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Conflict in the Danube Region Relating to The Price of Thirst by Bethany Harris

     The International Monetary Fund stipulates that developing countries should adopt the Washington Consensus, a wide variety of policy recommendations that are encouraged by developing country economists and policy makers from the 1980s until today; part of these recommendations is the sale of government-run enterprises to private investors who would “presumably run them more efficiently,” (Frieden, Lake, & Schultz, 2016). This particularly presents a problem when relating to water privatization. As presented in The Price of Thirst, privatization may look glamorous in theory, but in practice, the corporations involved are profit- driven and could even be called morally depraved (Piper, 2014). These developing countries struggling to boost their economy and catch up to more developed nations encounter a dilemma: abide by the Washington Consensus to obtain a loan that could help boost the economy in the future while harming the citizens now, versus reject the loan, which would unfortunately maintain the status quo, but positively would not impose harmful austerity measures on the country’s poorest citizens. The anti-apartheid movement in South Africa was faced with this decision, and the Danube River basin in Europe may soon face this problem as well. Problems relating to the different interests and interactions among key Danube region actors and states among with the failure of institutions contributes to the problem of water pollution and equality in the reigon.

     The number one killer in the world is not a person or an animal, but polluted water (Piper, 2014). There is an income disparity between the states of the Upper Danube (Germany and Austria) and the states of the Middle and Lower Danube (Bulgaria, Romania, Ukraine, etc.) Because the Upper Basin states are upstream, there is not a large incentive for them to control their pollution, even though they could afford to do so more than the developing Lower Basin states (McCaffrey, 2006). The Lower Basin states mainly utilize the Danube for consumptive uses: drinking, agriculture, and fishing (McCaffrey, 2006). These states are in shambles from the disintegrated Soviet Union and are struggling to develop despite their old Soviet water systems: they cannot afford expensive pollution control programs. Without a mechanism for solution, this only portends to a high mortality rate among the Lower Danube region.

     Damming is usually seen in a negative light among environmentalists and impoverished citizens alike. Karen Piper discussed the impacts that damming the Baker River would have: silica would be prevented from washing down the river, which in turn will kill phytoplankton that support krill, which in turn will wreak havoc all the way up the food chain (Piper, 2014). Similarly, the Gabcikovo-Nagymaros project between Hungary and the former Czechoslovakia presented a corporation profit dynamic versus a climate and health dynamic. After Hungary and Czechoslovakia agreed on a treaty that stipulated the construction of a series of dams and other works to improve navigation with hydroelectric power, Hungary backed out of the treaty (Jansky, Murakami, & Pachova, 2004). Following the breakdown of the Soviet Empire, citizens of Hungary were more open about voicing their concerns about the effects of the project (Jansky, Murakami, & Pachova, 2004). This project is an example of how promoting western interests of democracy and freedom of speech can directly result in environmental awareness and improvement.

     Karen Piper claims that stopping climate change is the first step to improving the world’s water: climate change is the number one threat to the world’s water supplies (Piper, 2014). As touched on earlier, stopping climate change would present a difficulty for developing countries in the Danube. These countries cannot afford to control their pollution, and need to pollute to develop and industrialize. However, they suffer from the pollution flowing unto them from the Upper Danube. The states in the Upper Danube could afford to control their pollution, but have a lower interest in doing so when it will cut into their profits and they will not experience the benefits. This has led to overexploitation of the resources of the Danube and realization that something must be done about the problem: it created issues relating to the quantity and the quality of the water. Rapid growth of economic activity will speed up the degradation of the environment: increased pollution and greenhouse gas emissions, rapid deforestation, and biodiversity loss (Freidan, Lake, & Schultz, 2016); this was an issue with the Gabcikovo- Nagymaros project and it will be a continuing issue discussed in international institutions in the years to come. Is advancement at the expense of the environment worth it?

     The political background of water goes far back into the history of the world and is useful in determining reasons why water quality is subpar, or why people are hoarding water for their own profit. In Egypt, the government chose ecological degradation and thirst for the poor to avoid immediate financial disaster (Piper, 2014). The state at which developing countries are in, either low GDP and capital flows or corporations attempting to privatize industries, forces them to try and change the status quo through the easiest and possibly only option available: the IMF. The IMF is an institution controlled mostly by the United States and the European Union, making it inherently biased against developing nations. Profit motivates countries to impose the Washington Consensus on nations that need IMF loans, which leads to inability to repay the debt, which leads to austerity measures on the world’s poorest citizens: higher taxes and lower government spending. In the case of the Danube River, the post-Soviet nations that want to develop are faced with the same issues.

     Cooperation on environmental issues is one of the hardest agreements to secure in international politics. Arguably, the primary reason the Danube states have had trouble cooperating relates to their political backgrounds. During the Cold War era, the countries in the region never divided smoothly into capitalist and communist blocs; several countries stayed neutral. The hegemony of the Soviet Union over central Europe caused a socialist dominance over the politics of the Danube (Linnerooth-Bayer & Murcott, 1996). At the Belgrade Convention, western interests in the river were outweighed by the majority in the east; the concept of free navigation for all was reduced to navigation under the exclusive control of all participating countries (Linnerooth-Bayer & Murcott, 1996). However, once the Soviet Union collapsed, separatist movements in formerly socialist countries radically changed the political stances of countries of the Danube river basin and western interests became more pronounced. Once the Iron Curtain fell, a plethora of information became available between the East and the West that was not available before (Linnerooth-Bayer & Murcott, 1996). However, the Danube region was left with several former-socialist underdeveloped states including Romania, Hungary, the Czech Republic, and Slovakia. These societies are still operating under Soviet-designed wastewater treatment plants; these plants are inferior to the plants in the Upper Danube states and are strained by an excess of use (McCaffrey, 2006).

In Karen Piper’s words, one of the keys to helping the environment is to “revive small- scale and local solutions,” which includes rainwater harvesting, small dams, and watershed restoration (2014). When applied to the Danube, the result of cooperation among interstate institutions could use this theory in practice. In the long run, it appears that there are several factors that predict for the eventual success in negotiations between riparian states. While the states appear to be different culturally and politically, one must also remember that they are all European States that share more in common with each other than other countries share with them (McCaffrey, 2006). One must also consider the positive influence of the European Union on such matters, providing incentives for cooperation in order for the developing states to join. These patterns project more cooperation and better institutions in the future, perhaps a century away. The International Monetary Fund is not all negative or all positive, however it could play a beneficial role in providing guarantees for sovereign loans to improve developmental projects, spurring economic development within the region and thus ability to afford pollution-control programs.


Frieden, J. A., Lake, D. A., & Schultz, K. A. (2016). World politics: Interests, interactions, institutions.

Jansky, L., Murakami, M., & Pachova, N. I. (2004). The Gabčikovo-Nagymaros Project. In The Danube: Environmental monitoring of an international river. New York, NY: The United Nations University.

Linnerooth-Bayer, J., & Murcott, S. (1996). The Danube River basin: International cooperation or sustainable development. Natural Resources, 521-545. Retrieved November 9, 2016, from

Piper, K. (2014). The Price of Thirst: Global Water Inequality and the Coming Chaos. University of Minnesota Press.

McCaffrey, S. (2006). The Danube River Basin. In M. Finger, L. Tamiotti, & J. Allouche (Eds.), The Multi-Governance of Water. Albany, NY: State University of New York Press.