A highly problematic Danube dam project has found its way into the Slovak Operational Programme for the Cohesion Policy spending in the 2014-2020 period and has become a small scandal in the country.

by Roman Havlicek and Miroslav Mojzis, cross-posted from the Bankwatch blog

Following publication of this blog, a meeting was requested and convened by the Slovak Ministry of Transport with the Slovak NGO Green Coalition on March 28. With more information now coming to light about this project, please see the Update at the end of this blog post.

As part of their ongoing participation in the programming process for the allocation of EU funds money in the 2014-2020 period, a group of Slovak organisations – including Bankwatch member Friends of the Earth Slovakia-CEPA – has uncovered the presence of a highly problematic Danube dam project that, the organisations fear, has been sneaked into investment proposal documentation at the behest of the Slovak dam lobby.

The project in question, going by the name of ‘Bratislava-Pecniansky les’, is primarily intended to enhance inland navigation. The proposed dam would raise Danube water levels in the vicinity of the Slovak capital Bratislava and the Austrian border by roughly ten metres to enable large cargo ships to pass through difficult river sections during periods of low water levels. The dam would also be used for electricity production, with proposed installed output of 135 megawatts, providing an annual average production of 900 gigawatt hours.

However, both the project’s expected impacts – involving the potential flouting of EU law – and the way in which it has wound its way into Slovakia’s draft ‘Operational Programme for Integrated Infrastructure’ have become the subject of a mini-scandal in recent weeks, with Slovak media picking up the case [sk] following the initial raising of the alarm by NGOs.

The potential environmental impacts are various, and have also been raising concern in the village of Wolfsthal on the Austrian side of the border that would be affected by a change in the water regime if the project moves forward.

EU protected NATURA 2000 habitats in both Slovakia and Austria would be adversely impacted, with certain fish species also under threat due to fundamental changes in the river habitat that would result. From what Friends of the Earth Slovakia-CEPA can discern at this stage, the dam project would contravene the EU habitats directive and potentially also the water framework directive. Moreover, drinking water sources that serve a substantial area of Bratislava would also be affected – such drinking water impacts could be mitigated, though probably at vast expense and with no guarantee of success.

In Austria, with the Donau Auen National Park also within the project’s scope, opposition is emerging, with the mayor of Wolfsthal speaking out on behalf of residents not enthusiastic about the prospect of a large wall having to be constructed to protect property and land from a significantly higher river level.

Perhaps the most worrying aspect of this case is the attempt by the ‘Bratislava-Pecniansky les’ promoters – at this stage principally the Slovak ministry of transport, that is responsible for the conceiving of the draft OP Integrated Infrastructure – to circumnavigate the EU funds process and European Commission efforts to tighten the requirements for dam financing in the new seven year spending round.

To understand the context we have to look back in time.

The consultancy, design and construction companies involved in the Slovak water sector – in particular dam-builders – no longer have it as good as they once did in the early 1990s when they enjoyed the favour of a generous government. In part this is due to new economic realities, with limits now on the state budget deficit compelling the government to channel public finances to projects that can bring bigger and quicker effects both in economical and political terms – in short, and in the Slovak context, this means motorways are the favoured subsidy sector at the present time.

The dam lobby may have moved down the national budget pecking order, but they have maintained their influence at least at the national level. And new hope duly arrived with the preparation in the last 18 months or so of EU Structural funds programming for the upcoming 2014-20 period. With the European Commission keen to promote investments related to climate change adaptation in 2014-2020, the dam constructors took this as an opportunity to push their old business but with a coat of new green paint applied.

However, the European Commission stuck to its guns and, in mid 2013, rejected the Slovak proposal to finance dams, as had been presented in the draft ‘Operational Programme Quality of Environment’ as part of climate change adaptation measures .

However, it would appear that the environment was not the only sector in which the dam promoters wanted to play the game for EU money. Within the proposed Operational Programme for Integrated Infrastructure we recently spotted the innocuous sounding project title “Implementation of technical measures to remove obstacles and improve the navigability of the Danube river”. Only the statistical classification gave the game away – the number ‘2152’ appended to the project title signifies, in the Slovak classification, ‘dams’.

When confronted last week by journalists inquiring about Friends of the Earth Slovakia-CEPA’s and the Slovak Green Coalition’s recent alarm letter (pdf) to the European Commission outlining our concerns about the Bratislava-Pecniansky les project, the ministry of transport replied that it has not decided what these “technical measures” will be exactly, nor even if the main activity will be the dredging of the Danube bottom to enable ships to pass through the river bottlenecks.

Such a response may have been credible, but not when we’ve been reading about and actually hearing from dozens of dam promoters and engineers who are clearly advocating for the construction of the dam as the key measure for improving navigation in the first place. A further question relates to whether dredging activities and moving gravel in several places along the Danube would, on their own, require over EUR 75 million, the lower threshold figure for large projects that are to be included in the EU funds project list. The actual costs involved in realising the dam would easily exceed EUR 75 million. There is thus potentially a lot of EU money at stake here, and the project waters are muddy to say the least.

Meanwhile, the precious nature of the Danube, as well as drinking water sources, remain the priceless values at issue in this case. The potential losses cannot be justified by the standard, generalised reasoning regularly trotted out by the ministry of transport and the dam building lobby – namely that inland waterways are ‘the most ecological transport means’ that exist.

Slovak NGOs have thus alerted and are calling on the European Commission to fully scrutinise the proposed “Implementation of technical measures” project. With final agreement on Slovak spending lines for the 2014-2020 to be negotiated and arrived at in the next six months, the Commission needs to keep asking the Slovak authorities the right questions about dam construction ambitions. Hopefully we will see no flagrant use of EU money for the unnecessary destruction of ecosystems.

Update – March 28, 2014

The ministry of transport called Green Coalition to a meeting a few days after this blog was posted. During the meeting, ministry representatives assured us that, while the Danube dredging project is moving forward, it will not involve a dam.

It was explained to us that there had been some confusion regarding the statistical classification number referred to above in the blog. The ministry representatives confirmed to us that the use of the reference number ‘2152’ was in fact in line with newly required EU (ie Eurostat) project classification, and it corresponds to various categories of project, including dams, and dredging.

We are happy to make this clarification. For now it would appear to be the case that the controversial dam project is not being promoted by the ministry of transport, and will not be proposed for EU funding in the 2014-2020 budgetary period.


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