The Government Commissioner’s mandate is to coordinate tasks between different ministries, and to coordinate the strategy with 14 countries, 8 of which are in the EU. The 11 priority areas include transportation and conventional security, tourism and culture, energy, infrastructure, environment and water issues, social and labour market inclusion, and institutional cooperation. The Strategy also emphasises research, development and innovation, and the development of Small and Medium-Sized Enterprises and entrepreneurship in general. The Government Commissioner’s work involves establishing priorities and converting road maps into action plans, aligning national funding resources with international financial institutions, especially the Cohesion Fund of the EU. He is also the international contact point for the Danube Region Strategy.
NT: Let’s start with water quality – how good or bad is the water in the Hungarian section of the river?
BM: An essential part of the Danube Strategy focuses on water policy issues, because we all inherit water downstream – there is no single country that could cope with water quality issues, or floods or drought, by itself. This needs a strong degree of cooperation and coordination between various sources.
Water quality in Hungary has shown a vast improvement over the past decades for various reasons. Of course each of the decades has certain characteristics. We had the old-style Socialist chemical industries, which were quite an important source of risk. This mostly disappeared at the end of the 1980s.
In the following decades we have seen a gradual decrease of fertiliser use, and a slow catch-up of waste-water treatment, especially in urban agglomerations. In the past years this process has speeded up, so there is a drastic improvement in this area, especially in large agglomerations. Now we are at the stage of fine-tuning the large waste-water treatment plants and also starting to focus on the smaller settlements, and the more diffuse sources of water pollutants.
We are addressing ever newer areas of water quality and we can see it shows the results in the quality of our surface waters, especially the rivers and lakes. Of course we are only satisfied if they are without exception of excellent ecological and chemical status, so we are still working on that, but we are getting rapidly closer to that mark.
NT: The city of Budapest has a new water treatment plant, on Csepel Island. Vienna also has state-of-the-art facilities. I’ve heard it said that the water quality downstream of both cities is better than upriver. Could that be true?
BM (laughs): Technically speaking the waste-water treatment plant cleans the water in the sewage system, not in the river, so that does sound like a joke. But on the other hand the quality of the water compared to what it was a decade ago has improved substantially. We could also observe a gradual increase in the water quality in agglomerations equipped with modern facilities of waste-water treatment – the 3 phase treatment plants, mechanical then biological, and most of the modern ones now have a third, chemical stage for nutrient removal. This is quite an essential contribution and the effects are visible.
The Danube River is starting to be compliant in more and more parts with the EU bathing water directive, which is something which was not anticipated thirty years ago. We have more and more new bathing sites in the Danube in Hungary, for example at Ráckeve (just south of Budapest, on the Soroksári branch of the Danube, east of Csepel Island).
NT: The EU Water Framework Directive (WFD) is seen by some on the Hungarian side as a framework within which Hungary could reach agreement in the future with Slovakia over disputes which arose as a result of the diversion of the river twenty years ago in 1992, for the construction of the Gabčikovo power station. The WFD imposes clear obligations on all riverside states, including Hungary and Slovakia. Does the WFD help?
BM: I am not authorised to comment on the specific negotiations with Slovakia, as this is the task of a separate Government Commissioner. The only answer I can give is a theoretical one. Any solution must fit European legislation and of course the WFD, the Floods Directive, the Environmental Framework and so on are the cornerstones of the legal environment. We have to be compliant with our mutual commitments – let it be the Szigetköz area or about navigation. So it is essential that each solution meet the Acquis Communautaire and the EC’s legal requirements. I can add from the Danube Regional Strategy perspective, that the Danube Regional Strategy is a very important rule for the implementation of these directives. It is partly about implementing those projects which are not elaborated in detail within these framework directives. The directives provide goals and requirements, not necessarily methodologies. The Danube Strategy is a platform, a tool to meet these requirements. And in some areas involving non-EU member states, they contribute to the Acquis Communautaire, or provide new solutions at the macro-regional level. This involves not just implementing but substantially enhancing the existing Acquis Communautaire in the water framework, among others of course.
NT: In many countries there is a conflict between the environmental and the transport and engineering lobbies. How does that debate stand today in Hungary, and which side are you and your office on?
BM: Not just my office but the whole Hungarian government looks on the Danube as a very important environmental resource, as a huge asset. We have to take care of it. We can look at it as a “green door” that supports us in many ways. Most Budapest inhabitants get their drinking water from the Danube. Almost 70 per cent of Hungarian drinking water reserves are in areas also affected by certain risks. So we have identified a range of potential water resources, and 80 per cent are closely linked to the Danube or the Tisza Rivers. These potentials are really important for us, as arguably the most important resource for the twentieth century is clean water.
The River Danube is also a very important asset in terms of eco-tourism. The Eurovelo Route 6 stretches across Europe from the Black Forest to the Black Sea. We also have very substantial plans for introducing water tourism routes along the whole Danube – this involves intensive planning and coordinating with the bike routes and hiking routes as well. And we have tremendous cultural and natural assets on the way which are very important – not just for tourism. Of course these are part of our identity, but they also made the Danube a very important area for tourism. We are working hard to publicise the Danube limes defence line of the Roman Empire. In Hungary alone there are more than 300 sites of Roman heritage and this is of course a disproportionately high number for the whole River Danube. There is a very interesting chain of attractions. We also have national parks of great value at a European level, and we can link all of these together, conserving them, but also providing them for sound tourism. We have guests from New Zealand and Canada and so on in luxury boats. They are very welcome, and they are interested. So we have to take care of substantial resources.
We also naturally use the Danube for navigation purposes. We are actively seeking ways in Budapest to involve the Danube more in the public transportation system. And how to extend such a system – it is very important that we have links to the surrounding capitals, with passenger transportation as well. Currently, 3–4 per cent of the total of goods transportation is on the Danube.
Transport on the Danube is relatively free and efficient, and avoids the charges of transport by road and rail. But at the same time, global climate change is affecting the navigability of the river especially in the autumn periods. Sometimes the river is substantially lower then. This is not a new phenomenon. In history, there was never a year when it was navigable for 365 days. We are doing our best to restore the waterway, but of course there are priorities. Providing safety for the inhabitants and infrastructure and businesses in the region is self-evident for us, and safety comes first. While we help the navigation sector we cannot jeopardise water supplies, we cannot endanger tourist attractions or biodiversity. So we need to find a place where these can be harmonised together. The Danube strategy provides a very good tool for doing that. There is a priority area for navigation, and another for biodiversity. Both have to cover these issues and find a way to harmonise such efforts.
NT: You mention dangers and threats – there have been two accidents in the past decade, the big mercury spill in Baia Mare in Romania in January 2001, and the Red Sludge disaster at Ajka in Hungary in October 2010. How concerned are you by future threats? Have the lessons been learnt in Hungary and the neighbouring countries? What more can be done to prevent a repeat?
BM: We have learned a lot but a lot remains to do in the future as well. We should draw an important distinction between the Nagybánya (Baia Mare) accident in Romania and the Red Sludge disaster in Hungary. The Baia Mare accident had a devastating effect on the Romanian and Hungarian downstream parts of the river, and a significant effect in Serbia, with the pollution reaching the Danube in Serbia, then flowing back to Romania. On the other hand we managed to localise the Ajka Red Sludge disaster. It did not reach the Danube River in a concentration which would have been harmful for the inhabitants or the surrounding area. This is an important distinction, and we need to learn a lot from it in terms of preparedness and the immediate action that should be taken in various disasters.
The bottom line is that although there are a range of immediate answers for the Baia Mare accident, and although we have inventories of hazardous sites, and we introduced some systems to provide early warnings, there is still a lot of room for improvement in terms of providing more modern monitoring means, of hotspots and water quality. Of course hotspot monitoring is site specific monitoring, while river monitoring is river-specific. If you know what the threats are you might introduce more specialised monitoring equipment, but if you do so the system starts to get more complicated or expensive to maintain as well. So that is one particular task for the Danube Strategy – to design an optimal early warning system based on the sites with the highest risks. We also must monitor the river, because you cannot monitor each and every risk site.
We have seen a lot of improvement in terms of the directives focussing on mining activities, in terms of Environmental Impact Assessments, in terms of the integrated pollution prevention and control directive, and the best available techniques that focus on mining activities or metallurgy. So we can see an increasing awareness and a broader range of tools and measures focussed on meeting such challenges – because the risks are inherent. If you have an industrial activity, virtually any activity, the risks are there. But it is important that we are prepared for the risks, that we do our best to mitigate them, and there are risks that cannot be taken by a river for the human population. We have to prevent them, and it is a tremendously complex task to provide a legal institutional framework and macro-regional cooperation, which adds up to a sufficient approach to such risks.
NT: You mentioned smaller towns – what are the most important on-going or future projects?
BM: We have literally hundreds of projects. It is important to emphasise that the Danube Strategy is systematic, and involves an on-going effort to review existing waste-water treatment plants in Hungary and the whole Danube region, and identify those that need some kind of upgrade. The water demand is changing, the emission limit values are changing, the actual amount of water which gets into the system is changing, because in some places storm water is separated and in others it is part of the system.
The various waste-water treatment plants were built at different times. The new Budapest central plant on the northernmost tip of Csepel Island was the single largest environmental investment in this region of Europe, almost in the whole of Europe, and one of most modern in the world. It really deserves a visit, it’s huge and is largely covered by a green area. But when it started operating and colleagues started to fine-tune the biological filtration processes, we still found that in some peak periods it needed some more tweaks. Almost immediately the decision was taken to introduce another filtration phase, which is currently being built into the system. So sometimes you need to refine even the most modern facilities. This should be done systematically. A couple of dozen decisions were made by the Danube region states within the framework of the Water Quality Priority Area of the Danube Strategy. We made a thorough review of existing facilities. We also launched a programme for small sized settlements to find the most suitable answers – usually small scale water treatment plants, but these might also involve less conventional waste-water treatment technology.
We have various initiatives for flood management. The Danube countries elaborated a common methodology for identifying risk levels associated with various parts of the river, and using that methodology they are now harmonising the flood management programmes, with long-term investment plans. We also have a range of optimisation plans, from optimising the Danube region’s gasmarket, to local optimisation of drinking water and gas supply between neighbouring countries. It is sensible in the long run to invest less in infrastructure, and to deal with peak level loads mutually.
NT: Finally, could you tell me your own first memory of the Danube River?
BM: I was born and grew up close to the Danube bank in the Budapest suburb of Óbuda, so I have very hazy childhood memories of the bank there, known as the Roman Bank. I also have a clear memory of bathing in the Danube at Kisoroszi on the tip of Szentendre Island. I must have been about three. At that time, there was a holiday resort run by the National Ambulance Service there, and my father was an ambulance physician. We went there often, and I remember as a small child, being aware of the vast river, and the mountains rising above the Danube on both sides. That is the first picture that comes to my mind.
Later on I have taken every opportunity to canoe and cycle various sections of the Danube, in Hungary and abroad, and I still admire its sheer beauty.