Central Europe Review: politics,
society and culture in Central and Eastern Europe
Vol 2, No 7
21 February 2000

Csardas C S A R D A S:
Aquatic Chernobyl
Requiem for the Tisza and the Szamos: Part One

Gusztáv Kosztolányi

Ottan némán, mozdulatlan álltam,

I stood there, silent, without stirring,

Mintha gyökeret vert volna lábam,

As if my feet were rooted to the spot,

Lelkem édes, mély mámorba szédült

My soul intoxicated by a sweet, profound ecstasy

A természet örök szépségétül.

Induced by nature's eternal beauty.


Óh természet, óh dicső természet!

Oh nature, oh glorious nature!

Mely nyelv merne versenyezni véled?

What language would dare compete with you?

Mily nagy vagy te! mentül inkább hallgatsz,

How splendid you are! the more you are silent,

Annál többet, annál szebbet mondasz.

The more you say, the more the beauty of your expression.


Petőfi Sándor, A Tisza

Sándor Petőfi, The Tisza

The Tisza occupies a special place in our hearts, as a benevolent muse, inspiring great poets such as Petőfi, as the generous provider of livelihoods, as a source of wonder sweeping majestically across the Great Plain. The epithet "blond Tisza" springs to our minds as automatically as that of the "blue Danube" when we think of a river whose fate has been inextricably intertwined with that of the Hungarian nation, and is perceived as the most archetypically Hungarian of all rivers as a result (prior to the Treaty of Trianon, the Tisza was a purely Hungarian river). The Tisza has its place in folklore: according to one tale, God had created every mountain and river in the world, only the Tisza lingered in a state of deep melancholy by His footstool. Jesus intervened to sort out the problem. He obtained a golden plough, which he harnessed to a donkey, instructing the Tisza to follow in the furrows thus made. The donkey, however, was hungry, its erratic path dictated by the scattered patches of thistles which it greedily consumed. The meandering route followed by the donkey thus became the course of the Tisza.

The wrath of the Tisza was as widely feared as the river was revered. Floods swept away homes, cutting a swathe of devastation in their wake. Now it has been man's turn to exact a terrible toll from the swirling waters. The quest for gold (ever a symbol of the unbridled pursuit of wealth) has led to nature being once again transformed into the innocent victim of human greed and indifference.

The cyanide spill, flowing inexorably downstream from Romania, had reached the city of Szeged by the early hours of Friday 11 February. I interviewed two citizens who have a greater insight into the effects of the tragedy than most, Dr György Csizmazia and Mr György Imre Török.

Firstly, I consulted Dr György Csizmazia, ornithologist, biologist and researcher into the River Tisza at the University of Szeged about the impact of the cyanide poisoning on local wildlife:

GK: Dr. Csizmazia, could you say a few words about the effects of the disaster on the wildlife of the region?

GYCS: The cyanide and heavy metal salts have had a catastrophic effect on wildlife in and around the River Tisza, its biosphere. Several hundred tonnes of dead fish were hauled out of the Tisza, but this is only the tip of the iceberg. No accurate estimate can be given of the amount of smaller fish that have been swept away downstream. The entire ecosystem has been devastated by this catastrophe, from single-cell organisms to mammals. Even the small number of individual specimens that survived by pure chance have felt the effects of the cyanide and will probably also die in the course of the next few weeks and months.

GK: Presumably certain non-aquatic species will be effected because of the influence of the poisoning on the food chain. Are there birds or rodents that might be threatened with extinction?

GYCS: Ten pairs of osprey [Haliaetus albicilla] nest along the banks of the River Tisza. The osprey is a highly protected species and two have died already as a result of eating fish contaminated with cyanide. The fate of the remaining birds is uncertain. Approximately four hundred specimens of the largest otter population in Europe have also died. I have only seen minute effects on the bütykös hattyú [Cygnus color, a species of swan], cormorant [Phalacrocorax carbo sinensis], tőkésréce [Anas platyrinchos, a species of bird] and seagull populations, with about two to four deaths per species.

GK: Which species (including fish) are primarily endangered by the pollution on both a short and a long-term basis?

GYCS: It is not possible to assess this summarily or unequivocally. If we were to limit ourselves to examining fish species, there is a wide variation in where they spend the winter, hiding under rocks or burying themselves in the mud. Their ecological and ethological position within the river waters likewise varies and this obviously has an impact on the chances of regeneration of the populations. The Tisza's entire food chain has collapsed. Whereas it is entirely certain that the Tisza will create a new biological balance for itself, this balance will be immeasurably poorer and less diverse in comparison with the river's original state. This represents the beginning of the river's attempt at resurrecting itself and we must give it a helping hand in the long term as well as the short term. Hydrobiologists, hydroengineers, hydorchemists and local government authorities must all participate in this process. The Tisza will be impoverished in terms of the number of species it supports, which is why there is a major risk that its ability to purify itself will be extremely limited in the future. This is why in future every single instance of pollution, however insignificant, will have to be monitored very closely indeed, regardless of whether it emanates from inside Hungary itself or from beyond Hungary's frontiers.

GK: Unfortunately this is not the first incidence of pollution in the Tisza coming from Romania. Could you perhaps tell me a little about past incidents and about the response on the part of the Hungarian authorities?

GYCS: According to the terms of the Sophia Convention, every country involved must specify the sources of the pollution, but internal considerations and interests at stake rendered this impossible. We have no way of knowing what the precise cause of the current tragedy caused by the Esmeralda Company when its dam at Nagybánya [Baie Mare] ruptured. The Hungarian government was helpless when, in the days of Ceaucescu, it was confronted with minor or major cases of pollution originating from across the border. Most often, these cases were not publicised and in most cases, no solutions were found for political reasons (we mustn't spoil relations between the Communist Parties).

In the last few years, the Romanians have become increasingly open and willing to uncover every source of pollution, but sadly the human factor in Romania cannot be disregarded. The current case in Nagybánya [Baie Mare] is proof of this, as it is an instance of human irresponsibility (in other words no inspection was carried out by experts and this led to the rupture of the dam).

GK: Clearly this disaster is unprecedented in the history of the River Tisza. How would you gauge the response of the authorities in the light of this?

GYCS: The current catastrophe took the authorities by surprise. The Ministry of the Environment was slow to react to news of the disaster. At any rate, there would have been ample time to alert Western European expert associations and to ask for real help in time. They knew about the possibilities for reducing the proportions of the catastrophe by means of intervention, such as chemical intervention, using electric currents to stun the fish and remove them from the polluted water, and so on. Unfortunately the Tisza Research Panel founded four decades ago has not received enough financial support in the last ten years of its operations to have enabled it to take any substantial action. Fortunately for us, the water conservation engineering service did everything in its power to close off the backwaters (oxbow lakes) of the Tisza that were in the flood plain. In so doing, they preserved the biosphere of the oxbow lakes, which will form the small oases from which the slow regeneration of the Tisza can commence.

GK: What tangible evidence have you seen of the effects of the disaster on the River Tisza?

GYCS: In the course of field inspections during the disaster we witnessed the removal of unbelievably huge quantities of dead fish. Virtually all of these were large specimens. Boats and barges were positioned across the Tisza to act as a dam whilst fishermen gathered tonnes of large dead fish into their rowing boats before placing them in skips. Two thirds of the fish of the Carpathian hydrological basin - 50 to 55 species in total - have been put under threat of extinction in the Tisza. We keep an eye on 18 of these as protected species. It is very probable that the tiszai ingola [the Tisza lamprey, Lampetra sp.], unique to these waters, will become extinct. I have also seen a few dead specimens of tőkésréce [anas platyrinchos], cormorant and black-headed gull [Larus ridibundus].

GK: Were any special measures taken to protect the health of the local population?

GYCS: Yes, indeed! Szolnok, a major city, draws its drinking water supplies directly from the River Tisza. Because of the very high cyanide concentrations in the water at 0.3 milligrams a litre, preparations were made to counteract the danger in advance. The population was supplied with drinking water in plastic bags and, once the wave of cyanide reached the city, the water extraction pumps were shut off and the water reserves used. Consumption of water from wells sunk along the banks of the Tisza was banned in plenty of time, and the dangers of drinking water from this source were made clear through announcements in the media.

GK: What impact has the disaster had on the mood of the population?

GYCS: The two million people who live in the Tisza valley in Hungary have experienced the cyanide catastrophe as a fatal tragedy. The fishermen whose livelihood depends on the Tisza and who carry out their work on its waters have been lamenting the death of the fish stocks. The pain and regret etched into the faces of the many thousands who came as pilgrims to the banks of the river was a dreadful sight. The bodies of fish that had died as a result of cyanide poisoning were placed in front of the Romanian Consulate in Szeged by unknown persons. A memorial services for the "Tisza burial ground" were held in sadness and by way of a protest on the riverside by the widest selection of Green organisations, schools and the inhabitants of the cities situated along the Tisza.

GK: Do you think that the government did enough to avert the disaster? In what areas could more have been expected of the government?

GYCS: The initial reaction on the part of the government came late on in the day. The Ministry of the Environment ought to have asked for help from EU experts and EU organisations straight away. It would have been important for independent external experts to have been on the scene of the disaster from the outset.

GK: What impact might the disaster have on the local economy in the near future?

GYCS: Obviously the damage done has been massive. It has led not just to biological destruction, but has also harmed the economy and the population of the Tisza valley. The extent of the damage done to the latter is as of yet impossible to estimate. The Tisza Lake and the tourist industry in Hungary the entire length of the Tisza has been dealt a major blow. The economic decline of village and angling tourism, of rowing boat hire, of angling shops and of fish restaurants and the effect this will have on the lives of the population as well as on the economy in general is still as good as impossible to determine.

GK: What has been the reaction to the tragic events of the people who live along the banks of the Tisza, especially that of the fishermen?

GYCS: The Tisza is the ancient river of the Hungarian people. Hungarians experience and love their river in the same way as Petőfi (the poet of the Tisza). Once the current feelings of despair have subsided, the fishermen will presumably become involved (also at the request of the Commissioner) [appointed by the Hungarian government as part of the response to the tragedy] in the monitoring of the Tisza's biosphere, primarily of fish stocks, as they are the real experts in this area. We believe that the helpless despair that prevails at the moment will be followed by a feeling of hope.

GK: Do you think that the famous culinary delight Szeged fish soup will disappear from the menus of restaurants in the city?

GYCS: Not at all! Our famous fish soup will not disappear off the menus of restaurants in Szeged. Up to now, the bulk in percentage terms of fish destined for the restaurants of Szeged was artificially reared in the fish farms of the Fehértó [Lake]. It is true that we will not be eating fish from the Tisza for quite some time, not just because of the poisoning, but also because it would be a crime to reduce the regenerating fish population.

GK: Do you think that we will ever again be able to delight in watching the flight of the tiszavirág [a species of may-fly unique to the waters of the river, the larvae of the tiszavirág, literally "Tisza flower", develop underwater to surface spectacularly in huge numbers, forming a living carpet above the river once they reach the adult stage. Their lifespan is short - one day - hence their symbolic value as fleeting and transitory. This is reflected in the Hungarian language, in which tiszavirág may also be rendered as "ephemeral". Tiszavirág életű, literally having the lifespan of a tiszavirág, means ephemeral or short-lived. There were widespread fears that the species would become extinct as a result of the tragedy]?

GYCS: Yes, I am quite certain that we will! Even after the cyanide had made its way downriver, living tiszavirág larvae were found. We might be able to place our trust [for the species' future] in the larvae fortunate enough to survive, but there are other populations of tiszavirág of varying size at the mouths of tributaries such as the Maros. Acting as a gene bank, they will certainly be able to replace gradually the tiszavirág that succumbed to the poison. We are also planning different types of artificial intervention to replenish the depleted stocks.

GK: What effect might the disaster have on Hungarian-Romanian relations?

GYCS: Speaking as a private individual and not as a politician, I do not believe this catastrophe will ruin official relations between Hungary and Romania. What is bad, however, is that the disaster might have a negative influence on the views, prejudices and private opinions of ordinary people. We must carry out important work in educating people in order to counteract this. Indeed this demonstrates the link between disasters involving pollution of the environment and the need to address educational issues.

GK: What is your opinion of the statement made by representatives of the Australian firm that the fish died because the water was too cold for them and therefore had nothing to do with the cyanide poisoning? What action do you think Hungary should take to ensure that such irresponsible and cynical companies are not awarded operating licences?

GYCS: The behaviour of leading figures in the Australian Esmerelda company has been cynical, defensive and downright stupid as they have attempted to decline responsibility, denying it flatly. The steps that need to be taken now are straightforward: a court action has to be launched and the guilty parties have to be named and punished. The aim of this would not be to provide a settlement for the damage caused, since it would be impossible to do so, but to set an example to act as a warning, making sure that something similar will not happen in the future.

GK: What should the government concentrate on doing now, and what should it do in the future?

GYCS: The Hungarian government should now take preventive measures in the realm of co-operation on cross-border watercourses. Joint water quality and disaster prevention plans need to be drafted together with our counterparts in Romania and we must encourage them to accept these plans. 95 per cent of the water flowing in Hungarian rivers arrives from beyond our frontiers, yet, at the present juncture, the only obligation that exists is that of providing information! We do not know exactly what kind of sources of danger exist beyond our frontiers. Potential sources of danger are not well known enough. The European Union has and will continue to have a key role in coming up with a satisfactory response. The European Union must help in charting the cross-border dangers that exist and must help in co-ordination. Once we have been made aware of the dangers, we must eliminate them with EU help.

GK: Do you think that the events of the last few days might also have a positive spin-off, such as by increasing the amount spent on environmental investment or by leading to the adoption of far more stringent environmental legislation?

GYCS: Unfortunately, we are forced to admit that the present catastrophe has not been the first occasion on which attention has been drawn to the importance of investing in environmental protection. This is a problem, which can only be responded to in an effective and satisfactory manner once we adopt a pan-European approach in both our mindset and our custodianship of the environment. According to a well-known Hungarian proverb, "the poor man cooks with water" [roughly the equivalent of making the most of what you have got], but now even the water is polluted...

GK: What are the most important lessons to be learned from the tragedy politically and environmentally?

GYCS: The polluters responsible for the poisoning cannot be let off the hook and exonerated! You cannot maintain either that nature's buffer capacity will sort everything out as time goes by! The latter assertion would be extremely dangerous from the point of view of protecting the environment. These days, unfortunately, there are activities being pursued in our environment that have nothing whatsoever to do with prevention! The location of the potential sources of danger can be traced back to the unjust peace dictated to us at Trianon! Perhaps a common Europe will be able to resolve this as well! The lesson to be drawn from the current tragedy is that every effort should be concentrated on prevention. This can only be achieved in a common Europe.

GK: Do you believe that EU membership might help to avert similar disasters in the future?

GYCS: Future membership of the EU will only help to avert similar environmental disasters if we succeed in setting up a pan-European chemical and biological monitoring system covering certain points of the waterways and watercourses. Conditions must be subject to continuous monitoring and above and beyond all this, special attention has to be paid to tackling and preventing irresponsible action on the part of individuals. What I am about to say might sound strange, but I hope that it will be understandable nevertheless: it is my entirely personal opinion that the spate of reporting on the current disaster will show that education and information can help in warding off such catastrophes in future.

GK: Thank you very much.

The second interview that I conducted was with György Imre Török, Chief Engineer and Deputy Technical Director of the Lower Tisza Provincial Water Authority (ATVIZIG), also based in Szeged:

GK: The press has been full of reports concerning the extent of the damage caused by the cyanide poisoning. Do you think they have been exaggerated? Could the damage have been worse? If so, how?

GYT: Press reports about the catastrophe cannot be assessed in the same way as the disaster itself can. Perhaps it would suffice to say for the moment that this has indeed been a disaster, and its true extent will emerge in future provided it is actually possible at all to determine the extent to which the biosphere has been damaged on the basis of precise measurements. To the best of our knowledge, there has been no loss of human life yet. Significant damage has been done, however, to the water biosphere, and to its fauna in particular, although it is as of yet impossible to tell whether the animals spending the winter in the mud will die off later on, or whether they will be capable of regenerating. It is very difficult to put figures on the death toll amongst the higher birds and mammals, because their fallen carcasses are littered sporadically over the forest floor unlike the mass deaths amongst the fish. Alongside the direct damage (effecting the biosphere), indirect damage has also occurred. This includes the destruction - or at the very least recession - of the fishing industry, of angling and of aquatic tourism, all of which is very difficult to quantify. But I wonder whether it is actually possible to quantify the ecological damage, in other words, that certain rare, protected species of animal life has disappeared altogether, thereby impoverishing the biosphere. Given that it was impossible to stop the catastrophe once it had already occurred, we ought to have prevented it from happening instead. We only had one opportunity at our disposal and that was to mitigate its effects. In this respect, I feel that it was a huge achievement that the biosphere of the Tisza Lake was not harmed, as it did prove possible to shut the pollution out of it. The provision of drinking water supplies to the city of Szolnok proceeded uninterrupted. In my opinion, it was a particularly major achievement to succeed in preventing the flow of cyanide polluted water into the extensive flood plain below the mouth of the Körös. This meant that valuable conservation areas, including those that come under the RAMSARI Convention, could be saved. The Tisza Lake and the Lower Tisza flood plain together with the river's backwaters and tributaries can act as sources for the recovery of the biosphere. The disaster in the river itself could not, therefore, have been prevented on the basis of specific interventions by that stage. It is conceivable that at the point of origin it might have been possible to avert the disaster by employing improved safeguards, such as a stronger dam, for example, by building a second gradated emergency reservoir, or by using substances to neutralise the cyanide as soon as the accident happened.

GK: What implications does this have for disaster prevention in the future?

GYT: The next steps that should be taken have to be thought through very carefully. At any rate, we need to get hold of more information from the upper catchment basin [of the river]. We have to reach a situation in which we have information about potential sources of pollution, about just how dangerous they are and about how it might be possible to get to grips with them. This involves a planning process in other words. It is also necessary to develop technically and on an organisational level.

GK: What specific measures have been taken by ATVIZIG? Is there a need for greater investment by the Hungarian authorities or is the problem more on the Romanian side? How do you think environmental awareness can be raised? Do you have regular contacts with colleagues in Romania? Do you think that exchanges of views and experience might be valuable in the future? Have their already been attempts at cross-border co-operation? Has the disaster increased the likelihood of cross-border co-operation between Hungary and its neighbours in the future?

GYT: In this type of disaster prevention, the primary responsibility for carrying out surveys is not incumbent upon ATVIZIG, but it is important for the necessary hydrological elements to be included in the surveys carried out by the laboratories of the Environmental Protection Inspectorate (for example the water levels and rates of flow). We keep constant track of these, and this knowledge enabled us for example to calculate how high we should build the temporary works, which we used to seal off the flood plain. Using this data, we were able to take a decision about operating the dam at Kiskőrös, which slowed down the flood wave on the Tisza thereby delaying its arrival at the Körös. In so doing, we managed to save the flood plain of the Lower Tisza. In the area of environmental protection, major investments in the organisations responsible for disaster prevention is absolutely essential. Money needs to be put into the Environmental Protection Inspectorate and the Water Authority. In our region, one example of a potential source of pollution is to be found in the oil prospecting and oil field sector. We do not have the wherewithal to cope with preventing pollution caused by an oilspill. Even more important than this, in my opinion, is the need for environmental investment in industry and agriculture in order to prevent disasters from happening in the first place. This is equally desirable in both Hungary and Romania. Sensitivity to environmental issues is on the increase in society at large, although society's reaction does tend to be stronger when linked to specific events. Unfortunately news quickly goes stale and the novelty soon wears off, so that in a few weeks' time it might very well be the case that only a fraction of the many hundreds or even thousands of demonstrators gathered in crowds could be persuaded to attend a scientific forum arranged to disseminate information. Moreover, the Hungarian environmental organisations and water authorities are in constant touch with Romanian colleagues, and relations are cordial, both amongst the experts and amongst the institutions themselves. In general, information reaches us from Romania in good time and with an adequate amount of detail. The root of the problem does not lie here, because there is more to adopting specific measures than exchanging experience and views: there is a serious economic dimension and raising society's awareness is also called for. There have been numerous occasions on which co-operation with colleagues on the other side of the border has been necessary. There have been cases of oil pollution and other accidents, but the area in which the longest-standing tradition of cross-border co-operation exists is flood prevention. Here, we agree on the defensive measures to be taken on the stretches of the river where we share a joint interest. As is the case with any disaster, we have to learn the lessons of what has occurred and this will in all probability lead to greater emphasis being placed amongst Hungary's neighbours on co-operation both on a political level and in the field of what specific measures should be taken.

GK: How does the current tragedy compare with episodes of pollution in the past? Could the lessons of the past not have been learned better in order to prevent incidents of this type?

GYT: I cannot recall any previous episodes of water poisoning of similar proportions, but accidents of this type have taken place on several occasions. In Romania, mining works and ore processing plants are situated not just in the Szamos valley, but also in the Maros valley as well as along the Aranyos. In the last few decades, there have been incidences of storage reservoirs being filled to overflowing, but it was not cyanide that ended up in the river, and the pollutants that did contaminate the water were released in far smaller concentrations. From time to time, there have been sporadic waves of pollution arriving from chemical plants, sugar factories and other places, but their scale has not even remotely approached that of the current disaster. It is beyond all shadow of a doubt that we should have learned the lessons of previous episodes of pollution and safety measures should have been employed at the extraction plant, as this would have been the only effective means of preventing this wide-ranging disaster.

GK: How did you feel as the cyanide drifted slowly down the Tisza towards Szeged? Were you angry, dismayed or simply too busy to focus on your own feelings?

GYT: Interestingly enough, I wasn't angry during the time when I was directing the defence works, but I really did feel despair when I was walking along the banks of the Tisza, which were covered in dead fish, and consulted with the fishermen. I had a very difficult night when it became very uncertain as to whether we would be able to keep the river from bursting its banks and leaving its proper channel. There is nothing worse than the feeling of helplessness. Eventually, when there was a glimmer of hope that we might succeed, these feelings began to subside and I really did have so much on my plate that I had little time to focus on my own feelings.

GK: Would you describe what happened as a result of simple negligence, or could events be characterised as an instance of the ruthless lust for profit on the part of the Australian company taking precedence over concern for the environment?

GYT: The correct term in which to couch events would be to attribute them to human negligence, although to simplify matters in this way and to use this term alone is to run the risk of painting a picture of the case which is not entirely accurate. It is a complex problem. Obviously what we are dealing with here is a certain lack of exacting standards, a building operation that was of inferior quality also in respect of safety standards from the very outset. Natural conditions, such as the snowfall and subsequent thaw also exacerbated the situation, and most probably the workers at the plant did not take sufficient account of the extent of their consequences. I cannot pass judgement on the extent to which the Australian company concentrates ruthlessly on profit or as to whether it cares about the environment or not from here in Szeged. Unfortunately, it would seem as if there is opportunity to examine this in Romania. This has to be changed. At any rate, the misrepresentation and cynicism, which has featured in the statements made by the company's managers that have appeared in the press is saddening. To belittle the consequences of pollution which has quite obviously taken place, or to lay the blame for what has occurred on other Hungarian plants operating along the Tisza is sheer impudence, to put it mildly.

GK: Do you think that Hungarian or Romanian accession to the EU will help to improve the quality of legislation? What measures would you like to see adopted Europe-wide to prevent such a disaster being repeated?

GYT: I am quite certain that once Hungary and, alongside Hungary, Romania become members of the EU, the quality of legislation will improve substantially. Once both countries have been forced to adopt identically high legal and technical regulations, the issues pertaining to environmental disaster prevention will become more important. Creating rules is no easy task, and it is even more difficult to apply them. The entire burden of moral and economic consequences should be borne by the party guilty of causing the damage. This principle sounds very noble, but it is very difficult to adhere to. It is not certain that the set of instruments necessary to guarantee compliance with this principle has been developed to perfection even within Western Europe. There too there are water catchment areas that cut across frontiers, and the resulting problems give rise to tensions between neighbouring states. Whatever happens, the directives due to enter into force in the near future concerning the management and regulating of cross-border catchment areas will do a great deal within the countries of the EU to promote efforts designed to prevent and mitigate damage of this type, provided that the relevant measures are adopted to ensure compliance and that the necessary institutional backup is put in place.

GK: As you know, a Commissioner has been appointed by the government to react to the crisis. Do you think this response on the part of the government is adequate? If not, what further action should be taken? Should the government concentrate simply on raising awareness or should new laws be adopted to ensure the polluter pays principle is put into practice? What penalties do you think should be imposed on the culprits?

GYT: For the moment, it is impossible to know exactly what the powers of the Commissioner will be. His appointment was a spectacular step on the part of the government. The question to be addressed now is what sphere of authority he will be assured and what kind of a budget he will be provided with? I for one hope that the Commissioner will be in a position to co-ordinate the work to be done to help the recovery and rehabilitation. The first step towards this would be to determine the true extent of the damage, which is essential not just to assist the recovery, but also for the negotiations concerning compensation. It is very important for the government to draw attention to environmental protection, but current legislation still has its weak spots. For example, there are contradictions between certain pieces of legislation and legal loopholes. These problems are clearly illustrated by the law on waste management. The principle that the polluter shall pay for the damage he has caused has already been asserted in law, and I could mention many cases from my own sphere of operations where this has actually been put into practice, although not in full. This is a matter that cannot be resolved on the basis of imposing penalties, nor is it enough for the responsible manager of the institution at fault in causing the damage to resign.

GK: What do you think the reaction of international public opinion should be?

GYT: The role of international public opinion should not be underrated, but I am fairly sceptical in this terrain, as public opinion has solved very few problems up to now. It has not solved the problems in the Middle East, nor did it resolve the crisis in the Balkans, nor has it resolved environmental pollution. The question here is how seriously the competent authorities (for example governments, leading officials, responsible company leaders and citizens) take the mood of the public, the demonstrations and the various forms of expressing public opinion.

GK: Do you think that the argument used by the Australian government in its own defence that the fish died because the water was too cold for them can be accounted for by the fact that Hungary is not yet a member of the EU and the Australians reckon they can get off without paying compensation? Do you think that Hungary will be able to demand justice?

GYT: I have not heard of that defence put forward by the Australian government about the fish dying because the water was too cold for them. Every winter the water cools down to around zero degrees. The fish did not die of that, however, they died of cyanide poisoning. In so far as a government were to advance such ridiculous arguments and were to do so with the aim of avoiding the payment of compensation, then it is entirely immaterial as to whether it does so in the belief that it can get away with citing such drivel, even if the country to which the arguments are addressed is not a member of the EU. I very much hope that the Australian government does not underestimate or look down on Hungary - a country which has been in possession of a state apparatus, where law and order have prevailed and where there have been legal and technical provisions for dealing with the various types of water damage for far longer than has been the case in Australia - to such an extent that it would resort to such deliberate distortions were a compensation claim to be lodged or that it would defend itself in such a ridiculous manner. In my view, the compensation claim has to be drawn up very thoroughly, and agreement should be striven for to the extent that it is feasible. As a last resort, the possibility of bringing an action under international law should not be forgotten. Hungary does not need justice so much as reassuring proof that a case of this or a similar type will never happen again and assistance in making sure that the Tisza can be rehabilitated. Evidently the lessons of the incident have to be analysed, but it would be far preferable to concentrate on the tasks that lie ahead in the future.

GK: What are the most important lessons to be learned from the tragedy?

GYT: The most important lesson to be learned from this incident is, on the one hand, that in the case of a country such as Hungary, where practically speaking all of its water catchment areas are divided across national frontiers and where the headwaters are located on the territory of its neighbours, where in other words our country is in a very vulnerable position, we must be given firm guarantees in the bilateral and multilateral international agreements on water management and environmental protection in respect of damage prevention, mitigation and, in the event that a disaster proves unavoidable, compensation will be provided. Natural causes, human carelessness, negligence or any chance combination of any of these can thwart any regulations or preventive measures, catastrophes can occur and damage can be done. The organisations charged with the task of preventing disasters must be permitted to develop further and to be equipped technologically. Another important lesson is that once damage of this type has occurred there has to be some means of being able to figure out how recovery can be brought about and how the biosphere can be revived.

GK: Thank you very much.

Gusztáv Kosztolányi, 20 February, 2000.

In Part Two, we shall chronicle the disaster in detail from the Hungarian point of view and analyse its political and practical implications.

Archive of Gusztáv Kosztolányi's Csardas series of articles on Hungary



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Aquatic Chernobyl

Nazi Slave-labor

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