Environment: Judges wash their hands of the Danube

Europe's longest river has been stolen. Slovakia, which diverted the Danube towards a neo-Stalinist power plant, was yesterday pilloried for the theft by the World Court. Hungary, agent provocateur in this heinous crime, was held equally to blame. Environmental concerns barely got a mention, writes Imre Karacs
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It was the kind of judgment that would give Solomon a bad name. Two small Danubian countries, squabbling over the murky-grey waters of their shared river, had been shamed by the international community to settle their dispute at an impartial forum. Several years on, the esteemed judges of the International Court of Justice in The Hague brought forth the following advice: "Sort it out between yourselves."

"The court has concluded that both parties committed internationally wrongful acts," declared Stephen Schwebel, the American presiding judge, yesterday.

No kidding. Hungary never disputed the fact that it reneged on an international treaty to build a joint hydro-electric scheme with its northern neighbour. It had offered no compensation for letting its partner down, and has yet to propose an alternative solution.

Slovakia also had a good idea that it might have been a little naughty. Virtually on the eve of its UDI from Czechoslovakia at the end of 1992, Slovak engineers piled lorry-loads of concrete slabs into the river, diverting 80 per cent of the water into a new canal north of the border, despite Hungarian protests. The elevated waterway now feeds the turbines at Gabcikovo which supply 12 per cent of Slovakia's electricity.

The canal, the hydro-electric plant, and another man-made lake and giant dam further downstream on the Hungarian side, had all been agreed by the two countries in 1977. The environmental risks were always known, and cover-ups by the two communist governments are well documented. Scientists predicted the Gabcikovo canal would deal a fatal blow to the ecosystem of the unique wetlands along the old Danube's flood plains. The second reservoir would have flooded a beauty spot in north Hungary, and the Hungarian dam at Nagymaros would have sent tidal waves cascading towards Budapest. The water tables along a 100-mile stretch of the river would have been disrupted.

The Budapest government had for years disputed those forecasts. But by 1988 the fate of the reviled Stalinist bid to master Nature had become inextricably linked to that of its creator. On their way to post-communism the party apparatchiks ditched the dam in 1989, abandoning the big hole at Nagymaros. Czechoslovakia responded by accelerating work on its side of the river, and submitted a massive claim for compensation. Under the 1977 treaty, the two countries were to have shared the electricity generated by the two dams. Since Hungary failed to build its dam, Slovakia feels robbed. Hungary feels it ought to get some of the money flowing from the dam that ought not to have been built.

That is where the dispute remains mired. "Hungary and and Slovakia must negotiate in good faith ... and must take all the necessary measures to achieve the objectives of the 1977 treaty," Judge Schwebel advised. As for the question of who should pay whom, the court was similarly equivocal: "The issue of compensation could satisfactorily be resolved in the framework of an overall settlement, if each of the parties were to renounce or cancel all financial claims."

For good measure, the judge suggested that the two countries, which are barely on speaking terms, should operate the Slovak dam together, while taking environmental considerations into account.

Oh yes, the environment. Beyond conceding that there were "serious" ecological concerns, the court did not dwell on the masses of scientific evidence presented by both sides. Slovakia has slightly shifted its position in this regard in recent years. No longer does Bratislava pretend that its diversion leaves the ecology intact.