Leading Article: A dam too far

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The Independent Online
The dispute between Hungary and Czechoslovakia over the Gabcikovo dam on the Danube brings together some of the most troublesome issues in Central Europe. Originally agreed in 1977, the dam is a legacy of grandiose Communist planning that took no account of environmental impact or popular feeling. It has aroused nationalist passions on both sides, exacerbated by its impact on the Hungarian minority in Slovakia.

Hungary stopped work on its side as soon the Communists weakened in 1989, the political opposition having gained power with the help of passions aroused by environmentalist protest. Czechoslovakia continued. Now Slovakia, which is shortly to become a state, regards completion as a vital interest, while the fragile government of Hungary, beset by nationalists, regards it as a potentially mortal threat. The quarrel has been brought to a head by Slovakia starting to divert water at the weekend.

The European Community has no formal standing in the matter since neither party to the dispute is a member, but its interest is obvious since this is a large project in the heart of Europe involving natural resources, environmental protection, future energy supplies, an important navigable waterway and political relations between two potential members.

Nobody raised an eyebrow, therefore, when an agreement was initialled in London on Wednesday setting up a trilateral committee representing the EC, Hungary and Czechoslovakia to set a date for suspending work pending agreement and to re-assess the whole project, including the cost of putting it into reverse. As a first step, a group of experts is already visiting the dam and will report back by tomorrow. The rest of the agreement still requires endorsement by the governments concerned, which cannot be taken for granted. As a start, however, the agreement offers a promising model of the sort of work the Community should be doing to resolve disputes on its doorstep and smooth the way towards wider membership.

The most shocking aspect of the project is that no substantial, detailed assessment has been made of its impact. As John Gordon points out in a letter on this page, the evidence so far, which comes mainly from the Hungarian side, is that it could damage and deplete water supplies for millions of people and seriously upset the ecology of the river basin. This now needs substantiation or contradiction by independent experts.

In other parts of the world, enthusiasm for large dams has been diminishing steadily since the mid-Seventies as the balance between their benefits and true costs is reassessed. It seems very unlikely that the Gabcikovo dam would have been built if subjected to modern analysis. The Communists were already hopelessly out of date in their thinking when the project was agreed.

Clearly the dam cannot be abandoned without making other provision for Slovakia's power supplies, which rely too much on dangerous nuclear power stations and dirty coal. But, as the London meeting seemed to recognise, the idea must not be ruled out. If the dam would be as destructive as critics say, the long-term costs of letting it operate would be greater than the short-term investment, with international help, in alternative sources of power. Perhaps Britain should donate its surplus gas-fired power stations.