Danube area split over plan to dam river

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The Independent Online
THE SOUND of the trucks is incessant. One after another they thunder along the dusty gravel track at Cunovo to pick up a fresh load of boulders. Then they reverse to the edge of the Danube and disgorge their contents in to the river. Since Saturday, some 200 trucks engaged in the project have been in motion day and night. In five days' time, the Danube should be dammed.

'It is a fantastic sight,' beamed Julius Binder, head of the Bratislava-based construction company masterminding the work. 'For almost 40 years we have dreamed of this moment. And what great economic, ecological and even environmental benefits are going to flow from it.'

Mr Binder's passionate enthusiasm is shared by nearly all Slovakia's 5 million inhabitants. They are convinced that the damming and diverting of the Danube to the nearby Gabcikovo hydro-electric power plant will not only provide 12 per cent of their future energy needs, but will also place the soon- to-be-created independent country firmly on the European map.

For Slovaks, the damming of the Danube, which entered its final decisive final phase on Saturday, is a matter of intense national pride. Just a few miles to the south, however, in Hungary, each fresh boulder that comes crashing down into the river is seen as a further act of aggression against Budapest. The damming of the Danube represents a violation of Hungarian territory, they fume. What is more, the entire project - the hideous brainchild of the region's former Communist masters - will result in an environmental catastrophe of unimaginable proportions, they warn.

The row over the dam, simmering since the collapse of Communism in Hungary and Czechoslovakia in 1989, has now erupted into a full-scale war of words. In addition to disrupting economic relations, there are growing fears that yet another region of Europe could be heading for instability and possibily even conflict.

As the deadline for the truck mobilisation in the final stage of damming approached last week, all sides in the dispute - Slovakia, the Czechoslovakian federal government and Hungary - agreed to meet in Brussels for talks with European Community representatives aimed at reaching a last- minute compromise. After they collapsed, the focus for hope switched to London, where the countries' leaders held talks yesterday with John Major and Jacques Delors, President of the EC Commission. Some are suggesting the whole matter be decided by the International Court of Justice in The Hague.

Whatever the forum, however, few believe there will be a genuine meeting of minds, and although the Slovaks insist there is nothing 'irreversible' about the damming process, the likelihood of stopping is extremely slim. 'Yes, of course, we could remove all the boulders, dismantle the dam and set the river back on its original course,' says Mr Binder. 'But it would be a bit like turning an old man like me (he is 60) into a youngster of 20 again.'

Mr Binder's connection with the project dates back to the early 1950s, when the East European states embarked on huge programmes of industrialisation. The idea of damming the Danube was agreed in the 1970s. In addition to providing energy for Slovak industry, the plans agreed by Prague and Budapest in 1977 envisaged the creation of two huge canals along which the Gabcikovo power plant would be built on the Slovak side and, 60 miles downstream, the Nagymoros plant would be built on the Hungarian side.

Intended as a graphic illustration of the triumphs of socialism, the dam and the canals were also designed to facilitate navigation along the Danube.

Little consideration was given to possible ecological consequences. But, in the 1980s, Hungarian environmentalists began calling for the project to be abandoned, claiming it would result in pollution of the region's drinking water, the destruction of a unique ecosystem and increased risk of flooding for surrounding villages.

In 1989, the Hungarians stopped work on their side of the project and, earlier this year, pulled out of the scheme. Demands for Czechoslavakia to do likewise, met with fierce resistance in Prague and Bratislava. With 90 per cent of the work completed and dollars 1bn ( pounds 633m) invested, the Czecks and, even more so, the Slovaks, insisted that the costs of pulling out would be greater than those of pressing on.

'It is a classic case of the thief screaming 'Catch the thief',' said a Foreign Ministry official yesterday. 'It was the Hungarians who reneged on the agreement - and now they are trying to make out that we are the guilty party.'

Many Slovaks fear that the real reason for Hungary's objection is Budapest's reluctance to accept the permanence of the current borders - fixed along the Danube - between the countries. Conspiracy theories abound in Bratislava about the evil designs Budapest has on the large areas of southern Slovakia inhabited mainly by ethnic Hungarians.

It is, all admit, a murky issue. Prickly relations between Slovakia and Hungary and between Slovaks and their 600,000-strong ethnic Hungarian minority, appear certain for the foreseeable future.

Few expect the situation to turn violent, and talk of troops massing on the borders is dismissed with vigour in Budapest and Bratislava. But the tension is real enough. And it is hardly, all agree, the ideal start for the independent Slovak state that will come in to existence on 1 January.

(Map omitted)

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