Environmentalist groups prevent the construction of Danube River dam, Hungary, 1984-1989

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Time Period:  
Location and Goals
Location City/State/Province: 
Budapest and other cities
To prevent the construction of the Danube River dam in Nagymaros Hungary

The governments of Czechoslovakia and Hungary first planned to build dams in Gabickovo, and Nagymaros as a large-scale navigation and hydroelectric power system in the 1950s. For the first thirty years of planning, the repressive politics of the Soviet regime kept dissent to a minimum. However, in the summer of 1984, the Duna Kör (Danube Circle), founded by Janos Varga, circulated a petition in Hungary calling for a halt on the Hungarian side of the project. In the petition and illegal pamphlets that accompanied them, they argued that the creation of the dam would endanger the drinking water supplies of five to eight million people while covering the energy needs of only 700,000 to 800,000 people. These first petitions gained over 10,000 signatures. Government officials categorically ignored the claims made by the group and their allies: the Blues and Friends of the Danube. When these groups tried to register as legal political movements, they were denied. Some officials did comment that, although it was obvious that public opinion was not in favor of the dams, the questions involved were more technical rather than political so it was not a matter of public opinion.

Over the next four years, Duna Kör worked its way toward gaining political capital amongst the Hungarian public, the national government, and the Austrian public. Pressuring Austrians to join the campaign and start their own petitions was a strategic move that was trying to leverage the financial investment that Austria had made in the project in exchange for nearly two decades of electrical power. Some Austrians, both from the general public and the government, joined. The Duna Kör designed a blue and white badge that was worn to signify support for the campaign.

The next major setback for the campaign came in 1988, when Lazlo Marothy, Hungarian Minister of Environmental Protection and Water Management made agreements with the Slovak Deputy Premier Stefan Murin to begin the construction of the dam ahead of schedule. In response, on May 27, 1988, nearly 2,000 people attended a peaceful march that started in the center of Budapest and ended at the Austrian embassy. At the embassy, the marchers protested against the Austrian participation in the project. They were hoping that if the Austrians pulled out entirely, the project would no longer be feasible.

Although the protests did not generate talks in the government of ending the project completely, the large public outcry did cause them to second guess the true benefits of a decades-old project. In July of 1988, the Hungarian government asked U.S. experts to evaluate the project for both its economic viability and environmental impact. They consulted the Bechtel Group Inc. These investigations were not highly conclusive, and the project continued as planned.

On October 30, 1988, Duna Kör organized over 1,000 people to protest in front of the Budapest Technical University demanding that the government hold a referendum on the continued construction of the dam, which they claimed did not reflect the will of the Hungarian people. After the protest, they held a torchlight protest procession with over 5,000 people. The growing size of the demonstrations was a concern for the Communist government that had until this point kept social unrest to a minimum, requiring that citizens stay out of the political processes. The issue of the dam took on a special role of opening the political sphere a bit because it would affect so many of Hungarian citizens, and it was an issue that at the time was not too threatening to the functioning of the government.

In February 1989, Duna Kör and others hosted a two-day scientific conference entitled “green wave” in which they reported on some of the major environmental and health impacts that the dam had already caused and would continue to cause if the construction of the dam was allowed to be completed. From the conference, they set up a committee that coordinated the efforts of Duna Kör with the Green Circle of the Budapest Technical University, the Nature Conservation Club of the Lorand Eotvos University of Arts and Sciences, the Environmentalist Club of FIDESZ, the 4-6-0 peace group, and the environmentalist group of the TDDSZ. The committee formed a strong coalition to review the laws concerning the dam and increased the organizing capacity of the environmental activists.

By May 1989, the petition had grown to over 140,000 signatures, and the pressure of the mounting public opposition to the dam pushed several members of parliament to take the floor during Parliamentary sessions and demand that the Gabcikovo dam be put back on the agenda for discussion. Then on May 12, 1989, the Duna Kör and the independent members of parliament achieved their goal in a vote that determined to halt the construction on the project for two months while further investigations were done on the environmental and economic impacts. The two-month stoppage on the work turned into a permanent cancellation of the project in Hungary. The government’s official stance was that the project had become a “symbol of Hungary’s mismanaged economic development...and a long out-dated economic model.” However, without the pressure of the Duna Kör, which was considered to be the biggest environmental protest against a project in the Soviet bloc, the dam quite possibly could have been completed in 1990 as had been planned.

The protests, pamphleting, petitioning, and coalition-building that Duna Kör organized successfully prevented the construction of the dam and all of the potential life, health, and environmental risks that it would have caused. After this campaign, they continued to work to end the dam project in Czechoslovakia.

Research Notes
Associated Press. "Hungarians Vote to Pull Out of Controversial Danube Dam Project". May 12, 1989.

Associated Press. "U.S. Experts Enter Battle Over Disputed Dam." July 16, 1988.

BBC Summary of World Broadcasts. "Budapest protest march against water barrage project." May 30, 1988.

BBC Summary of World Broadcasts. "Demonstration in Budapest against the Nagymaros dam." November 1, 1988.

BBC Summary of World Broadcasts. "Environmentalist organisations hold scientific conference." Hungarian Telegraph Agency in English. February 7, 1989.

BBC Summary of World Broadcasts. "Independent environmental groups form co-ordination committee." MT1 in English. February 17, 1989.

Diehl, Jackson. "Danube Plans Rile Hungarians; 3 Environmental Groups Bring Pamphleteering Art to East Bloc". The Washington Post. December 12, 1985.

The Guardian. "Protest over Danube Dam/Environmentalists in Hungary". September 20, 1984.

Viets, Susan. "Danube dam is halted". The Guardian, London. March 9, 1989.

Viets, Susan. "Danube project halted amid calls for referendum" The Guardian, London. May 15, 1989.

Name of researcher, and date dd/mm/yyyy: 
Alex Frye, 18/05/2011