The great Hungarian groundwater flood of 2010-11
During the 1970s and 1980s Hungary was rightly considered the breadbasket of Eastern Europe. A thriving agricultural sector employed 14.8 per cent of the national workforce, accounted for 8 percent of gross domestic product and operated in a manner that was environmentally sustainable. Over the past 22 years the sector has experienced upheaval and contraction, in large part due to the winding-up of the cooperative farm system. The situation has been aggravated by meteorological phenomena associated with global warming.
Driving from Kecskemét to Dunaföldvár in early February the author was amazed by the sheer volume of surface water.
After a decade of near-drought conditions Hungary experienced severe flooding at the turn of the century, particularly along the river Tisza and its tributaries. In response the government adopted the so-called Vasarhelyi plan, named after Pál Vasarhelyi, the 19thcentury engineer credited with correcting the course of the Tisza and building what remains to this day Europe’s largest flood-protection system.
The Vasarhelyi plan provided for river embankments to be raised and widened along the course of the Tisza and the creation of six huge water-retention basins, each capable of retaining enough water to fill Lake Velence several times over. This water was then to be fed into rivers, streams, irrigation canals, and fish ponds once the spring flooding season had passed.
The HUF 135 billion (EUR 491.81 million) project was adopted over the objections of numerous water management experts who pointed out that a more cost-effective approach would be to widen the country’s extensive network of arterial stormwater drainage canals. Originally scheduled for completion by 2007 the Vasarhelyi plan was touted at the time by the Gyurcsány government as “one of the great civil engineering works” involving an “unprecedented degree of inter-agency cooperation”. This may explain why as of 2008 only one of the six water-storage facilities had been completed, albeit without many of the attendant improvements to regional water and sanitary sewer systems originally called for.
One reason for the delay was that only 25 per cent of the project qualified for European Union structural financing, which meant the Hungarian state had to come up with 75 per cent of the total investment – a whopping HUF 101.25 billion (EUR 371.58 million). Another reason was mission creep: as rising groundwater levels came to pose a greater threat to national agriculture and rural development than floodwater, the scope of the Vasarhelyi plan was broadened to include a variety of stop-gap groundwater protection measures, none of which adequately addressed the root cause of high ground water levels: the poor physical state of some 50,000 km of tertiary drainage canals.
At the turn of the century periodic torrential rainfall caused large swathes of Hungary to be inundated with standing groundwater. However, flooding was usually localised to one or two regions at any given time and the volume of water to be pumped into local streams and rivers by regional water-management authorities was manageable, albeit costly (groundwater drainage operations cost the Hungarian government HUF 19 billion (EUR 69.73 million) in 2010 alone). To the extent it was occasionally necessary to evacuate individual homes or even entire villages and victims tended to be Roma families living in low-lying areas, nobody really cared about the threat posed by groundwater to life and property.
Extreme weather conditions
The incidence and extent of groundwater flooding increased dramatically during the second half of the first decade of this century as the result of unusually high levels of precipitation during the winter months combined with extreme temperature fluctuations. In January temperatures actually spiked 40 degrees before dropping back to below freezing.
Whereas historically much of the snow falling between December and February accumulated on the fields and did not melt until the end of February, most of the snowfall over the past six years has melted within one or two weeks, resulting in standing pools of surface groundwater. In addition to interfering with the harvest of autumn corn and damaging winter wheat, when groundwater freezes it damages the soil by compacting it, thereby reducing its porosity. Further, frozen groundwater tends to accumulate in and block the very same drainage ditches whose poor maintenance is the main reason storm-water hasn’t been draining from the fields in the first place.
Usually, in such cases new trenches are dug, hoses and pumps are deployed and the excess water is pumped into nearby rivers via a network of drainage canals. However, in spring 2010 two back-to-back cyclones completely overwhelmed the nation’s arterial stormwater drainage system.
When it rains, it pours
Between 15 and 18 May hurricane Sofia drenched Hungary with up to 200mm of rainfall in some parts of the country. After four days of torrential rain 150,000 hectares were under water. The impact on agriculture throughout the country was immediate and severe.
In Bekes county surface water prevented farmers from sowing one quarter of their crops. In Borsod-Abaúj- Zemplém the Bódvariver burst its banks, inundating towns and closing roads. In Csongrad county 20 per cent of arable land was under water. In Fejer county, where all low-lying pasture was under water, the Dunaújváros region was pelted with hailstones the size of golf balls. In Győr-Moson-Sopron county, as elsewhere, storms caused heavy damage to corn whose shoots had only recently appeared. In Hajdú-Bihár county entire fields of alfalfa were blown over where, lying in standing pools of surface groundwater, it quickly rotted. In Jász-Kiskun-Szolnok, still struggling with high groundwater from the previous winter, strong winds blew over one-third of the wheat and half the barley crop. In Komárom-Esztergom county the sunflower crop was badly damaged. In Veszprém county 120-140km winds damaged vines and fruit trees and flattened fields of barley, wheat and hay.
As in the past, regional water-management authorities responded by digging new drainage trenches, deploying hoses and pumping millions of litres of water into nearby rivers and streams. However, hopes of saving the 2010 harvest were dashed when only two weeks later hurricane Angela unleashed an additional 100-200mm of rain over five days, making it the wettest spring on record since 1901.
Since then water-management authorities have been fighting a losing battle against nature. By the end of December 2010 some 378,000 hectares were under water. Of these, 237,000 hectares were under cultivation, including 100,000 hectares of winter wheat and 81,000 hectares of autumn corn which could not be harvested. Heavy year-end snowfall melted in the first week of January only to freeze again the following week. As of 9 January 446,000 hectares were under water, including 244,000 hectares of winter wheat. Altogether, 876,000 hectares–roughly one-fifth of Hungary’s arable land–were affected by high groundwater levels in 2010.
Surface groundwater persists
Driving from Kecskemét to Dunaföldvár in early February I was amazed by the sheer volume of surface water. It was as though a series of shallow lakes had sprung up on either side of the road. Many of the areas drained by water-management authorities in the second half of January, February and the first half of March flooded again this weekend after three days of unseasonally heavy rain.
The impact of all this water on agriculture, already reeling from years of under-investment and neglect, has been nothing short of disastrous. In January the Ministry for Rural Development estimated the total groundwater damage last year to be HUF 150-180 billion (EUR 546.46-655.75 million).Many small farmers have been completely wiped out financially and physically as high groundwater undermines building foundations, floods septic tanks and contaminates wells.
Clogged drainage ditches
Under enormous pressure by the European Union and international financial markets to reduce government expenditures and faced with a huge drop in tax revenues due to the introduction of the 16 per cent flat income tax last year, on 8 March the national government decided it would only compensate farmers 11 per cent of the value of the crop lost – the minimum permitted by Hungarian law – which, on the basis of claims filed as of that date, was around HUF 37.2 billion (EUR 143.99 million).
How did this situation come about and what is to be done?
The basic problem lies in the fact that national and regional water authorities nominally responsible for the upkeep and maintenance of drainage canals only manage one-third of the stormwater drainage network. Twelve thousand kilometres worth of primary drainage channels are owned and managed by the national water-management authority. An additional36,000km worth of secondary drainage channels are managed by regional water-management authorities. Local governments are responsible for maintaining tertiary networks draining fields and transporting groundwater runoff to the secondary drainage canals. Whereas previously this was the responsibility of the now-defunct agricultural cooperatives, local governments have neither the financial nor human resources to do a proper job. Many of the tertiary drainage canals ended up in private hands over the course of privatising government- and cooperative-owned farmland.
During the near-drought conditions of the 1990swhen stormwater removal was the last thing on farmers’ minds, many drainage ditches and low-lying areas functioning as natural retainage basins were filled and planted without regard for the impact of this on local or regional stormwater drainage systems. According to the Ministry for Rural Development some 50,000 km of tertiary drainage canals are in urgent need of maintenance and repair.
Furthermore, an ambitious program of highway construction during the last decade disrupted the stormwater drainage network in many key areas, especially west of Szeged where groundwater flooding is so severe that firemen spend most of their time these days draining water from cellars and living rooms and evacuating people from collapsing buildings.
Voluntary schemes have failed
Under the Gyurcsány administration emphasis was placed on voluntary groundwater prevention and management schemes involving a level of cooperation between local governments, farm associations and private land owners which, unfortunately, doesn’t exist.
It also involved co- and pre-financing requirements beyond the means of the very towns and villages worst affected by flooding. In the case of state-funded public work schemes, local governments were willing to provide temporary employment cleaning and maintaining drainage ditches in and around towns but rarely put public service employees to work cleaning drainage ditches falling on privately owned land. Nor was there any way for local governments or regional water management authorities to compel private owners to properly maintain stormwater drainage ditches situated on their property.
Moved under one umbrella
Legislation recently adopted by the Fidesz government provides for the establishment of a new national water-management agency to direct and oversee the activities of the regional ones. More importantly it gives government authorities the legal means with which to compel private landowners to cooperate, even if this involves the condemnation and (re)appropriation of part of their lands. Some HUF 64 billion (EUR 233.15 million) has been allocated this year for public-works programs including the repair and maintenance of stormwater drainage ditches and canals.
The Ministry of Rural Development estimates the cost of rebuilding Hungary’s system of drainage canals and related flood-protection measures at HUF 220 billion (HUF 801.48 million). While this may seem like a lot, if we consider the damage caused by high groundwater in 2010 alone it’s actually a bargain. And to the extent it would create tens of thousands of jobs in the very rural areas where they are most needed, it would do much to raise rural living standards.
High time to address root cause
The European Union can help by agreeing to finance up to 80 per cent of this within the framework of the current Regional Operational Programs in force through2013 (although this might involve diverting EU structural funds away from other worthwhile programs).
Hopefully Hungary’s leaders will see the great groundwater flood of 2010-2011 not as a fluke of nature (like the earthquake and tsunami that devastated Japan on 11 March) but a taste of things to come and resolve to finally address the root cause of the problem whatever the cost. Otherwise Prime Minister Viktor Orbán risks being remembered as the leader who fiddled with the Constitution while the country drowned.
– The author is founder and chairman of the American House Foundation, a US-registered private foundation that is working with the Hungarian Red Cross and other Hungarian non-government organisations on issues of poverty, homelessness and social exclusion.www.americanhousefoundation.com.