Janos Vargha / Duna Kör

(1985, Hungary)

...for working under unusually difficult circumstances to preserve the river Danube, a vital part of Hungary's environment.

About

János Vargha is an environmental activist, biologist, recipient of the 1995 European Environmental Prize and founder of the movement Duna Kör. Together with his movement, he actively campaigned against the expensive Gabcikovo-Nagymaros dam complex, which would have endangered the environmental and social balance of a vast portion of Hungarian territory and beyond. János Vargha, conscious of the impact of the project both on the wildlife and on the local populations, committed himself to preserve the river Danube and the ecosystem around it, as well as guarantee its inhabitants access to drinking water supplies.

Contact Details

Duna Kör
Vadász utca 29
Budapest H-1054
HUNGARY

Website

Biography

Duna Kör, meaning the Danube Circle, was set up in 1984 as an environmental movement opposing the construction of an enormous dam and hydroelectric complex on the Danube. Its founder was Janos Vargha, a biologist who had earlier worked for some years for the Hungarian Academy of Sciences and was then on the editorial staff of a science magazine.

The $3 billion-plus Gabcikovo-Nagymaros complex was to be built jointly by Hungary and Czechoslovakia, providing for one massive dam in each country. It involved drastic interference with nearly 200 km of river, the flooding of 50 islands and 120 sq kms of forests and fields, and the loss of valuable wildlife habitats. It also had incalculable implications for the groundwater of the region and the drinking water supply of some three million people.

Duna Kör was a social innovation as well as a protest movement. Such groups were officially much discouraged at the time it was established and could obtain no formal registration. Moreover, for a certain period no one was permitted to publish anything on the power project. But Duna Kör networked informally and provided a focus for increasing opposition to the project in scientific and professional circles. In 1988, keeping up the pressure, Vargha organised an international conference on the issue in cooperation with the World Wildlife Fund and by October of that year 150,000 people had signed a petition demanding a referendum on the dam.

In the following year, 1989, giving way to this public pressure, Hungary halted construction of the Nagymaros dam. But in neighbouring Czechoslovakia the massive Gabcikovo dam was almost complete when the Communist government fell. Despite strong protests from Budapest, the new Czechoslovak government decided to proceed with its side of the project. The Gabcikovo dam was in due course put into operation by newly-independent Slovakia, diverting a 20-mile section of the Danube, which forms its border with Hungary and thus appropriating both the water and the electricity which it generates. Hungary subsequently sued Slovakia over the issue and the case was due to reach the International Court of Justice at The Hague in 1997.

Duna Kör, meanwhile, has continued its efforts to save the Danube and has developed proposals for the ecological restoration of river branches, islands and wetlands. Vargha and his colleagues hoped that the verdict of the International Court would make possible the restoration of the river between Bratislava and Budapest. In 1995, Vargha was awarded the European Environmental Prize.

Speeches

Acceptance Speeches by János Vargha and Dr. Judit Vasarhelyi

December 9th, 1985

Ladies and Gentlemen,

greeting you on behalf of the Duna Kör I'd like to cite a story more than two and half hundred years old which had happened to Gulliver's host in Lagado: "He had a very convenient mill turned by a current from a large river, and sufficient for his own family as well as a great number of his tenants. That about seven years ago a club of projectors came to aim with proposals to destroy this mill, and build another on the side of that mountain, on the long ridge whereof a long canal must be cut for a repository of water, to be conveyed up by pipes and engines to supply the mill... The water descending down a declivity would turn the mill with half the current of a river whose course is more upon a level. He sad, that being then not very well with the court, and pressed by many of his friends, he compiled with the proposal; and after employing an hundred men for two years, the work miscarried, the projectors went off, laying the blame entirely upon him, railing at him ever since, and putting others upon the same experiment, with equal assurance of success, a well as equal disappointment."

Ladies and Gentlemen,

Since that time zealous projectors have been diligently transforming nature; their marks can be found on the rivers Volga, the Nile and the Tennessee as well as on the Waitaki River in New-Zealand. There are several serious consequences, or example the Caspian Sea in the USSR is shrinking irresistibly, the schizostomiasis spread in Egypt and fish population decreased at the mouth of the Nile, the land alongside the Rhine in Baden province has dried out.

The matter of the projectors and their high protectors is going to be more and more difficult: they encounter people living alongside the rivers, who strongly defend the values of their homelands.

Still their defence remains usually unsuccessful. The indebted Brash has wasted billions of dollars on the Itaipu Dam, the reservoir of which will be silted up within a reasonable time. The Victoria Dam in Sri Lanka is under construction with British financial "help," destroying 7000 acres of fertile land only for 210 megawatts. Bavaria is to complete the construction of the Rhine-Main-Danube Canal at any price.

On the other hand the Chico Darn project in the Philippines was suspended after massive local resistance to protect tribunal lands. In the USSR, Zaligin, a Russian writer and engineer, has successfully initiated the prevention of constructing a useless and harmful barrage on the lower section or the River Ob. Moreover, Austrian environmentalists recently defended the Danubian forests at Hamburg with their own bodies in the full sense of the word.

In order to protect Danubian environment and its benefits, our group, the Duna Kör participates in the opposition against a large hydroelectric power plant system Gabeikovo Nagyrnaros. This project consists a 60 k storage lake, a 30 kill long concrete covered lateral canal rising up 18 meters over the ground at a peak power station of Gabcikovo and and additional river power plant of Nagymaros, in the Lovely Danube-bend.

The project would essentially change the hydraulic, physical chemical and biological conditions of a nearly two hundred kilometer long section of the river itself and also of the surrounding groundwater. These changes also that would be harmful to drinking water supply, the quality of river and ground water, agriculture, forests, fish as well as the picturesque landscape. The project has been planned some decades ago only to produce maximum energy and to increase excessively waterway capacity, unrequired by the heaviest traffic imaginable on this section of the river. In addition this would be relatively the most expensive electric power plant built in Hungary, and twice as much energy could be saved at the same price if money were spent on rationalizing energy consumption. The project has become a perfect nonsense taking its harmful ecological consequences into consideration. The question of drinking water supply has enormous importance because of its generally serious situation in Hungary and also in Slovakia.

Of Hungary's 3,500 settlements 1,500 have no potable water. Two and a half million people living in these regions get their drinking water supply in plastic bags or tank carts or short of these some have to make up with contaminated water.

By diversion of 97.5 per cent of mean flow rate of the river to the sealed side canal Czechoslovakia and Hungary will lose per definitionem essential bank filtered water resources of estimated 2.5 million m3/day capacity and that of excellent quality. A significant part of this resource is officially registered in Hungary as a long-range reserve enough to supply three million people at least. Furthermore the estimated 13 km3 potable water stored in the deep alluvial sediment would be gradually polluted as of the diversion of the river terminates the continuous supply of this treated underground reservoir by large amounts of filtered Danube waters which dilutes and removes polluting materials originating from agriculture industry and households. In the reach of the other barrage of Nagymaros the bank filtered water resources would be endangered by the up silt of tie river bed. Austrian and Yugoslav experiences of Danubia barrages suggest the deterioration of water quality as well as significant decrease in water producing capacity. The enclosed materials give more detailed information on these symptoms.

Unfortunately these and similar other aspects have been completely omitted from the decision passed on building this hydroelectric power plant system. One explanation for this may be historical. The political and technical archetype of the Gabcikovo-Nagymaros project is the so-called Grand Alsatian Canal on the border section of the Rhine between France and Germany. It has to be noted that due to the environmental damages France gave up her exceptional rights to this canal included in the Versailles Peace Treaty. The construction of the canal had been stopped in the fifties half way between Basel and Strasbourg.

Ladies and Gentlemen, we regard the Gaboikovo-Nagymaros project to be a historical mistake from political and social politics of view and last but not least from the aspect of the ecological, role the Danube plays. We regard decisive Austrian participants whereby they would according to plans receive energy at the cost of harming the environment of neighbouring countries to be yet another historical mistake.

The Duna Kör agrees with the opinion of the Presidency of the Hungarian Academy of Sciences which in 1983 proposed to stop the project. We also agree with the 1985 proposal of the Academy to carry out the economical analysis before the final decision-making. Its environmental consequences first of all on drinking water resources should be considered of course.

The Duna Kör will continue its work to protect the Danube. This Award will effectively help us, since we are going to spend the money on support environmental studies on the issue. For the time being we shall not draw the sum since the Duna Kör has not yet got guarantees to spend it in its own name. We shall naturally provide information on the outcome of discussions to this end.

Thank you.

János Vargha

----------------------------

Ladies and Gentlemen,

following Mr. Vargha, an expert, please allow me, a librarian, to say a few words, as one of those thousands of laymen, who have got the firm belief, that the carrying out of this far-reaching project must be prevented.

The Duna Kör, an informal group, leads back its rise to the winter months of 1984 to a period, when the question of the project was first taken up by the public. Open debates were held at the universities, in colleges and in local clubs of the official Patriotic Front, all of them visited by hundreds of people. Voices in scientific and professional circles and in the literary world opposing the project have also become louder. As mentioned above, the Presidium of the Hungarian Academy of Sciences suggested to stop the work in progress. Of the professional groups, it was the architects and engineers led by technical as well as by moral motives to take the lead: their national association took an official stand against the project, maintaining to this day. Dozens of eminent writers following an Last-Central-European tradition of the literati being deeply concerned with the vital questions of the region, expressed their anxiety about the project, the open discussion planned by the Association of Hungarian Writers, however has been postponed due to political pressure for an indefinite time. The public in Hungary has been more and wore occupied with this problem. In the beginning of 1984 a group of students and intellectuals: biologists, architects, artists, historians, lawyers, sociologists and teachers initiated the foundation of an association for the protection of the Danube. The application for registration however, has been blocked by the authorities. Nevertheless, those signing the application decided to collect and to publish information concerning the project even among such circumstances. This activity had a special significance in a time from mid-1984 to this autumn - when a rigid ban imposed on the publication of both pros and cons relating to the project existed. By this a breach was made in the information monopoly of the Hungarian water management. In the spring of 1984 a campaign for collecting signatures was also launched. Those about ten thousand signing the petition by November, 1984 demanded the government to stop the work as well as to elaborate plans in accordance with environmental requirements. The petition has been left by the government and the Parliament both unanswered. Nevertheless, the Duna Kör still insists upon the possibility of a dialogue.

Ladies and gentlemen,

spiritual and material values are both endangered by the project: the drinking water of millions, the landscape and nature, forests like those in Hamburg, dozens of species of plants and animals, the Danube-bend, one of the most beautiful parts of our country and a recreation center for ten thousands of people as well as historical towns. Due to the complexity of what is to be protected any critical activity must be based on several branches of sciences. The Duna Kör itself could not have got along, hadn't it always been in the position getting support from eminent experts.

Like other environmental initiatives in Hungary, the Duna Kör has its roots in the general activization process of the society. Various strata, groups, professional associations etc. are striving for a greater autonomy. More and more people want that decisions concerning the present and future of smaller and greater communities should be made not behind the doors but should be based on social participation. All what has been by this honourable prize, Ladies and Gentlemen, is a reflection of this general tendency of democratization. Analysing the social composition to those signing the petition or visiting the open discussions it is a good thing to see that a pretty high rate of manual workers and of non-urban population is taking part in this ecological initiative.

"The ordinary citizen cannot judge the scientific facts. What he can and must do is bring his reason and common sense to bear on his country's whole approach to the problem", Barbaras Ward says. During our activity we have been in the position to see that the number of such citizens, conscious of their responsibility, is increasing in Hungary every day. It is the opinions and beliefs of these citizens I'd like to give voice to. On their behalf I consider it as a great distinction to have the possibility to express our thanks and gratitude to the Foundation for the prize awarded to the Duna Kör.

Dr. Judit Vasarhelyi

Publications

"Toward Local Resilience", interview with Judit Vasarhelyi, representative of Duna Kör, May 2014 - by John Feffer. 

Contact

Right Livelihood Award Foundation

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