In the 1980s and 1990s, Jaromír Šíbl was one of very few Slovaks to openly oppose the massive Gabčíkovo–Nagymaros hydroelectric project on the River Danube. The contract to build it was signed in 1977 by the Communist governments of Czechoslovakia and Hungary, and work began immediately on both sides of the river. In the 1980s, the environmental Danube Circle (Dunakör) group was formed in Hungary, and helped arouse public indignation against the threatening destruction of some of Hungary’s most beautiful landscapes, in the Szigetköz region, and at the Danube Bend. Members of the Danube Circle were initially persecuted, but in June 1989, the government of Prime Minister Miklós Németh suspended all building on the Hungarian side. The first democratic government, under Prime Minister József Antall, withdrew formally from the project, with strong cross-party backing, in 1990. The Czechoslovak government however remained fully committed to what they saw as a project of national prestige, and continued building, after Hungary withdrew. The Danube was diverted from its original bed in October 1992, just before the point where it becomes the border between the two countries. Slovakia became independent in 1993, and both Hungary and Slovakia took the case to the International Court of Justice. The ICJ ruled in 1997 that Hungary was wrong to unilaterally break the 1977 treaty, and that Czechoslovakia was wrong to proceed unilaterally, and called on both Hungary and Slovakia to sit down and agree to split the waters of the Danube equally. That has never happened, and Slovakia continues to take about 80 per cent of the flow.

The interview took place at the headquarters of the BROZ – a Bratislava based NGO endeavouring to restore floodplain forests, which Jaromír Šíbl now works for. A map is provided with some of the main places mentioned.

JŠ: Let’s start with a brief summary of the situation about 20 years ago. After Hungary officially announced that it would not continue with the Gabčíkovo (Bôs)–Nagymaros hydro project, the Slovak government made a one-sided decision to complete it on our territory alone. This was done through the enlargement of the dyke by about 11 kilometres from Dunakiliti, and the construction of a new weir near Cunovo. This explains why the intake channel has such a strange shape. Because originally the plan was that the weir should be here near Cilistov, or Hrušov, and opposite on the Hungarian side at Dunakiliti. And the old structure that was built at that time was preserved and is still ready for use. Hungarian water engineers are rather optimistic that at some point in the future it will be used, and the original project will be put into practice. That’s why they spend rather a large amount of money to keep it in position, ready for operation. As a consequence of the storage lake, the area of floodplain forest which was actually in this area was destroyed by this reservoir – a different area than was planned.

NT: How large an area is that?

JŠ: Up to 5,000 hectares of floodplain forest and floodplain habitat were destroyed. Plus all the high quality agricultural land was lost where the above-ground canal and the power plant were built, and the area between the power plant and old Danube river bed.The main damage is visible if we look at the map. The damage which is not so visible on the map, but is visible in the field – is that the whole section of the floodplain forest between Dobrohošt and Szap has lost its original water regime.

NT: A stretch of about 25–30 kilometres?

JŠ: Yes, exactly. It’s easy to measure: it extends between Danube kilometres 1840 and 1810 – so it is exactly 30 kilometres long (the kilometres are measured upstream from the delta). And of course in this upstream part the situation is worse. In the downstream section it is not so bad, but bad enough.

NT: How has the loss of that floodplain forest on the Slovak and Hungarian side damaged the area?

JŠ: The point is that before, this was the floodplain area which was regularly flooded several times a year. And these many side branches you can see on the map, they have direct connection with the old Danube river bed. When there was high water in the old Danube bed, it was equally high in the branches. When there was a flood, the whole area – the islands, the meadows, the forests – were flooded too. So you could go through the forest by boat in water one or two or more metres deep. And the whole ecosystem was based on this simple fact of regular floods. This was important for fish which lived in the side branches or in the Danube itself. There are more than 40 species of fish, and each species requires different ecological conditions for reproduction. Some just need gravel sediments, while others, like carp, need temporarily flooded vegetation like floodplain meadows or other types of vegetation. All these species could find their suitable habitat for breeding when this system was still functioning, because these natural fl oods produced the whole wide scale of different habitat conditions. Everything from poor gravel banks, which were the habitats nearest to the main river bed, where the river erosion and sedimentation process was most intensive, to the old branches with dense vegetation and shallower water. And of course the shallower the water, the warmer it is. So this was the biggest fish reproduction area in the whole of Slovakia. There was no need at that time to bring artifi cially-bred fish there, as fishermen usually do in other water bodies in Slovakia, where the natural potential of fish to reproduce has been decreased so much by artificial, human impacts. In such places, commercial fishery is not possible without providing new young fi sh. Here, it was practically not necessary, as it was a self-reproducing system. Fish are just one example. There are of course hundreds, perhaps thousands of plant and animal species which were dependent on this. Since the Danube was diverted into the canal, all those side branches were cut, so this map no longer refl ects reality. Since all these branches are cut, the whole branch system is supplied from the intake channel.

NT: So it’s an artificial attempt by the Hungarian side to compensate for this loss of water?

JŠ: Unfortunately it’s more complicated than that! On the Hungarian side the situation is much better. The Mosoni Duna is supplied directly from the storage lake. The water supply on the Hungarian side has been solved much better from a technical point of view. Not so much because of the Mosoni Duna itself, but because of the small weir built in the old Danube bed near river kilometre 1841/2, which increased the water level high enough to supply the upper end of the whole branch system on the Hungarian side. You can supply the whole water system from this upper end. The reason it is so important is that this new weir was built in a section of the river where it already forms the international border between Slovakia and Hungary. So it could not be built without at least some agreement between Slovak and Hungarian engineers, together with a degree of political agreement too. Technically speaking, it would be possible to restore the whole section of these 30 kilometres we spoke about, with similar methods to this. The best possible solution would be to reduce the shape of the old Danube river bed, and enable the water to flow through the system with maximum possible impact on both sides. There are several technical solutions how to do this, but all require a high level of cooperation from both sides – and that has not been possible for more than 20 years. The Hungarian side is in a much better state than the Slovak side, but it too could be even better. The Slovak side would need these improvement measures much more urgently. But nothing has happened so far. This is a completely dead issue in Slovakia, because there is no political party that would like even to speak about it, let alone do something about it.

NT: Why is that? Because presumably we are talking about ways to help Slovak villages?

JŠ: The official policy of Slovakia is that the 1977 treaty is still valid, and we should behave accordingly. This means that we should use whatever means we have to force the Hungarians to complete not only this part of the original project, but also the dam at Nagymaros. That is the official state policy. So that is one problem, and until that changes, we cannot officially make any improvements in this border section, because such improvements would be in contradiction with the original project. If we act against the original project, we would implicitly agree that the Hungarians were right when they withdrew from the treaty. And this would weaken our position in an eventual future legal dispute. This is the main political problem which we have not managed to overcome for the past 20 years.

NT: And who are the victims? Who suffers most as a result?

JŠ: The main victim is nature. Because these villages are slowly dying. They are cut off from the rest of the area by this channel. There is a ferry, but it does not operate well – especially in bad weather or in icy conditions for example. So all these villages are changing – practically from Šamorin eastwards, to Dunajská Streda. This is an ethnic Hungarian area. The young people move out of the villages, to Šamorin, to Dunajská Streda, or elsewhere. The population structure has changed a lot over the past 20 years. More and more people from Bratislava moved here, and commute to the capital to work. Some build second homes and holiday cottages particularly around the artificial lake near Vojka, and in the area of Bodíky. The main problem for the villagers to the North of the canal is that they lost contact with the floodplain and with nature. Before the channel was built, if they wanted to go fishing they got on their bikes and cycled there. Now they either have to take the ferry, or to go all the way round – about 30 to 40 kilometres. The water is no longer on their doorstep. This is particularly bad in Hamuliakovo (Gútor). I remember before the construction started, from the centre of the village you were only five minutes from the most beautiful natural conditions, from fl oodplain forests and fish and birds and other wildlife. Now the inhabitants are cut off by this massive water body in the canal, which is of very little recreational value to them. And there are strong winds off the canal for most of the year.

NT: Presumably that strong wind was not there before the diversion, because the forest stopped it?

JŠ: Naturally. Sometimes the wind is so strong that it is impossible to travel by small boats or canoes, the waves are so high.

NT: Apart from this damage to the surface of the Žitný Ostrov (Csallóköz) region, environmentalists also warned about a potential threat of damage to drinking water. Because underneath this whole area there are gravel deposits from the time when this was actually the delta of the Danube, millions of years ago, when it flowed into the Pannonian Sea.

JŠ: Yes, these gravel deposits are actually between the Small Danube, the Mali Dunaj, and the old river bed. All of these deposits were supplied by the seepage of ground waters from the Danube. No detailed data is available, but from the data we do have, it appears that no significant damage to water resources has occurred.

NT: And this is a resource which could potentially supply drinking water to a very large area?

JŠ: Yes these are the largest drinking water resources in Central Europe. Because the resources are of a very high quality, they can be used without any purifi cation. The addition of chlorine would just be a precautionary measure. You can drink this water directly from the well. The water is actually in the gravel deposits. The water level depends on the terrain, but starts one to four metres below the surface. It depends on the depth of the gravel sediments, but in some places these are several hundred metres deep. The depth from which it is most suitable to pump the water is rather a question for water engineers.

NT: Who is responsible for monitoring that water resource, and how trustworthy is their information?

JŠ: The monitoring is done by state institutions like the Ministry of Environment, the State Water Research Institute and others. On the web you can fi nd the monitoring reports. I believe these are more or less correct, because if there was a problem they would stop the supply. There are several wells and each of them is regularly monitored and I think the legislation in Slovakia is strict enough. Our focus at BROŽ is on nature protection, and on protecting and restoring fl oodplain forests.

NT: Do you feel today that you were right to oppose the Gabčíkovo project in the 1980s and early 1990s, given that many of your warnings have been realised, but that another of the predictions, the pollution of the aquifer has not? Do you feel today that you were right to oppose this project?

JŠ: Yes. Unfortunately we were right in most of our predictions. I didn’t mention one other factor. That the accessibility of the area has improved enormously, which is definitely not good for nature conservation. Now the area is accessible for the whole year for motor vehicles, for anybody who wants to go there. So now you have many more hunters, much more poaching, and much more illegal construction of houseboats, cottages and the dumping of waste. All these activities were formerly limited by the floodplain regime. Even now, it would be possible to prevent it, but that would require strong state intervention, and the state does not care enough about it to prevent such negative phenomena. So this is another indirect consequence of the Gabčíkovo project.

NT: Those in favour of the project always justified it in terms of improving navigation and providing energy. Has as much energy been produced as they claimed, and has shipping improved?

JŠ: This is also an interesting question, because no analysis has ever been publically available which would present a total calculation of all the inputs and outputs. Of course the power plant generates energy in the form of electricity. But I would like to see how many people, vehicles have to work and use energy in the form of fossil fuels and everything else to keep the whole Gabčíkovo complex going. For example, you see this length of dykes which have to be regularly managed. A lot of sediments accumulate here in the storage lake, and they have to be dredged and stored somewhere. They have partly solved this by making artifi cial islands in the upper storage lake. This is good in a sense because the birds like it, but we still have to do something with all this sediment. Another interesting piece of information we received about 10 years ago is that due to this weir and storage lake, the average water level in Bratislava has increased by about 50 centimetres. It doesn’t sound much, but in case of the worst floods, this half metre could make a big difference in Bratislava city centre. This has actually happened once or twice since then, near the old city centre, though fortunately not in the whole city centre. So the flood protection of Bratislava has not improved at all as a result of the Gabčíkovo project – just the opposite. Concerning navigation, I have never seen, though I would like to very much, an analysis of the volume of goods, raw materials and so on transported annually before the diversion and now. I am not convinced at all that actually we need this navigation capacity. Especially at this high cost. And of course if there is a tough winter, as now, navigation is not possible at all. It freezes, and despite the work of the ice-breakers, normal ships cannot go through. Sometimes for one month, sometimes two. Of course if the whole system operates in ideal conditions, navigation is improved. But the question is still how costly this solution is, and how costly it would have been if we had continued to use the old Danube bed as the main navigation route. There is still the question of bottlenecks especially in this section of the Danube, but in others as well. Our water engineers sometimes argue that the Hungarians will have to complete the dam and river regulation at Nagymaros eventually, because they will be forced to by international navigation institutions. But in my experience, if there is really low water in the Danube, you cannot use the navigation capacity of this canal anyway. I am happy that the dam was not built at Nagymaros.

NT: One major problem facing the Danube as a whole is that the river is “sinking” because of the lack of sediment, caused partly by the 59 dams in Austria and Germany, denying the river the gravel it needs. The impact of big dams on the whole ecology of the river is quite serious, isn’t it?

JŠ: This is partly true, but there is another interesting question. We also thought this is the main problem. Then we asked our colleagues from the Water Research Institute. This problem of the lack of sediments and the erosion of the river bed which results is a real problem. But we asked who is responsible – the dams or the extraction of sediments from the river bed? The answer was that the extraction of gravel is about 90 per cent responsible for this problem. So along the whole Danube, and not only the Danube, you can see ships which are systematically managing the shipping route, which means in practice extracting sediments and promoting this erosion. Of course the dams are also responsible. Surprisingly, despite the dams, there is still a lot of sediment in the river bed. But the problem is that once the river bed is regulated, is canalised like this, what happens is that the river bed is deepening. If the river bed was not canalised, and was meandering, the erosion and sedimentation processes would be in balance – and we are talking here not just about the erosion of the river bed but of the banks, the sides of the river – then the problem would be much less important than now. So a combination of many dams, with the regulation of the rivers, and with the dredging of sediments for purposes of navigation, produces this problem. It is not as simple as it looks.

NT: Is the dredging of gravel simply for navigation or for road products, for its commercial exploitation too?

JŠ: It is for both, and depends section by section. Here in Slovakia for example it is commercially easier to make gravel quarries close to potential markets. But not only the Danube is at stake. I see other countries in the Balkans where the rivers are the only source of gravel, so they simply take machines to the river at low water and take everything. It depends on the demand. If a demand exists, it is easy to take gravel from Danube, also for commercial purposes.

NT: The engineering and navigation lobbies often claim that the only solution to all these problems is more and more dams.

JŠ: We see this argument often. Theoretically they would like the Danube and all other rivers to be completely dammed. It’s their ideal state. They call it “use of hydro energetic potential” – and this potential is either theoretical or practical. If the practical potential is used to one hundred per cent, they call it “a well-managed river”.

NT: As Slovak environmentalist, do you feel you are winning that argument, by restoring flood plains? Or are you losing the argument against the powerful navigation and engineering lobbies?

JŠ: Our water engineers and navigation lobbyists are stuck mentally in a time 20 or 30 years ago – almost nothing has changed in the last two decades. We have made several attempts to change this, by the introduction of a national river restoration programme, but so far we have not succeeded. We used to say that everything bad is at least good for something. And there were very bad fl oods in Slovakia and of course in the Czech Republic several years ago. Only very recently, a year ago, a special department directly responsible to a government office was established under the control of our Prime Minister Iveta Radičová. This department is tasked with tackling the flood problems facing this country, taking account of solutions found in other countries in Europe. They have begun to deal with some of the issues connected to the fl ood problem, but definitely not with this, Danubian one. Now I am afraid that this good start will not be continued, because as you know we have extraordinary elections in March, and Ms Radičová is not willing to continue with this policy work. The establishment of this department was in my view the first step in the right environmental direction, during the 22 years since the political changes, or the 20 years since Gabčíkovo went into operation – even though this department has had nothing to do directly with Gabčíkovo so far. But it was an attempt to change the old approaches to water management in Slovakia, to seek a new approach to identify and solve problems related to water in general. We started somewhere in Eastern Slovakia, where the flood damage was biggest and also claimed victims, but if we can continue with this systematic approach, sooner or later we will have to deal with the Danube problem, as a part of a serious water management approach.

NT: Did this new office accept your argument, that it is necessary to allow the natural flooding of areas during high water periods – not to stop floods but to allow them in a managed way?

JŠ: Definitely not, unfortunately. During the previous government from 2006 to 2010, we had about five Environment Ministers, and not one had any environmental background. Their mission was not to solve environmental problems, but to generate financial resources for their party and its supporters. So we made no progress. And before this period it was not much better. So the only very small glimmer of hope came after the last elections, but now we are back to the beginning. We have not really moved forward for the past 22 years, whether we speak about the issue of Gabčíkovo, or the broader issue of wise sustainable water and flood management and control in the whole country. We are still somewhere in the 1950s.

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