUB). The most recent, in June 1997, was part of an international Danube conference jointly organized by CUB and the International Biopolitics Organization on the subject: "Danube River Bonds - Past, Present, Future - A Dimension of Time and Space." It attracted more than 80 speakers from over 20 countries including the representatives of national institutions, research and academic areas, consultants and NGOs.
Dr. Sukosd of the core team outlined the political-historical background of the conflict between the Slovak Republic and Hungary over the Danube, with attention to the damming by the Gabcíkovo-Nagymaros Barrier System. He noted the many dimensions to the social science research that must be taken into account, including: (a) the different pace and scenarios of democratic transition in the two countries; (b) limited independence of scientific communities in both countries; (c) nationalism - historical, cultural and ethnic factors; (d) weak civil societies and scarce transborder communications; (e) the use of the barrier system issue for political legitimation; (f) lack of regional conflict resolution institutions; and (g) the role of the European Union and the International Court of Justice.
Whether affecting a downstream flow or upstream navigation, the rights to a river's resources can pose thorny and complex questions. Another core team presentation covered some vexing, but often overlooked, local concerns - touching, for example, on things like the division of fishing or river bed rights, toll and bridge rights, or adjustments that need to be made when a channel shifts (the Danube splits into three channels shortly after passing Bratislava). On a larger regional and national scale are questions of the rights on non-contiguous lands (i.e., not fronting on the river) that need to navigate the Danube, the passage of migrating fish, and exploiting the river (e.g., bed sediments) with or without damage to other countries.
The Danube Conference agenda was a full one: ranging from biodiversity to pollution prevention; to forest ecosystems and soil protection; to protecting the rights of future generations. Conceived as a forum for the exchange of ideas about environmental management in the region, the conference stressed the importance of drawing lessons from history - in particular, what might be learned from the people and societies living along the Danube. Such lessons should be the building blocks for a harmonious future. Also discussed was the implementation of biocentric principles; participants discussed the contributions their respective disciplines might make and proposed models for new thinking and action. The interdisciplinary character of the hydrological issues involved emerged clearly.
There were major discussions of the implications for the Danube regions of the likely future expansion of the European Union. What might this mean in terms of future leadership and diplomacy, for economic structures, for trends in trade, transport and tourism, and a range of other issues that might emerge with a broadened union of European states? The Conference gave evidence of willingness, in the official national policies of the countries along the river, to improve the general environmental and technical standards in legislative, executive and financial ways.
Some Practical Needs
A list of some practical current needs for the Danube region emerged from the exchange:
(1) to support the ideas of bio-politics and sustainable development between the riparian countries;
(2) to increase the information flow about the project activities which are undertaken within the framework and auspices of various international organizations on a governmental or academic level or within the NGO circles;
(3) to create the partnerships between civic initiatives in the whole Danube region and to support the involvement of the NGOs in the Danube Environmental Forum;
(4) to transform the scientific results into political decision-making;
(5) to consider the whole Danube river basin when evaluating the impacts of and on the Gabcíkovo-Nagymaros Barrier System.
The UNU Danube project will continue to identify issues in dispute concerning water resources, select alternative scenarios that could lead to the solution of complex water environment problems, and recommend processes that could lead to mutually satisfactory solutions. Other rivers with international border conflicts to be studied include the Colorado, the Indus, the Nile, the Jordan and the Euphrates.