Cooperative dam project on Danube now divides Hungary, Czechoslovakia

March 29, 1992|By David Rocks | David Rocks,Contributing Writer

GABCIKOVO, Czechoslovakia -- Like a bad hangover from 40 years of communism, an old exercise in comradely cooperation has become a headache in relations between Czechoslovakia and Hungary.

The headache is the Gabcikovo-Nagymaros hydroelectric project on the Danube, and the conflict is simple: The Czechoslovak side wants it, and the Hungarians don't.

The problem is that it's already mostly there.

For 10 miles, a half-mile wide channel cuts straight through the Danube wetlands and the grain fields of south Slovakia. At the downstream end, a 100-foot-high dam spans the channel. Eight turbines are lined up and nearly ready to produce electricity.

Through the 1950s, '60s and Through the 1950s, '60s and '70s, when the project was being planned, it fitted perfectly into the world view of both sides: Bulldoze a deep gash in the earth, pour tons of concrete, install a few turbines, and, presto -- bountiful electricity to fuel energy-intensive industry.

Engineers trained to think in terms of Stalinist gigantism had a field day, and environmentalists opposing the project were easily silenced by the secret police.

Then came 1989. As communism was crumbling that August, Hungary stopped work on its portion of the project, citing the environmental damage it would cause. After Czechoslovakia's revolution three months later, it looked as though work might stop here as well. But leaders in Slovakia -- one of Czechoslovakia's two constituent republics -- decided to press on.

Now, on the Slovak side of the river, workers are once again busy bulldozing, welding and hammering in hopes of completing the project by early 1993. A stone's throw away in Hungary the work site is silent.

The original plan called for twin dams to generate electricity, one at Gabcikovo in Slovakia, and the other at Nagymaros in Hungary. Each dam was to be equipped with locks for shipping, and above the Gabcikovo dam, the 10-mile channel was dug to ease navigation.

Now, the Slovak government hopes to complete the Gabcikovo dam, the shipping channel and a reservoir, all on Slovak territory.

Although many in Czechoslovakia would also like to abandon the project, the government already has invested some $600 million, and since tearing down what has already been built could cost more than completing it, there is economic pressure to continue.

"We have inherited from the former Communist government a very hard problem, because this project is a really bad one," said Josef Vavrousek, Czechoslovakia's environment minister.

"But we have got the almost-finished Gabcikovo dam and that huge artificial channel, so there are huge environmental damages and other economic losses. We have to find the best from all very bad solutions to the problem. It is impossible to adopt the solution of 'let it be.' "

The Hungarian Parliament last month threatened to nullify the 1977 agreement that led to the project but put off any irreversible action. The two sides are continuing to negotiate.

Hungary's stance has given new fuel to Czech and Slovak environmentalists.

"If we consider only the money that has been spent on construction, it looks like a very good reason to complete" the project, said Jaroslav Sibl, a leader of the Slovak Guardians of Nature, an environmental group. "But if you could count the price of the natural resources that we would lose forever, it would be much higher than this money."

The conflict highlights the difficult choice Czechoslovakia faces in meeting its energy needs. Currently, more than two-thirds of its electric power is produced in power plants fired by low-quality brown coal -- a key cause of acid rain, which is devastating the country's forests.

Soviet-designed nuclear power plants provide another 16 percent, and hydroelectric power accounts for the balance. The country imports virtually all of the little oil and gas that is used.

Against such a background, the Gabcikovo project looks relatively clean and cheap. The dam, however, will meet only about 3 percent of the country's energy needs -- which Mr. Sibl says isn't enough to warrant the devastation it will cause.

Mr. Sibl's group claims that the project would pollute ground water and that diverting the Danube would also destroy surrounding wetlands.

Rather than build the dam, Mr. Sibl said, Czechoslovakia should jTC restructure its economy and rethink its energy needs. Its economy is based largely on energy-intensive smokestack industries for which raw materials must be imported.

"The whole structure of our economy should be changed," Mr. Sibl said. "We can decrease our energy consumption if we start something like energy-efficiency planning and rational planning of our economy, but these basic things are still missing."

But the project's supporters say its benefits far outweigh any potential damage. Not only will the dam provide power, but it will also control flooding and improve navigation on the Danube -- forming the final step in a water route linking the Black Sea and the Atlantic, they say.

Furthermore, enough water can be kept in the original riverbed to maintain the existing wetlands, and it would actually protect ground water, not harm it, said Gabriel Jencik, a manager at the Slovak government agency that oversees the project.

"It's ecologically clean. It doesn't damage the environment," he said.

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