A Dam Makes For Bad Neighbors...But There's Hope For Compromise

Laszlo Beks leaves off gutting his modest haul of underweight trout and turns his eyes toward the marshland. "The Danube?" he murmurs mournfully, nodding south across a belt of thirsty-looking poplar and silver birch that separates the tiny hamlet of Dobrohost from Europe's longest river. "It's over there, beyond the trees."

The 62-year-old farmer is perched on a three-meter-high cobblestone embankment. Not so long ago, the Danube hereabouts formed a mighty delta, splitting into hundreds of meandering branches to form one of the Continent's most important remaining wetlands. Twice annually, in spring and fall, the main channel--which forms the border between Slovakia and Hungary--burst its banks, flushing the surrounding bogs with nutrient-rich silt.

But in 1993, the Slovak government diverted 80% of the Danube's flow to power a new hydroelectric dam at the nearby town of Gabcikovo. Dobrohost was left sandwiched between the power plant's concrete feeder canal and the original riverbed--a sad trickle of its former self, flanked by mudflats thick with weeds and dried-out mussel shells.

Originally, the Gabcikovo project, conceived during the cold war as a showpiece of international socialist brotherhood, was to have been a joint affair, with Hungary scheduled to build a similar complex farther downstream. But when the Iron Curtain fell in 1989, Budapest pulled out, claiming the plan threatened to dry out and destroy nature reserves. While Slovakia went ahead anyway, Hungary took its grievance to the International Court of Justice in the Hague, demanding that Gabcikovo be pulled down and the Danube returned to its old course.

On Apr. 1-4, the judges came to see for themselves--the first time they've visited the site of a dispute in the tribunal's 51-year history. They had a lot to ponder. Independent on-site studies suggest that 90% of the flora and fauna over an area of 13,000 hectares is threatened with extinction. Equally impartial experts counter that now dehydrated areas of Hungarian and Slovak wetlands were already in trouble before the dam's construction, because natural riverbank erosion had lowered the water level.

RHETORIC. But it could be that history, rather than science, is the real cause of the impasse. The Slovak side of the Danube is populated almost exclusively by 600,000 ethnic Hungarians. Once upon a time, they ruled these parts, first under the Hapsburg Austro-Hungarian Empire, and later during World War II, when Budapest was awarded the North Bank as an inducement to side with the Germans. Today, the Bratislava regime is openly contemptuous of the "Trojan Horse" along its southern flank. The Culture Minister, Ivan Hudec, recently dismissed the Gabcikovo region as "culturally contaminated," while the Foreign Ministry refuses to allow extra road crossings to relieve congestion along the frontier for fear of "paving the way for Magyar militarist aggression."

With rhetoric like that swirling around, it's hard to believe both states are angling for membership in the European Union. At any rate, the Hague court--due to reach a verdict next September--will need the wisdom of Solomon.


Aside from ecological and ethnic questions, there are powerful economic interests at stake in the Gabcikovo dispute. Germany has just finished constructing the Rhine-Main-Danube canal, linking the North Sea with the Black Sea. A key factor in prompting Bonn to spend $2.3 billion on the channel was that Gabcikovo, with its system of shipping locks, renders the often turbulent Hungarian/Slovak stretch of the Danube navigable year-round. Bodies such as the World Wildlife Fund are urging compromise: The dam could stay, they suggest, but Slovakia must reduce the amount of water it siphons off and restore the flow completely to its old channel twice a year.

That proposal has the backing of Laszlo Fehervary, an Slovak dredging-craft captain of Hungarian descent who has plied the Danube between Bratislava and Komarno for the past 17 years. Two years ago, he recalls, technical problems forced the Gabcikovo authorities to revert to the old riverbed for a fortnight. "The trees perked up immediately," says Fehervary. "They're not greedy, you know. They just need a drink every now and then. We'd have the rest of the year to make electricity."

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