The Enforcement of the Self-Interests of Nature Transformers


This paper describes morally questionable practices of designers and builders of water megaprojects to gain political and financial supports for their ambitious plans. History of the Gabčíkovo -Nagymaros hydroelectric power plants on the Danube, the Grand Canal of Alsace on the Rhine and many other megaprojects show numerous examples of manipulation, like overriding reasonable engineering limits; underestimating the project costs; cheating the common weal; giving false promises of benefits; promising success against rivals to politicians; making fit the argumentation to the ruling political ideology; suppressing and censoring critics. In many cases, such practices lead to success which brings negative economic, environmental and social impacts of the megaprojects. The Grand Canal of Alsace (abandoned at half), and the Gabčíkovo -Nagymaros project (stopped the construction of the Nagymaros dam and restored the free-flowing river) are rare exceptions.


The following story, almost 300 years old, was written by Jonathan Swift and published in his famous satirical novel, Gulliver’s Travels. Gulliver tells us about his visit to Lagado:

"His lordship […] only desired me to observe a ruined building, upon the side of a mountain about three miles distant, of which he gave me this account: That he had a very convenient mill within half a mile of his house, 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 those projectors came to him 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, because the wind and air upon a height agitated the water, and thereby made it fitter for motion, and because 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 said, that being then not very well with the court, and pressed by many of his friends, he complied with the proposal; and after employing a 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, as well as equal disappointment." (Swift 1726)

In this paper1 I will show that although Swift describes a fictitious project, this satirical story reflects the reality of many water construction megaprojects. There are numerous tangible examples of similar ambitious projects that have transformed the landscape and the environment—profitable for the projectors but disastrous for others, built because of similar arguments, employing similar methods.


1. Symbolic Interpretations

Several meanings are attributed to the quoted episode, especially to the ruined mill (Rogers 1975; Reilly 1982; Higgins 1994; Descargues-Grant 2011). Such interpretations are quite diverse: the metaphor may relate to a contemporary financial scandal (the bursting of the South Sea Company Bubble in 1720); tinkering with the social structure by foolish and corrupt meddlers; the illusion of progress or perhaps an attempt to replace one dynasty with another. Beyond these symbolic interpretations, the news about numerous engineering projects of that time (many of them quite peculiar and/or fraudulent) might have served as inspiration for Gulliver’s Travels. Pat Rogers gives a lengthy list of such projects, many of which are related to water engineering (Rogers 1975).


The Absurdity of Reality

One point in the story told by Gulliver, when the projectors argue about the agitation of the water by the wind and of air at height, seems to be so absurd that one might believe that it is a satirical technique to make the targeted person(s) look foolish. However, examples of similarly absurd argumentation, no less ridiculous, can be found in the real world. Elemér Sajó, hydraulic engineer and leader of the Hungarian civil engineering service in the Ministry of Agriculture from 1930 until 1934, wrote in a memorandum urging that lowland canals and reservoirs be built, that “aviation is safer over the waters and plains than mountains” (Sajó 1931).

The arsenal of the Swiftian Club of Projectors consists of exaggerated or false promises, political pressure, and scapegoating. This list can be extended with more items by examining the activity of projectors from antiquity to current times. Projectors, not only Swift’s contemporaries but many others during the previous millennia and the following centuries, frequently ignore negative experiences, or at least do not learn from their mistakes. Accordingly, they make the same errors again and again.

History is littered with infamous landmarks left behind by the Club of Projectors: ancient irrigation canals in Mesopotamia that salinified soils and made them infertile; the Corinth Canal in Greece, one of Nero’s projects that was completed in the nineteenth century but never yielded the promised benefits; the Grand Canal of Alsace that was abandoned at half its planned length because of negative impacts (but the part which has been built, from which most of the water of the Rhine is derived, caused the groundwater table to drop significantly and large wetland forests to perish); the Aral sea that has almost completely dried out as a consequence of the construction of irrigation canals that deprive its two feeder rivers of water. These are just a few examples from a very long series.



A common and distinctive feature of the majority of such projects is that they are linked to the state and to politics. One main reason for this is that, over a certain size—and many of these types of water projects belong to the big, mega or giga category—, their building takes a long time, not infrequently decades, and locks up huge financial resources for long periods of time with very uncertain returns. Another main reason is that the projects usually occupy, influence or reduce in value private and/or state properties, provoking stakeholders to actively or passively resist them. In addition, supporters of hydropower projects must strongly compete against other projectors who offer other types of power plants which are cheaper and require less time for construction. Recently, supporters of such projects have also encountered public opposition in the form of environmental groups as more and more knowledge accumulates about the negative ecological impacts of such projects. Promoters, therefore, are “desperately looking for justifications for public subsidies” (McCully 2001), and are seeking support from any kind of political systems (Vargha 1997).


2. Problem Solving by Projectors

How do the promoters of such projects manage these and other kind of conflicts that hinder the achievement of their goals? Here I will recall some examples, partly from the history of the Club of Projectors and partly using the case of the Gabčíkovo-Nagymaros hydropower plant.

Promise success against rivals to politicians, political parties or even to the nation. In the first year of World War I, Ödön Bogdánfy, hydraulic engineer, tried to exploit the excited sentiments of Hungarians against the other nations of the Austro-Hungarian Monarchy: “…in addition to general economic interests, hydropower utilization has a special national interest. With help of new plants constructed in the [mountainous] regions inhabited by other nationalities we will establish new centers for the Hungarian people, which will have outstanding influence in assimilating those nationalities” (Bogdánfy 1914).

Elemér Sajó outlined how channelized rivers and new canals could be used against the social unrest of the proletariat. “Factories are unwanted around political centers as the artificially heated discontent and demonstrations of the concentrated working masses may disturb the workings of administration and legislation”. The factories—suggests Sajó—”should be dispersed alongside the banks of navigable rivers and canals, where the workers can nurse their children in the clean, healthy air of the villages, not in the slums of cities” (Sajó 1931).

The first attempt at the end of the nineteenth century to build the Grand Canal of Alsace by replacing the original bed of the Rhine with a 120 km long insulated lateral canal between Basel and Strasbourg failed as the Baden-Württemberg government (which had jurisdiction over both banks of the river) did not accept the plan to abandon the riverbed. The main reason for the refusal was concern about potential negative impacts on agriculture. During World War I France occupied Alsace and the Rhine became the border with Germany. The promoters renewed the idea of building the canal by arguing for the political and military advantages of having the waterway in French hands (in this way France could control both banks of the waterway and the Rhineland). French politicians considered the proposal and the Allied Powers at the Paris Peace Conference granted the necessary permission for France to include the project in the terms of the Versailles Peace Treaty. However, the project was never completed after several unsuccessful attempts to mitigate negative impacts on water supply, urban sanitation, agriculture and nature (Vargha 1984; Chioc 2002).

At the peace negotiations in 1919, following the example of the Rhine, the newly-established Czechoslovakia attempted – without success – to obtain similar exclusive rights to hydropower on the Danube River sections that constitute the border between Austria and Hungary. This was the very first step in a long process that culminated in 1992 in the unilateral diversion of the Danube River into a canal very similar to the Grand Canal of Alsace. Due to the protracted, combined efforts of (Czech-)Slovak and Hungarian project promoters and developers Slovakia finally received the right to the project in the form of a bilateral treaty on the construction of the Gabčíkovo-Nagymaros project, signed in 1978. By this time France had already relinquished her exclusive rights to (and had abandoned trying to complete) the Grand Canal of Alsace (Vargha 1984).

Make the argumentation fit the political ideology. In Hungary between the two World Wars German hydropolitics was the exemplar to be followed. “The waterway of the Danube played a huge role in the war efforts of the Central Powers. The perfectly equipped German waterways […] played an extraordinary role in the amazing, tough and long-lasting resistance of the Central Powers against a superior force. Even during the War the Germans recognized that if they lost their overseas colonies, they could work off eastward the population surplus that was growing year by year with its resulting overflow of industrial vigor. They started to recognize, even at that time, that in addition to the Rhine-Danube canal they need a waterway that lead directly toward Russia” (Sajó 1931). This rhetoric was in harmony with the pro-German orientation of the Horthy regime. The intention was inevitably to obtain political support and public subsidies for the canals, reservoirs and dams that Sajó urged the government construct.

After World War II, a huge river channelization and damming scheme and its organizational body, the Tennessee Valley Authority in the United States, was presented as an example for constructing hydroelectric power plants on the Danube (Kiss 1947).

That decisive year, 1948, bought a turning point in the political orientation of Hungary and in the rhetoric of the projectors. Communists seized power and engineers started to refer positively to the hydropower constructions of the Soviet Union. In a lecture at the Hungarian Academy of Sciences in 1950, Emil Mosonyi, a leading Hungarian water engineer, said with great solemnity: “The Soviet Union’s recently published gigantic plans sharply illuminate the extraordinary importance of hydropower management.2  The extraordinary size and capacity of the Kuybyshev and Stalingrad hydropower stations that were planned for the Volga River, and moreover the number and magnitude of challenges that are to be solved during the implementation of these projects suggest that our technical conceptions cannot remain within their old, usual, narrow-minded limits. […] The news about those monumental technical creations should also influence us. Let us stand for a while in front of the map of Hungary in a festive mood with the desire to construct, generated in this way! Let us investigate domestic potential and sum up the tasks ahead of us!” (Mosonyi 1951).

After the fall of the Stalinist Rákosi era and under the more pragmatic but still totalitarian Kádár-regime, ideological argumentation became less extreme. Gyula Jolánkai, a civil engineer who promoted the construction of dams and reservoirs was already referring to examples of the “gigantic water projects” of the United States and Canada, as well as to those of the Soviet Union, and also to projects underway in neighboring countries. Jolánkai – in an attempt to tug at the reader’s heartstrings—mentioned that, in this respect, “we are among the last ones”, and that “in spite of the Tiszalök barrage, we lack large, representative water projects” [which are exclusively suitable for showing the economic role and importance of water management], as other, smaller constructions are “hidden under the roads of cities” or are “far from settled areas” and are thus “absolutely unsuitable for awakening public attention” (Gyula Jolánkai 1957).

Recently, remarkable signs of rapprochement between ideological argumentation have occurred. A Hungarian ‘anti-environmental’ group of projectors, the ‘Real Greens’3 clamors for the completion of the Gabčíkovo-Nagymaros project. They justify this call by assessing the present and future political situation in Hungary and predicting that the extreme right will help to achieve this goal. On the front page of their website the group declares in Hungarian and German [!] that Jobbik, a Hungarian neo-Nazi party, is the “first parliamentary party whose opinion about water management is based on centuries-old Hungarian traditions and prevailing world trends”.4 Based on this political orientation the group have attacked leaders of the Danube Circle, writing that “only second and third generation holocaust survivors are suitable for disseminating falsification and fraud”.5

Associate water projects with national pride. The Gabčíkovo-Nagymaros project was deemed an object of national pride when Slovakia divorced from Bohemia. In the election campaign of 1992, shortly before the unilateral closing of the Danube by Czechoslovakia, the project was regarded in a political sense as “a unifying symbol of all Slovaks” (Fitzmaurice 1996).

Opponents of the project thus extolled were accused of trying to undermine the whole Slovak nation. Julius Binder, general director of the Slovak water construction company Vodohospodárska Výstavba and a member of the Slovak parliament, claimed in an interview that the "(Danube Circle’s) aim was not (and is not) to search for the best environmental and economic solution, but rather to stop the completion of the dam, to damage the Czechoslovak—and especially the Slovak—economy, and to exacerbate the controversy between both Slovaks and Hungarians and Slovaks and Czechs. In this unstable political and economic situation they could better pursue the policy of autonomy for Hungarian minorities and, later, the restoration of the Hungarian Empire." (Williams 1995)

Slovakia had to cover the construction and maintenance costs of the project from a foreign loan but the resulting income from electricity production was not enough to pay them back. More than a decade later, Gabčíkovo was still “a major economic burden for Slovakia” but this fact remained “largely hidden from the public and the dam is still presented as an object of national pride” (Zinke 2005).

Making gains from nationalism is a favorite tool of projectors and “such symbolism [is] displayed through megaprojects throughout the world” (Lunstrum 2011). For example, the GAP, a Southeast Anatolian project with 22 dams and 17 hydroelectricity plants in Turkey “has become a symbol of national pride, which seems to receive not only unanimous support from political parties across all ideological orientations but also maintained its privileged position within government’s budgets” (Çarkoğlu and Eder 2001).

Cheat the common weal. In English satires of the sixteenth century, written even before Swift’s work, the projectors always presented their projects “as progress for the public good” (Ratcliff 2012). Politicians who back projects that are advertised as promoting progress and public welfare may win votes as they are seen to be great friends of the public. The construction of many hydroprojects in the United States and elsewhere have been supported in this way; this style of politicking is sometimes called pork-barrel politics6 (Goldsmith and Hildyard 1984; McCully 2001).

Projectors have a great propensity to claim that their dam projects are multipurpose or complex and will foster progress and public welfare in many fields (energy production, navigation, agriculture, water supply, recreation and tourism, etc.). In the early planning phase of the Gabčíkovo-Nagymaros project, even the projectors themselves stated that the barrages planned for the Danube between Bratislava and Budapest were nothing but hydropower plants, and therefore “the construction costs of dams and navigation locks on the Danube cannot be allocated to other water management interests, not even in a forced way” (Mosonyi 1948). However, on the section of the river designated for the Gabčíkovo-Nagymaros project investment costs were enormously high, with moderate energy-producing capacity compared to other electricity-generating technologies with much shorter construction times and lower costs per kilowatt hour. To overcome these drawbacks the projectors had two major tactics. First, they redesigned the projects several times to screw out as much electricity from the river as possible; secondly, they arbitrarily modified the project budget to allocate as much cost as possible to other sectors (Vargha 1981).

The first tactic resulted in the implementation of a monstrous megaproject with only a few percent greater electric capacity than originally planned, but with far greater negative environmental impacts. The application of the second tactic resulted a significantly doctored budget, whereby the cost of the power plant itself (originally budgeted at 90 % of total project cost) was made equal to the cost of an equivalent thermal power plant (60 %). The remaining costs were loaded onto navigation (16 %), water management (11 %) and infrastructure (13 %) (Vargha 1981). From this perspective the projectors could advertise the Gabčíkovo-Nagymaros project as being a complex utilization of the Danube. However, this was rather an overstatement. As Parasuraman and Sengupta (2001) note, “often multi-purpose dams experience[d] greater shortfalls than single purpose dams due to over-optimistic targets”.

Exploitation of forced laborers is another morally problematic way of decreasing a project’s  construction costs. In ancient times, 6000 Jewish prisoners were used in the unsuccessful attempt to dig the Corinth canal. In the nineteenth century, Egypt subsidized the building of the Suez Canal with “up to 30 million francs in the form of the value of the forced labor of the corvee system” (Weijnen 2010). In the Nazi era thousands of Jews worked on the construction of dams and power plants in Germany and Austria (Gruner 2006), and the forced laborers of Stalin’s Soviet Union were used to build huge hydropower plants (Gregory and Lazarev 2003). In Romania prisoners of labor camps worked on the construction of the Danube-Black Sea Canal (Rothschild and Wingfield 2000). In Hungary, the Tiszalök dam on the Tisza River was built by political prisoners of the Rakosi era (Görbedi 1989; Rainer 2002). The chief engineer of the construction activities at Tiszalök was Emil Mosonyi, one of the most ambitious Hungarian projectors. In 1953, when Imre Nagy became prime minister, the use of labor camps was suspended and prisoners were released-with one exception. In Tiszalök the projectors maintained the camp in order to ensure that construction continued using the cheap manpower. The result was a protest by the severely disappointed prisoners. Guards from the State Protection Authority shot five of them (Görbedi 1989). A year later, at the inauguration of the Tiszalok dam, the chief projector, Emil Mosonyi was decorated with the Order of the Red Banner of Labour (Vargha 1981).

Override reasonable engineering limits. The above-mentioned method of slightly increasing the performance of the energy infrastructure lead to a conspicuously extreme scheme in the case of the Gabčíkovo-Nagymaros project. Reasonable limits (that were respected by the projectors themselves at the beginning) were later overstepped (Vargha 1981). These redesign steps were:

  • constructing one higher dam in the side canal instead of two lower ones;

  • adding a big, 60 km2 lowland reservoir to the scheme;

  • doubling the the Gabčíkovo power plant’s  capacity to operate it at daily peak load;

  • decreasing water flow in the abandoned river bed to an extreme minimum;

  • extensively dredging the river bed downstream of Nagymaros.

In 1953, despite unambiguous opinions to the contrary, Mosonyi and his colleagues promised the Czechoslovak projectors that they would obtain consent of the Hungarian government to divert the river to Czechoslovakia within two weeks. This assurance was without result; the Hungarian deputy prime minister Ernő Gerő rebuffed the projectors’ rash proposal. He declared that such a decision could not only be based on technical considerations but should be combined with an investigation of general economic impacts, including those of the dam on agriculture, irrigation, etc.-and also after addressing political concerns. Gerő expressed his dissatisfaction that the projectors were not at all able to give an acceptable answer to questions that arose about the likely drop in the groundwater table (estimated to be roughly 4-5 m) (Record of Meeting 1985).7 The treatment of this issue at that time and the following decades well-characterizes how projectors act. The fall in the groundwater table is a direct consequence of diverting the river water into an artificial lateral canal (insulated with concrete and asphalt), and its height and existence in the highly permeable subsoil of the affected area depends essentially on any fall in the water level in the original river bed. However, the amount of electric energy (the project’s main marketable product) that is produced depends on the flow of water to the turbines of the power plant that is built into the dam at the end of the upstream section of the lateral canal. From the projectors’ point of view, any water left in the original river channel represents a loss. At the outset, without any investigation into or knowledge about potential impact, the projectors suggested leaving 200 m3 of water per second (just 10 %8 of the long-term median water flow) in the main riverbed. This amount is approximately only one third of the lowest ever measured flow (600 m3/s) in this section of the river. Some decades earlier when a Swiss company was planning hydropower stations for the Mosoni-Danube, a southern side-arm in this area, the Hungarian water authorities strictly stated that this minimal amount should be the overall minimum flow for the main riverbed. Presumably this limit was the main reason that the project was abandoned. The projectors later drastically decreased the desired limit, trying to make their project more attractive. In 1952, a statement by water management experts declared that the minimum water flow in the river bed should be calculated from the lowest permissible groundwater table level, determined by the requirements of agriculture9 (Bogárdi et al. 1952). However, not only was a scientific investigation into this matter neglected for a long time but the volume of water left in the original river bed was further decreased arbitrarily by half two times in the following decades (Vargha 1981). As a result, if the project were now being operated according to the treaty signed by Czechoslovakia and Hungary in 1978, only 50 m3 of water per second would flow at the bottom of the river bed (except on a few days per year when the river flow exceeds the maximum amount of water that may pass through the turbines).

It should be emphasized that the steps that were undertaken to increase energy output by a few percent were made without investigations by the projectors into the increasing risk of their impact on agriculture and wetlands.

The last major redesign involved the addition of a lowland reservoir downstream from Bratislava and the doubling of the power generating capacity of the Gabčíkovo power plant to make the system capable of hydropeaking.10 This change has made the weaker (least economical) Nagymaros dam indispensable for maintaining the water level required for navigation out of peak time when the whole river is stopped by the upper dam at Gabčíkovo. This redesign did not increase the amount of energy generated (in fact, it decreased it by few percent per year) but it made it possible collect the river water in the reservoir on a daily basis and to operate the turbines 5-6 hours per day during peaks in electricity demand. At the time of the redesign the price of electrical energy produced during peak time in the Soviet Union and satellite countries was set to double that produced at non-peak time. This observation showed that the project was a bit more feasible in spite of the additional (and costly) need for turbines and generators with double the capacity and made the projectors more optimistic about the success of their project. However, Emil Mosonyi, the chief engineer of the Nagymaros dam, did not bother investigating issues such as the possible environmental impact of the shallow lowland reservoir, the daily stopping and flushing of the water from the entire river, the clearance of 60 km2 of floodplain forests, and so on. The practical results of the projectors’ self-interests went far beyond the limits suggested by engineering experience and guidelines, and indeed, beyond common sense. No consideration was given to the interests of other stakeholders, like locals who would have to endure the impacts of the transformation of nature.

Underestimation of project costs. In relation to this major redesign, Emil Mosonyi declared that opinions about hydropower utilization should be fundamentally changed in Hungary, and that “our river projects should be regarded as having considerable capacity, the ability to produce a remarkably large amount of peak energy and as absolutely economical, even by international comparison”. It may be emphasized—wrote Mosonyi—, “that the most notable technical simplifications and largest cost reductions were achieved during the planning stages of so-called additional investments which were made to protect areas from the water dammed up by the barrages” (Mosonyi 1961). Engineers suggested that irrigation was necessary to balance the negative impacts of the drop in groundwater but the necessary investments costs were never included in the project budget. Such financial tricks, together with the hiding of a considerable portion of the power plant’s construction price in the budget of other sectors, created a more favorable impression about the project and contributed to the political decision in 1978 to undertake the Gabčíkovo-Nagymaros project.

Flyvbjerg and his colleagues analyzed 258 public works projects from different geographic regions and historical periods and concluded that the widespread, statistically significant practice of cost underestimation that occurs “cannot be explained by error and is best explained by strategic misrepresentation, i.e., lying” (Flyvbjerg et al. 2002).

False promises. In spite of all the trickery the Danube megaproject was still too expensive for Hungary. The ultimate financial trick to convince the Hungarian government to give the go-ahead was a promise by the Soviet Union that it would cover a part of the project costs in the form of a loan. However, soon after the Czechoslovak-Hungarian bilateral treaty for constructing the Gabčíkovo-Nagymaros projects was signed, Moscow withdrew this promise.11 The Hungarian government, feeling cheated, temporarily suspended the construction works on her side in 1980, referring to a shortage of money.

Censoring/editing the negative opinions of experts. Hungarian water engineers made two tours in 1959 and 1962 to study the Grand Canal of Alsace, the political and technical prototype of the Danube canal. The first delegation reported that the construction of the originally planned 120 km long canal had been abandoned halfway through because of the fall in the groundwater table on the German side of the Rhine. This unfavourable report was soon forgotten and a second delegation—of which Emil Mosonyi was a participant—concluded that “according to the experience gained at the already constructed power plants [in the Rhine canal], the insulation of the [Danube] canal, the protection of the surrounding area and the balance of the groundwater can be assured” (Vargha 1981).

In 1982-1983, following the temporary suspension of construction at the Gabčíkovo-Nagymaros project in Hungary, the National Technical Development Committee of the government re-examined the project. This investigation was proposed by the Hungarian Academy of Sciences (HAS) but the projectors controlled the editorial content of the final report. András Lévai, an energy expert and member of HAS, wrote the following about the editors’ methods: “[even my] remarks, made always with good intent, were completely ignored or considered just tangentially (some people say), or simply refused. I don’t see too much sense raising the questions again because the editorial board with their attitude of ‘everything is good just as it is written in the plans’ would not consider them anyway” (Lévai 1983). In fact, the projectors did not refrain from more seriously manipulating experts’ opinions or interfering with their interests. In a draft report for a meeting of the Hungarian section of the Joint Czechoslovak-Hungarian Regional Planning Committee, Hungarian regional planners wrote that:

The water agency prepared several alternative plans for decreasing the scale and area of impact caused by the change in the groundwater table. These are more favorable […] than the original plan, but they are not suitable for maintaining the present level of agricultural production nor for protecting the floodplain forests.

The text was edited by the water engineers, with some parts deleted and others added. The result was a final text with a meaning completely different to the original12:

The water agency prepared several alternative plans for decreasing the scale and area of impact caused by the change in the groundwater table. Among them some solutions came to the fore that will serve to maintain the present level of agricultural production and protect the floodplain forests.

Fait accompli. The projectors committed everything to make their projects attractive; promising progress, development, and public welfare to gain political support. They made many attempts to silence their opponents but were never able to feel that they were standing on firm ground as they were fully aware of the truth. Instead, they tried to convince decision-makers and the public that even if there were some (of course, minor) difficulties, it was too late to reconsider the decision; it would now be better to complete the project than not.

In the Gabčíkovo-Nagymaros case, the policy of promoting a fait accompli started in 1953 with the above-described attempt to gain the Hungarian government’s immediate agreement to divert the Danube into the left-side canal that would be built on Czechoslovak territory.

A few years later (in 1958), the projectors achieved partial success. The Hungarian Prime Minister, Ferenc Münnich, signed an agreement in Prague about the joint construction of a dam and hydroelectric power plant at Visegrád—and agreed to continue combined planning for the utilization of the upper section of the Danube. However, the projectors’ hopes were soon extinguished for two main reasons: Czechoslovakia was reluctant to take part in the construction without Hungary’s consent to divert the upper section of the river to her territory, and Hungary later found the Visegrid power plant unattractive when compared to other power generation options.

In 1980, when Hungary temporarily suspended construction for financial reasons, Czechoslovakia tried to force Hungary to continue the project. To create an impression of fait accompli the uppermost fertile layer of soil (together with the growing wheat) alongside the planned side-canal was removed and a small part of the Gabčíkovo dam was quickly built (a concrete wall separating the entrance of the navigation locks from the water flow to the turbines). The destruction of the land and the construction of the 16 m high wall were part of an attempt to convince uninitiated politicians about the irreversibility of the project.

Fait accompli is a frequently-used argument by projectors and sometimes even project plans are referred to this way. In the case of the Canadian James Bay project the Quebec provincial Government did not consult with local people when the plans were drawn up and they “presented the project as a fait accompli, telling the Indians that the scheme would go ahead regardless of their opposition” (Goldsmith and Hildyard 1986). In debates with environmental groups projectors and their allied politicians and authorities frequently proclaim that the project in question should be regarded as a fait accompli and any investigations and environmental impact assessments will only result in minor modifications (Fearnside 1989; Vagholikar 2011).

An extreme example of the fait accompli approach is the closing of the Danube River downstream from Bratislava in 1992; the projectors response to the efforts of environmental groups to stop the construction works (Fürst 2003; Galambos 1993). This attempt was a gamble with the safety of the surrounding inhabited area as the whole river was closed with locks only half-ready to manage flood and ice management demands (OVIBER Kft. 1994). In order to placate the response to the closure, one week later – in a minute signed in London by delegates from Czechoslovakia, Hungary and the European Commission – the projectors “taking into account the risk of damage to existing structures including navigation, of ecological damage to the region and of flooding” guaranteed “to maintain the whole traditional quantity of water into the whole old riverbed”13 and “refrain from operating the [Gabčíkovo] power plant” (I.L.M. 1993). However, the engineers did not comply with this agreement for one minute, undoubtedly having the silent consent of supportive politicians.


3. Dams or Rivers?

Paul R. Josephson, in his book about brute force technology and the transformation of the natural world, writes that “the most troubling aspect of brute force technologies is that they require brute force politics for full effect. This is because financial institutions, engineering firms, state bureaucracies, and specialists themselves develop a strong interest in seeing their designs fully unfurled. There are no half measures with brutal force technologies” (Josephson 2002). This observation characterizes the damming of rivers, analyzed by Josephson in the first chapter of the book, entitled “Pyramids of Concrete: Rivers, Dams, and the Ideological Roots of Brute Force Technology”.

However, in most cases concerning hydropower “half measures” are neither reasonable nor sustainable solutions in any case. With the Gabčíkovo-Nagymaros project the judgment of the International Court of Justice involved a typical “half measure”. The Court accepted the status quo (i.e. the fait accompli) involving the ongoing operation of the Gabčíkovo power plant in the side canal, but it also obliged the parties involved to ensure that nature was protected. The judges envisioned reconciling economic development with environmental protection, stating that “the Parties together should look afresh at the effects on the environment of the operation of the Gabčíkovo power plant. In particular they must find a satisfactory solution for the volume of water to be released into the old bed of the Danube and into the side-arms on both sides of the river” (International Court of Justice 1998). The planning process culminated in a final proposal to leave only 2.5 % of the original water in the Danube and to divert 97.5 % of it to the turbines. The failure of Slovak-Hungarian negotiations “to find a satisfactory solution” in the 16 years following the Court’s judgment (and mitigate the environmental impacts in the area surround- ing the river-bed during this period) shows that the Gabčíkovo-Nagymaros project is not an exception to the rule. The problem remains that even sharing the water roughly fifty-fifty between the turbines and the original riverbed would render the operation of the power plant completely uneconomical but would not protect nature. However, the current situation is not balanced at all; according to a ‘provisional’ agreement the power plant operates using about 80 % of the water from the Danube. The projectors are the winners and the ecosystem is the loser.

Philippe Sands, professor of international law at University College London, criticized the Court, saying that “in cases such as this, where environmental con- cerns lie at the heart of the dispute, the Court has, thus far to date, declined to avail itself of the power set out in Article 50 of the ICJ Statute and retain its own scientific experts to help unravel the complexities that are inherent in arguments of a scientific and technical nature” (Sands 2010). The Court concluded that “it is not necessary in order to respond to the questions put to it in the Special Agreement14 for it to determine which of those points of view is scientifically better founded” (International Court of Justice 1998). The remarkable ignorance that ensued from this decision resulted in the Court prescribing an impasse to the parties concerned. But in reality the deadlock is not balanced at all; as regards the reservoir, the side-canal and the Gabčíkovo power plant the projectors have indeed achieved their fait accompli.

Josephson explains such situations by referring to the great institutional momentum acquired by brute force technologies and states that “there is no going back or cutting losses, and rarely do we admit failure and disassemble them-for example, by breaching a dam or saying no to a project in process” (Josephson 2002). However, a (partial) counterexample is the Gabčíkovo-Nagymaros project itself; environmental groups managed to stop the construction of the second barrage in

1989 (which had already started at Nagymaros where the site was surrounded by a coffer dam and the river already diverted into a provisional bed). A few years later the coffer-dam was removed and the river was restored to its original bed. In this section the Danube River now flows freely again. Here, the Danube Circle lived up to its goal, encapsulated in the motto of the group-borrowed from Comenius15: “Omnia sponte fluent, absit violentia rebus” (Let everything flow free, violence shall be afar from things).



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  • 1. Corrected manuscript. Published in: L. Zsolnai, ed. The Spiritual Dimension of Business Ethics and Sustainability Management. Cham: Springer International Publishing, pp. 143–157. DOI: 10.1007/978-3-319-11677-8_12 © Springer International Publishing Switzerland 2015
  • 2. Emphasis in the original.
  • 3. The group has member and honorary members who are also members of the Hungarian Academy of Sciences. Last accessed October 6, 2013.
  • 4. Last accessed December 22, 2013. The declaration in German: "Die Rechte ist die erste parlamentarische Partei, deren Meinung fiber unsere Wasserwirtschaft auf den seit einem Jahrhundert bestehenden ungarischen Traditionen und den in der Welt vorherrschenden Tendenzen beruht".
  • 5. Last accessed December 22, 2013.
  • 6. The phrase apparently derives "from the frenzy of the hungry slaves on Southern plantations when their owners marked an occasion by rolling out a barrel of salted pork" (McCully 2001).
  • 7. This information comes from top secret records about a meeting held on 18 April 1953 to discuss the Danube Power Plant in the office of the then deputy Prime Minister Ernő Gerő (published in 1985 in Beszélő, a samizdat journal)
  • 8. It must be suspected that this simply derives from the use of the decimal notation in continental Europe.
  • 9. Not to speak about the amount and dynamics of the water flow required by wetland ecosystems of a wide floodplain, interwoven with numerous smaller and larger river branches.
  • 10. This involves how the power plant meets changes in demand for electricity (river water is used for energy generation when demand is high and is collected in a reservoir during non-peak periods). This method of operating may have significant impacts on the river ecosystem.
  • 11. Further research may clarify the details of this story.
  • 12. A facsimile of the typed text with hand-written ‘editions’ was published in a book about the decision of the International Court of Justice on Gabčíkovo-Nagymaros (Vargha 1997).
  • 13. Footnote in the original text: “whole” means not less than 95 % (I.L.M. 1993).
  • 14. This agreement relates to questions submitted to the Court for judgment by Hungary and Slovakia.
  • 15. Comenius was a teacher, educator and writer in the XVI. Century. See:


Vargha, J., 2015. The Enforcement of the Self-Interests of Nature Transformers. In L. Zsolnai, ed. The Spiritual Dimension of Business Ethics and Sustainability Management. Cham: Springer International Publishing, pp. 143–157. Available at: