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Gabčíkovo a boon for river transport companies

Amid the bitter political controversy that has surrounded the building of the Gabčíkovo waterworks, a quiet international community in support of the troubled project has sprung up. It consists of the European owners and employees of river transport companies that operate on the Danube, whose unanimous verdict is that the Gabčíkovo complex has vastly improved navigation on the river.
Environmental groups, meanwhile, insist that recent navigational improvements to the Danube could have been made by employing techniques far less damaging to the ancient river floodplain ecosystem. They warn that a second dam at the Hungarian site of Nagymaros, as called for by shipping companies, would be the death of Hungary's unique floodplain forest.


Controlling nature. The massive Gabčikovo dam, shown under construction in 1991, has made navigation of the Danube River easier since its completion in 1994.
Courtesy of Slovak Waterworks Authority

Amid the bitter political controversy that has surrounded the building of the Gabčíkovo waterworks, a quiet international community in support of the troubled project has sprung up. It consists of the European owners and employees of river transport companies that operate on the Danube, whose unanimous verdict is that the Gabčíkovo complex has vastly improved navigation on the river.

Environmental groups, meanwhile, insist that recent navigational improvements to the Danube could have been made by employing techniques far less damaging to the ancient river floodplain ecosystem. They warn that a second dam at the Hungarian site of Nagymaros, as called for by shipping companies, would be the death of Hungary's unique floodplain forest.

Shipping representatives claim to be aware of the negative environmental impact of the dam project, but say they believe that development has actually improved environmental conditions up-river, and saved entrepreneurs both time and money by improving navigation facilities.

"No matter what aim we follow - whether building dams to exploit the river in terms of hydroelectric potential or to improve navigational conditions - we cause disturbance to the natural regime of the river," said Juraj Bohunsky, spokesman for the state-run shipping company Slovenská Plavba a Prístavy, a.s. (SPAP). "But after the construction of Gabčíkovo, we saw nature actually revitalize very quickly and come back to life."

Bohunsky said that 11 hydroelectric dams had been built on the Danube in Austria and Germany over the past forty years. "The effect of these dams on the upper river was to increase the velocity of the river's current, to strip the lower river of natural sediments and lower the water table around Bratislava," he said.

"The main problem with getting a true picture of the Gabčíkovo situation is that all statements [made by shipping companies] are partly true," said Jan Šeffer, director of Bratislava's Daphne Center for Applied Ecology. "Dams built in Germany and Austria did indeed influence the river, and Gabčíkovo did raise the water level in the artificially-built navigation channel. But the weir constructed downstream from Bratislava at Čunovo diverted 85 percent of water from the old river channel, and lowered the water table there by 3 to 4 meters. As a result, the Hungarian floodplain forest has dried out, and the natural process of water purification in local communities has been effectively destroyed."

Sticking to his guns, Bohunsky insisted that upstream hydroelectric developments had made action imperative. "The woods around Bratislava were dying off," he recalled, "and our jetties and harbors for river transport were literally in a state of crisis."

The Gabčíkovo dam project, he said, was originally intended to raise water levels in the Danube, allowing ships of greater draught to operate safely, and to reduce the speed of the river, protecting dock foundations from erosion. "Tugs operating near the river banks were literally churning up mud," he said. "It was a terrible situation."

Statistics released by the Slovak Ministry of Agriculture for the years 1991-1994 show that the Gabčíkovo Dam, put into operation in October 1992, has achieved its aim of "reducing seasonal navigational depth limitations" (see chart this page) by raising the depth of water in the Danube above the 2.5 meters required of all countries bordering the Danube by the Budapest-based Danube Commission during the 1980's.

Dragomir Kochanov, the Bulgarian River Navigation Company's trade representative for Slovakia, agreed that since the completion of Gabčíkovo "river shipping has improved greatly because the water level is so much higher."

But Kochanov, like his counterparts in Germany, Austria and Romania, said that the situation could be improved further by the completion of a second dam on the lower Danube at Nagymaros, as originally called for in the Treaty Concerning the Construction and Operation of the Gabčíkovo-Nagymaros System of Locks, signed between Slovakia and Hungary on September 16, 1977.

Because the terrain between Bratislava and Nagymaros does not fall sufficiently in elevation, Bohunsky explained, the Danube tends to slow down and spread out, depositing gravel and sediment in the navigational channel, forming so-called "ford sections". Without a dam at Nagymaros, these impediments to transport still remain. "The river level between Gabčíkovo and Nagymaros is still a real problem," said Kochanov. "We still lose 20 shipping days a year because of these ford sections, and our company position is that it would be super if Nagymaros were built."

But environmental groups remain unconvinced by the arguments of shipping companies. "A dam at Nagymaros would be absolutely the worst solution, from the environmental point of view," said Šeffer.

"It would stop natural processes like erosion, sedimentation and flooding. Our solution, which is to construct artificial islands in the Danube, would slow the current and feed water once again into the dried-out arms of the Danube. It would restore the floodplain dynamic, and that is essential."

Shipping companies, for their part, agree that activists like Šeffer may have a point. "They are absolutely right in what they say," said Kochanov. "There will always be arguments for and against these projects, but the environmentalists certainly have a good case."

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