Michal Kravcík is demonstrating that locally managed water resources, utilizing many small catchments to absorb and store water, will provide far more cost-effective, efficient, and environmentally safe solutions to Slovakia's water management problems than mega-projects such as large dams and diversions.
The New Idea
An internationally respected hydrologist, Michal Kravcík has developed a "Blue Alternative" water management policy that utilizes numerous small reservoirs and depressions to catch and store water, takes necessary measures to slow runoff and restore wetlands and transfers control of water resources from central government to local self-government. In all these respects, his approach contrasts sharply with official Slovak water management policy, which was defined in the early 1950s and emphasizes large dams. The government has so far rejected his alternative, on the grounds that there is insufficient evidence that it would successfully generate enough water. A testing ground for Michal's idea has emerged in the northeastern Slovak mountains, near the 700-year-old villages of Tichy Potok and five of its neighbors, where the government declared its intention in 1992 to build a large dam.Through careful monitoring of a pilot project, Michal has been gathering evidence that his approach, together with repairs and efficient use of the existing water system, can generate a sufficient supply of water even as consumers demands grow in the cities downstream from Tichy Potok. The "Blue Alternatives" will also increase the ecological stability and biodiversity of the region and does not require sophisticated equipment and large energy inputs. In addition, it involves outlays amounting to approximately twenty percent of those associated with the construction of the proposed large dam and implemented by local people, it is providing jobs in an area where unemployment is twice the average rate in Slovakia. The residents of the Tichy Potok area have adopted Michal's approach-it is the first time in 50 years that Slovak communities have taken an independent decision on land. Michal believes that the project has the potential to generate community stewardship in an environment in which land collectivization caused widespread economic and environmental destruction. He also foresees that his Blue Alternative must be part of a broader development program for the affected communities and has introduced additional mechanisms for local empowerment.
For many years, the Tichy Potok area has been the source of drinking water for the urban pockets of southeastern Slovakia. Water from springs and creeks is gathered in huge collectors there and diverted to waterworks for distribution in the cities of Presov and Kosice. But in recent years, climate changes and excessive runoff due to poor forest management have led to fluctuations in water supply. Adding an anticipated growth of population to the scenario, the Slovak government announced its intention to build a large dam in the area. The proposed dam was rejected by 98 percent of the local population in a local referendum and the experience with other Slovak dams-to say nothing of such mega-projects throughout the more developed world-suggests that their resistance was well-founded. Dams constructed in Slovakia in the last five decades have destroyed more than 200 square kilometers of river systems and inundated adjacent wetland areas. They have also led to the forced relocation of more than 100,000 people in local communities. The design of most of these water schemes was based on inaccurate data and driven by ideology rather than practical needs. Social and environmental damages, as well as large financial costs, have far exceeded the benefits derived from their construction.
Moreover, like most of the countries in the region, poor Slovak resource management has led to wasteful consumption by household and industrial consumers. Water use per capita in Central European cities is higher than most European cities, often exceeding 300 liters per day. As much as 30 percent of the water supply is lost through leaking supply pipes. And, as Michal has pointed out, Slovakia's existing Starina dam was running at only 38 percent capacity when the government proposed to put a new dam at Tichy Potok.
The Slovak people's ability to put democratic processes to work is still very limited. They lack experience in public debate and "ownership" of such new laws as the requirement for an Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA). In Michal's words, "We are trying to show people that the cornerstone of democracy is speaking up for what you want, but there isn't a long history of that in Slovakia, and people are afraid. In the past, people suffered serious repercussions like losing a job if they spoke against the government. Tichy Potok is not just about water. This is about [making] alternative proposals."
The centerpiece of Michal's alternative "Blue Alternative" water management policy is the revitalization of the ability of the existing landscape to store and absorb water-through the construction of many small catchments, the creation of wetlands and ponds to slow runoff, and the establishment of supportive agricultural and forest-management practices. Michal's strategy to put his ideas to work in spite of official opposition has had three main strategic components: (1) a pilot project in the Tichy Potok region to demonstrate the feasibility of his alternative water supply system; (2) an energetic public review of the dam proposal, with special attention to the role of information and the importance of the media; and (3) the development of new management and financial systems to bring about a change in attitudes in local people so that they could assume more responsibility for their own development.
Michal formed a citizens' organization among the six villages of the area and named it "People and Water." With funding from citizens' organizations and local governments, People and Water organized a working camp in the summer of 1996. Young volunteers gathered from Canada, the Netherlands, Poland, Ukraine and the United States, as well as Slovakia, and together they built sixteen small dams, three lakes and channels to increase infiltration of surface water in a fourteen-hectare watershed. People and Water got information out about the campaign by steadily faxing journalists. For the camp's closing ceremonies, they invited supporters, friends and the media. In October of that year, the government halted their work, claiming that the organization had proceeded without a building permit. People and Water responded by calling media attention to the affair, which by this time attracted substantial coverage. For the state water company, a rubber-stamp dam project had turned into a major headache.
With support from Ashoka Fellow Juraj Zamkovsky' and his Center for Environmental Public Advocacy, People and Water followed up with a series of town meetings where they questioned the legality of the government's plan for its proposed dam project. Residents of the villages in the area, local and national politicians, water company representatives, agricultural and environmental ministers, scientists and media representatives participated in the meetings; and for all of them it was a new experience to take part in open discussion with officials. Opposition was voiced publicly, and the mechanisms of democracy were strengthened in the process. The Environmental Ministry reversed its earlier backing and cancelled the dam proposal in November 1996.
Michal has undertaken detailed hydrological observations in the micro-watershed area where he is implementing his project. He expects to be able to show that his techniques will provide, for an area belonging to the six affected communities, a steady water flow, equivalent to the projected water discharge of a dam. When Michal has gathered sufficient proof that his technique is a viable alternative, he plans to establish similar cooperative water business ventures widely across the region. He hopes that these community-based projects will change the terms of the water-management debate. Meanwhile he has encouraged the water company to adopt policies for more efficient water use and to repair leaks in the system.
In order to empower local development, Michal has developed a citizens' project called Village for the Third Millenium. It promotes privatization with a civic twist: the local community governments in the Tichy Potok area have set up a corporation through which they collectively manage the revitalization of their water resources and sell water to distribution networks for downstream cities. The income generated is used to maintain the system and it will also be a source of assistance for local governments and matching grants for local development initiatives. The Third Millenium project is setting up an education center for training in agriculture, alternative energy resource use and agro-tourism; it also publishes a bimonthly newspaper.
Michal's dissemination strategy concentrates on two target groups. First is the professional and academic community. With that community in view, he has organized two summer schools related to his "Blue Alternative," in collaboration with the Technical University in Kosice, and he is in contact with an international River Environmental Project sponsored by the Dutch government and conducted by Delft Hydraulics. The second is the general public, which Michal's organization serves through media coverage of various events (e.g., a contest for children's paintings on a "Live Water" theme, which resulted in an auction of the paintings where political leaders bought several pictures). As a result of those efforts, the "Blue Alternative" is perceived by an increasing part of the public as a democratic and environmentally sensitive approach.
Even as a small child, Michal was a lover of nature and its beauty. Originally, he wanted to be an artist. However, as a young man he became fascinated by the sciences and discovered that science has a natural beauty and order all its own. He was always an excellent student and he excelled as a university student and as an intern at Czechoslovak Academy of Sciences. Indeed, he was given several awards in recognition of his innovative approaches to complex issues.
For ten years, Michal was a research scholar at the Slovak Academy of Science's Institute of Hydrology and its Institute of Landscape Ecology, where he often found himself in disagreement with the government's water management policies. After the "velvet revolution" in 1989, he left academia, disappointed that the fledgling government's "new" water policy was a repetition of the old policy. He realized, however, that to make his ideas a reality, he had to gather scientific evidence and foster public support and he seized the opportunity unfolding in Tichy Potok to pursue those aims.