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COURT'S FIRST LOOK AT DISPUTED DAM ENDS TRIAL'S FIRST ROUND

The Hague judges see Gabčíkovo

As the hearings on the Gabčíkovo-Nagymoros dam dispute between Slovakia and Hungary took a break after an opening round of oral arguments, the judges presiding over the dispute from the International Court of Justice in The Hague paid their first visit ever to the area. Though the judges refused to divulge their impressions of the sprawling hydroelectric dam and power station, officials from both countries pronounced the visit a success to their case that will be decided on this fall.
On April 1-2, the international justices visited the Slovak part of the abortive joint venture, whose Slovak component was finished in 1992. In addition to the hydropower station at the Slovak village of Gabčíkovo and the "Variant C" canal, which diverts the Danube River through Slovak territory, the court inspected a water-treatment plant in Petržalka and a drinking-water reservoir at Rušovce.


On tour. Two of the international judges presiding over the Slovak-Hungarian Gabčíkovo-Nagymoros dam dispute board a bus whisking them to their first-ever visit to the site.
Ján Kuchta


"You can read about [the project], but you cannot understand how important it is for both the economy and the environment unless you see it with your own eyes."

Miroslav Liška, Vodohospodárska Výstavba spokesman


As the hearings on the Gabčíkovo-Nagymoros dam dispute between Slovakia and Hungary took a break after an opening round of oral arguments, the judges presiding over the dispute from the International Court of Justice in The Hague paid their first visit ever to the area. Though the judges refused to divulge their impressions of the sprawling hydroelectric dam and power station, officials from both countries pronounced the visit a success to their case that will be decided on this fall.

On April 1-2, the international justices visited the Slovak part of the abortive joint venture, whose Slovak component was finished in 1992. In addition to the hydropower station at the Slovak village of Gabčíkovo and the "Variant C" canal, which diverts the Danube River through Slovak territory, the court inspected a water-treatment plant in Petržalka and a drinking-water reservoir at Rušovce. On April 3-4, the 15 judges left for Hungary to assess the dam's environmental impact on the Danube's southern bank, near the towns of Svigetkoz and Nagymoros, and Szentendre island, where Hungary cancelled work on its side of the project in 1989.

"This visit is extremely important," said Miroslav Liška, a public relations spokesman for Vodohospodárska Výstavba, the Slovak hydro-construction company which completed the dam and waterworks at Gabčíkovo. "You can read about [the project], but you cannot understand how important it is for both the economy and the environment unless you see it with your own eyes."

Liška explained that the Hague judges saw with their own eyes "the difference between the old Danube's water-level and the [level of water in the] Danube's branches," adding this is several times higher than the Hungarian delegation argued.

Liška said the Hungarian side had concentrated on the environmental angle, trying to sway the judges with "the impression that if all the water had remained in the old Danube, everything would have been better," he said. "But this would only have brought back the original situation when the river was constantly flooded and the water-level was lower each year. [Through the Gabčíkovo project] the level has been stabilized, and we can now create controlled floods where needed, without harming people or nature."


Judges from the International Court of Justice in The Hague, Netherlands boarded a boat in Bratislava that took them to their first-ever site visit of the dam at Gabčíkovo.
Ján Kuchta

Liška said that during the judges' April 3-4 visit to Hungary, the Magyar delegation sought to show how parts of Hungarian territory were damaged by Gabčíkovo in the first 3 years of that project's operation.

"Some of these damages have already vanished," Liška said, "now that they have finished their underwater weir at Dunakiliti, which regulates sufficient water levels [to the Hungarian side of the Danube]. Of course, there is still a strip of the Danube where the river's water-level falls lower, but even this has been largely corrected."

Hungary reacts

The Hungarians also attached a great deal of importance to the judges' inspection. "The court's visit will be very important; we consider it a major element [in the trial]," said György Szénási, Hungary's chief attorney in The Hague. "As always, we will cooperate as much as possible [during the visit to determine] the physical nature of this project. I think this will give the court the right view of how to interpret the written evidence [advanced by the Slovak side]."

Part of the visit's purpose will be to reinforce what Szénási called the Hungarian side's "main argument," that the governing principle for the project was, in Szénási's words, "to 'build first and investigate later. This is an absolutely outdated approach."

Midpoint perspective

Both countries' chief legal representatives seemed equally confident that they will win.

"I have to re-confirm that the Slovak argument has not changed my view that Hungary's case is rather good," Szénási told The Slovak Spectator, "and we expect to get a rather favorable judgement from the court." Peter Tomka, the chief attorney for the Slovak delegation, which took the floor during the second half of the first round of oral hearings on March 24-27, said Slovakia had successfully refuted Hungary's argument leading off that round, that the massive hydroelectric power complex on the Danube was completed with no more hard data about its potential impact on the environment than when both sides embarked on its construction back in 1977.

"We demonstrated that the project was carefully studied before being started," Tomka said. "We showed that there had been dozens and dozens of studies before and during the project's construction on its environmental impact."


Before and after. Vodohospodárska Výstavba used these photos to show that parts of the Danube are better off environmentally since Slovakia completed the Gabčíkovo dam.
Courtesy of Vodohospodárska Výstavba

In addition to two technical documents which, at the Slovak team's request, the court approved over Hungary's objections, Tomka said the court also approved the testimony of two experts for the Slovak side. Professor Igor Mucha, a professor of hydrogeology at Comenius University's Hydraulics Department, and Professor Jens Refsgaard, formerly an associate professor of the Technical University of Denmark, were both approved as members of the Slovak legal delegation, Tomka said, despite a request by the Hungarian delegation to clarify the official capacity in which each witness would appear before the court.

Refsgaard, Tomka said, had been the leader of a European Union grant organization's research team, "which investigated the project and produced the computer model for its operation."

But Szénási said the Slovak team played with the facts. "I don't want to go into details, but. . . they are using facts, dates and so on in a very strange way. They don't hesitate to manipulate this data to help their argument, which is one of [their position's] major weaknesses. [This is] very transparent and almost an offense to the dignity of the Court, [which] we intend to bring up later."

Encapsulating his side's argument that Gabčíkovo was a Soviet-inspired project that makes no sense now to complete, Szénási said: "This was part of a [political] system whose main characteristics were to ignore completely public opinion," Szénási said. "The same system which decided to change the direction of Siberian rivers. . . I don't think it is necessary to go into detail about the stupidity of such a system [which] was characterized by decisions born on the desks of small rooms in ministries and party offices, but without the slightest democratic control."

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