János Vargha / Duna Kör

Awarded 1985


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

János Vargha is an Hungarian 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 territory in Hungary and beyond.

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. In 1984, he set up Duna Kör, meaning the Danube Circle, as an environmental movement opposing the construction of an enormous dam and hydroelectric complex on the Danube.

Of Hungary’s 3,500 settlements 1,500 have no potable water.

János Vargha / Duna Kör, 1985 Laureate

The 3-billion-dollar 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 kilometres of river, the flooding of 50 islands and 120 square kilometres 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 for around 3 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. 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, giving way to this public pressure, Hungary halted the construction of the Nagymaros dam. However, 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 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.

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.

Duna Kör ceased to exist in 2016. Vargha has continued to be active as a writer.

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