Droughts in the land of rivers in Hungary

Climate change makes water both a blessing and a curse for Hungarian agriculture.

Fall wheat field is seen under a blue, almost cloudless sky.
©J. Szászi
The rains these past few days brought only temporary relief - But fall wheat would not have survived the week without them. Spring droughts in March and April have been an emerging pattern

While spring frosts and weather extremes continue to be an issue for agriculture – to the point where wind storms, dust storms or even smaller tornadoes can develop over the Great Plains – environmental water issues have a dual nature: With the spring and summer season, agricultural producers are facing flash floods on the one hand and severe droughts on the other.

Hungary lies in the middle of the Carpathian basin, and all of its rivers are tributaries of the River Danube, the second-longest river in Europe after the River Volga, which also has the second-largest river basin. Most of the river water in Hungary originates outside the country’s borders, flowing through the Hungarian plains and into the Danube. These waters have supported agriculture in the region for thousands of years. However, plant cultivation is facing unique problems today which require new policy adaptations.

Normally, Hungary is not a water-stressed nation. In fact, the country has ample renewable water supply (more than 10 thousand m3 per capita).

However, Hungarian rivers are vulnerable to environmental degradation, pollution and manmade natural disasters. In 2000, a major ecological disaster occurred when a chemical spill originating in a gold mine in Baia Mare, Romania, reached the River Tisza, contaminating the water supply of 2.5 million people in Hungary. Following the spill, Szamos, a tributary of Tisza suffered a cyanide contamination 700 times the permitted level and as the spill progressed down the waterways, 1241 tons of fish perished and important and protected biomes as well as agriculture suffered long-term damages.

Another water vulnerability stems from the regulation of the rivers. The „most Hungarian river,” the River Tisza, a major tributary of the Danube, was so fundamentally regulated in the 19th century that its length was reduced from 1419 kms to 962 kms. This transformed entire biomes, and the meandering river was turned into a straight water corridor. Previously, floods had space to expand in the lengthy riverbed and extended flood plains. Since then however, floods have become deadlier because the water can more rapidly travel down this streamlined corridor, which is also more prone to erosion.

A map of the Danube basin in Central Europe
©Wikimedia Commons
The Danube basin is the second-largest river basin in Europe.

Nature and the changing climate

Due to climate change, weather is becoming more unpredictable and mercurial, with milder winters and dry springs, and the agricultural landscape is very vulnerable to these changes. Historic floodplain areas were dominated by marshes, backwater riverbeds and other aquatic biotopes. From the 19th century onwards, these have been turned over to plant cultivation.

These agricultural lands are much more vulnerable to water-stressed periods and droughts. With the more and more volatile and unpredictable precipitation patterns, they are prone to drought damages. However, these land areas are also the ones usually hit by flash floods and land inundation. Therefore, farmers redirect and drain most of the excess groundwater from these areas through the inundation and flood-redirecting channel systems during major floods. In turn, the lack of this water is felt in the dry summer periods.

Water management: Legal aspects, governance and policy issues

The basis of the current water management regulation was formalized in 1994. Currently, the governing authority which oversees water resource management is the Hungarian Energy & Utilities Regulatory Agency. In the period of 2012-2013, there was a progressive regulatory reform which included the centralization of drink water and waste water services. The agency’s current mandate is based on the existing water legislation, and it regulates water tariffs, licenses operators, handles customer complaints, has a €15 million yearly budget and has a multi-sector mandate.

While the vast majority of surface water originates in the surrounding mountains of the Carpathian Basin, outside of Hungary’s borders, the country is rich in subterranean water deposits. Around 95% of drinking water is coming from subsurface water sources. This subterranean water supply is often mineral-rich and free of contamination. It does not interact with the atmosphere and does not evaporate. However, it is often used for irrigation in water-stressed periods and it replenishes much slower. A major concern is that much less water is returned into the water reserves than what is taken out for irrigation during drought periods and ground water levels in many regions of the country are receding.

A major canal flows though agricultural lands
©Björn Láczay
The Eastern Main Canal is an important central channel in the water management of the Transtisza region

Surface water poses its own challenges as well. Annually, twice as much groundwater is replenished from rivers crossing the border than from precipitation and due to flood prevention measures, rivers can’t expand into their historic flood plains. They also can’t replenish groundwater deposits. Moreover, current flood prevention measures focus on redirection and protection, instead of replenishing the water supply.

The distribution of the annual precipitation has peak periods – like the middle to late spring rainy period which leads to the green flood – and valleys, like the mid-summer dry period. The current water management systems cannot cope with this pattern by holding back floodwater for storage. In the past, these issues were more manageable – However, due to climate change, the weather is now less and less forgiving and leaves less room for error.

There is hope however. In March 2020, a project funding of €145 million in total was approved by the European Commission for flood prevention and water management development in Hungary, the money is coming from the EU Cohesion Fund. €49 million is dedicated to flood prevention in the Tisza basin and €96 million is for developing sustainable water management systems.

Peak flood periods

There are two major annual floods in Hungary:

  • Icy flood: Occurs in early spring, due to the large amount of snow and ice meltwater
  • Green flood: Occurs early summer, the May rainy period boosts the water flow of the rivers which in turn flood again

Effects on agriculture and possible solutions

As Hungary is primarily an agricultural country, 83% of the land area is suitable for agriculture and forestry. However, the above-mentioned environmental issues directly affect large swaths of agricultural land, primarily affecting plant cultivation, one of the two major pillars of Hungarian agriculture.

Aside from the decrease in the utility of rain water due to the volatile, intensive rainy periods, the aggregate annual mean precipitation (normally, around 600 mm) may decrease by up to 80 mm in the coming years. Another risk for agriculture is that flash floods are contributing to increased soil erosion, while rising temperatures shorten plant vegetation periods.

Extreme summer temperatures and droughts primarily affect plants sowed in the spring. Most severely hit are maize, sunflower and pea plantations. Maize is one of the most commonly cultivated plants in Hungary. While corn plants have a high heat tolerance, they also have a high water need especially in the driest July and August periods.

Woodland strawberry plants can be seen in front of the backdrop of rain clouds
©Dániel Komlós
Agricultural lands are at the mercy of the mercurial climate.

Another vulnerability is that temperature extremities can regularly occur during the flowering season in agriculture, damaging pollens and decreasing the efficiency of fertilization. These damages could be mitigated by extensive water management systems and irrigation. However, the ratio of regularly irrigated agricultural lands is very low, at 2.5%, while this proportion is a mean 8% for the rest of the EU and 13% in the United States.

Aside from irrigation, agroecological, agroforestry and precision agriculture solutions might also help in the future. Organic soil fertilization, for example, can be achieved through diverse plant rotation. Planting protective tree lines between fields is also a productive method. Tree lines are capable of decreasing wind speed, reducing erosion and the wind’s ability to dry the soil as well as balancing out the microclimate of plantations. 

A promising avenue of development is advanced plant domestication. Various successive trials have been run with wheat varieties in Szeged and Martonvásár. The Martonvásár research facility of the Hungarian Academy of Sciences has been running successful tests in with multiple new wheat varieties in their advanced greenhouse laboratory. Furthermore, the Hungarian Research Institute of Organic Agriculture has been conducting experiments with organic wheat, as well as the reintroduction of ancient wheat varieties which can thrive in environments inhospitable to modern bread wheat.

Sources:

Mihály Földi, Dóra Dexler: Organic field trials to promote Hungarian organic cereal production – testing wheat varieties. Hungarian Research Institute of Organic Agriculture, December 2015

András Kis, Gábor Ungvári: Are we still falling? Sustainability and equity in the Hungarian water utility services sector. Budapest Management Review, p. 77. (Hungarian language)

Tamás Vajna: Hogyan élheti túl a klímaváltozást a magyar mezőgazdaság? Qubit.hu, August 7, 2019. (Hungarian language)

Gabriella Jeki: Mit nekik a koronavírus: ez jóval nagyobb probléma most a vidéki Magyarországon. HelloVidék.hu, April 20, 2020.

More than 145 million euros for flood protection and water management development. Agrárszektor.hu, March 18, 2020.

Flood prevention, General Directorate of Water Management

Water and wastewater services in the Danube region: A state of the sector, regional report. The World Bank, May 2015.

Image credit: Danube river basin, via Wikimedia.
Kanal bei Hajdúnánás by Björn Láczay via Flickr.