by Laura Kuen
Traveling from Vienna to Bratislava, our day’s topics branched in quite different directions: water power and nature conservation. We first visited the Austrian National Park Donau-Auen in Orth and later the Gabčíkovo Dams, Slovakia’s biggest hydroelectric plant.
The national park, which spans the distance between Vienna and Bratislava, finds its roots in a story of resistance, years of struggle, and constant negotiations between opposing forces. Our guide, Manfred Rosenberger, whose personal biography is deeply interwoven with the park, vividly recounted the park’s history.
I’ll start at the beginning of the story. In the cold December of 1984, authorities (along with the help of a major police operation) started to clear riparian woodland with the intention of building a hydroelectric power plant along the Danube at Hainburg. The project would have destroyed the last intact, free-flowing stretch of the river and its riparian forests in the country. Manfred was both one of the activists and the co-organizer of an occupation of the forest that was set up to stop the deforestation. Thousands of people, of all ages and coming from diverse social backgrounds, joined the occupation. Initially a relatively small protest, it was soon recognized by a broader public: the police use of batons against the forest squatters enraged forty thousand demonstrators in Vienna and led to general public disapproval of the planned project all over Austria. This put a stop to logging until a referendum against the construction plans was successful in the spring of 1985. A scientific study of the area followed and evidenced far higher biodiversity and more complex ecologies than expected. Most importantly, the study concluded that the area was even worthy of the status of a national park, which ended the plans of building a hydroelectric power station there once and for all. In 1996, the National Park Donau-Auen was founded.
The successful protests in Hainburg and earlier protests against a nuclear power plant in Zwentendorf in 1978 represent two important incidents where civil disobedience was publicly recognized as an effective strategy in Austria, creating a new consciousness about direct democracy in the country.
Today, Manfred is one of the park rangers. The 95 km² park lies between two state capitals, so it is neighbored by more than 4.5 million people. Many visit to find relaxation in the area along the river. But this sometimes causes conflicts, especially on the gravel banks that have become a popular destination for leisure seekers. The problem is that people unintentionally disturb breeding birds or even trample the well-disguised eggs. This is why the work of the 35 rangers is so crucial. It should be noted that some of the park rangers even hold a police-like authority and all are equipped with pepper spray for emergency self-defense in cases of particularly unreasonable, resistant visitors. But most of the time, talking to visitors and educating them about the value of the fragile flora and fauna provides a better solution to chasing them away. Manfred shows us another tool the rangers use as part of their informative approach: a little tin that contains tiny, deceptively real-looking gypsum eggs. Put on the gravel ground, they are hardly recognizable. “This demonstration convinces most people to stay on the paths. Many simply don’t know about the damage they are causing. That is why Manfred’s most important task of all is informing visitors about the needs and particularities of the riparian environment. “I am a policeman, interpreter, and scientist at the same time,” he says, laughing.
From the park’s visitor center at Schloss Orth, we followed a tunnel that led us to a subterranean room with a glass front. We found ourselves standing before the underwater riverbed of an artificial arm of the Danube River. It is a slightly surreal perspective. Fish appear out of the dull, greenish water and pass by; a dead tree lies on the muddy ground. Mud minnows live here. The small fish was declared extinct in Austria, until it was rediscovered in the Donau-Auen area.
From here, we ventured out into the riparian forest, and not only the biologists among us found themselves deeply impressed. The forest looks like a tropical jungle. This is due to the fact that there are no commercial forestry operations, which allows the trees to mature to a very old age, die, and then decompose. Cathedral-like trees form a green canopy; deadwood scatters the forest floor and provides a home for a wide range of insects and fungi. It is the stark contrast to the forests I normally walk through that is most striking. Here, I realize what is missing in those orderly, cultivated, commercial forests with their tidy grounds and limited species. Here, I see plants and insects I have never seen before and whose names are unfamiliar to me, just like the gigantic and rare black poplars that thrive on the river’s gravel banks. Arching high above us, these fast-growing trees need the frequently flooded areas of the wetland forest to thrive.
Despite the unique and impressive appearance of the forest, voices of discontent can be heard among the local population. When discussions about the park started, many residents feared the loss of usage rights, which actually—as Manfred emphasizes—they have never rightfully held. Before the founding of the conservation area, most of the forest was effectively fenced-off property. Back then, about 90 percent of Orth’s inhabitants were against the founding of the park; some even provocatively called it the “Nazi Park.” They assumed that the environmentalists were protecting the existence of some rare orchids instead of caring for the security of the flood-threatened residents. It took years of effort and persuasion to overcome the skepticism of the locals. Today though, the majority of the residents supports the protection of the area due to the communicative work of the rangers.
Manfred’s story shows that when it comes to the use of shared environments, there are always diverging interests, and it is always worth trying to conciliate between them. In a democratic society it is normal, even necessary, that diverse standpoints coexist. The work of the rangers is therefore essential: mediating between different positions and ensuring that the conversation continues. His story also shows that there is always hope to change a situation completely, even when the first trees have already have been cut down.
In the afternoon, we crossed the border to Slovakia. Following the course of the river, we came to a stretch that has long been at the heart of a political dispute regarding the future face of the Danube. Here, the Gabčíkovo hydroelectric power plant is at work. We meet Andrej Šoltész, a professor at the Department of Hydraulic Engineering at the Slovak University of Technology. He shows us around the plant, which produces 10 percent of Slovakia’s total energy demand.
The dam, initiated in 1977, was originally a cooperation project between the Czechoslovak Socialist Republic and the People’s Republic of Hungary. The original plans, however, never became a reality. Hungary left the treaty after large-scale protests against the dam were spurred by suspected negative ecological and economic outcomes. Today, decades after the collapse of the Eastern Bloc, it remains an unresolved dispute between the two countries. While Hungary prefers the idea of returning the river to its original state, Slovakia has proceeded with the building of waterworks on the territory of the Slovak Republic. They are still waiting on the construction of the rest of the project at Nagymaros in Hungary, as was planned in the treaty of 1977.
On the way from Gabčíkovo to Bratislava, we had time to contemplate these two very different environmental histories of the Danube. Experiencing these projects on the same day makes clear how divergent and manifold attitudes toward the river are: the Danube is seen as a habitat for endangered species, a recreation area, a transportation route, a flood threat, and a precious source of energy. As they have in the past, political decisions about the function of the river continue to starkly influence its appearance.