Irrigation development in Hungary

Governments, stakeholders and farmers have to get used to droughts and rhapsodic weather patterns in Central Europe - Can Hungary adapt?

Water flowing in a stream next to a verdant green field
©eyestetix
Modern irrigation systems are required to be more economic, utilizing surface water sources with little waste, instead of exhausting underground water reservoirs which are replenished at a much slower rate.

It is a few minutes past eight in the evening in Bogács in Northern Hungary. I am sitting on the veranda of an old farmhouse on the northern edge of the Great Plain, and the sun has already set behind the treeline as I call my colleague for his half of the article. The heat still lingers in the air. A summer thunderstorm passed over the fields last night, but now the days will be dry again, perhaps for weeks, before the next cathartic summer storm.

So far, 2020 has been a year exemplary of the changing climate, a testament to the challenges farmers in Hungary have to deal with as the weather is becoming warmer and more chaotic while human interference is also degrading natural waterways (On weather effects and environmental factors, see our past articles on droughts, river microplastic pollution, riverbed erosion, food price increases).

One of the cardinal pillars of adaptation will have to be irrigation systems, an area where there is room for improvement today. Yet in the past, there were successful agricultural practices in place to balance out the effects of weather extremities. What can we learn from Medieval farmers? What mindset do we have to emulate? What is the path forward for agricultural policy planning in solving the problems of irrigation in the 21st century?

History

Agriculture in Hungary has always had to coexist with a seasonally changing, dynamic natural environment, with one of the most characteristic natural features being the yearly floods. The River Danube, which is the second-longest river in Europe crosses through the Carpathian Basin, joined by one of its major tributaries, the River Tisza in the Pannonian plain. The waterways fed massive flood plain and wetland areas throughout human history, and adaptations to the annual flood periods reach at least as far back as the early Middle Ages.

The traditional historic agricultural method in the Great Plain was called “fok” agriculture, or scour channel irrigation – “fokgazdálkodás” in Hungarian, which was so significant that riverside settlements still carry it in their names, e.g. the town Siófok at the tip of the River Sió, a naming tradition resembling Dutch cities carrying the word –dam in their names. Medieval “fok” agriculture was a complex and sophisticated water management system involving flood plain farming, irrigation, aquaculture and fisheries. Medieval producers used series of scour channels (foks) to let in and direct river floods into fluvial valleys in a controlled fashion, utilizing chains and series of artificial channels combined with modified natural formations like abandoned riverbeds. Consequently, the held back water surplus could be utilized for irrigation and also served as breeding grounds for river fish species, also supporting considerable aquaculture. Although nineteenth-century riverbed regulation works extensively transformed the Pannonian rivers and water systems, the abandoned channels left behind by fok agriculture are still a characteristic part of the local landscape in parts of the Hungarian Great Plains.

Close-up photo of a sprinkler watering a field
©AgriLife Today
The current agricultural governance plans aim to increase the size of the irrigated land area from 87.5 thousand hectares to 400 thousand by 2030.

With the advent of the Industrial Age in the 19th century, strategic overarching plans were conceived for the engineering of artificial waterways throughout the Great Plains, then a part of Austria-Hungary. These included the regulation of major rivers, (especially, the River Tisza) and the establishment of major artificial channels for the purposes of creating inland shipping lanes and redirecting floods as well as feeding irrigation works. Establishing irrigation systems only started following the First World War however, with only 3.2 thousand hectares being regularly irrigated by 1920.

Between the two world wars, following the loss of agricultural lands after the First World War and also due to series of droughts, irrigation was front and center in agricultural development, still, by 1930, the irrigated area only increased by 6.5 thousand hectares, mostly including meadows and pastures, and to a smaller extent, horticultural lands and rice plantations. The catastrophic destruction left after the Second World War also left irrigation systems in disarray but after a few years of reconstruction, massive water infrastructure projects were launched including the Tiszalök Barrage, meant to feed irrigation systems in the Trans-Tisza region and the 97-kilometer-long Eastern Main Canal, crossing the driest region of Trans-Tisza, providing water for irrigation. Consequently, the size of the irrigated area increasing to 70 thousand hectares in a decade. Later, in the 1960s, mainly due to increasing precipitation, irrigation development slowed down.

After the end of socialism, in the 1990s, irrigation works halted as subsidies were terminated and water usage was based on a free market principle. By the 2010s, only around 80 thousand hectares of land was equipped with irrigation infrastructure, with roughly around 1-2% of the total agricultural area being regularly irrigated.

An apple tree being watered
©Peggychoucair
A major objective of the National Irrigation Strategy is to incentivize the transition into higher added value products.

Policy

Based on a 1983 study conducted by a working group of Hungarian National Academy of Sciences researchers led by István Láng, the ceiling value of irrigable agriculture land in Hungary is around 800 thousand hectares.

The actual irrigated land area, 87.5 thousand hectares, is a fraction of this. The shrinkage of irrigated areas after the political regime change marks an age of overall two decades decline in Hungary’s agriculture and its output.

Recognizing the essential role of irrigation, the governmental stakeholders put irrigation (re)development back high on the policy agenda. The 2017 act Government Decision 1744/2017 was the foundation of the irrigation development policy structure now in place. It called for a National Irrigation Strategy with the ambitious target to expand total irrigated area in to country. The current 87.5 thousand hectares is foreseen to grow to 400 thousand hectares by 2030, as of a recent communiqué by Minister of Agriculture István Nagy. It involves a significant demand to improve the collection, assessment, standardization and monitoring of water resources.

What is Hungary's National Irrigation Strategy?

Means

  • Utilization of surface waters
  • Minimizing the usage of underground water reservoirs
  • Employing more economic irrigation technologies in order to reduce water waste

Main points and objectives

  • The overarching goal is the support of the development of higher added value agricultural production
  • The availability of water domestically should not limit irrigation development, national irrigation development should be compatible with the development of regional water systems.
  • Another goal is to stimulate producer interests in moving toward more value added agricultural production
  • Subsidy systems should be restructured and subsidies should reward developments that are more economic in water and energy usage and have a positive effect on the soil.

Administrative conditions

  • Irrigation collectives formed by farmers are eligible for irrigation water licenses in their own right.
  • A hard condition is a total 100 hectares (field crops) or 10 hectares (horticultural fruit and vegetable production) of farmland used by the members of the collective.

In the first stage of this overarching irrigation development plan, the Hungarian government plans on expanding the irrigated land area by 100 thousand hectares by 2024. According to the Ministry of Agriculture, so far 14 producers applied for irrigation subsidies, together accounting for 266 thousand hectares of farmland.

An iconic draw well is seen on the Hungarian Great Plain, against the backdrop of the last lights of the setting sun and the starry sky.
©György Soponyai
The draw well is an iconic part of the landscape of the Hungarian Great Plain. Throughout history, farmers developed sophisticated irrigation systems in order to manage water resources - But river regulations fundamentally transformed the environment.

Precision agriculture plays flagship role in tailor-made management. Irrigation development in the face of increasing climate change impacts is one of the main historic challenges for Hungarian agriculture in the 21st century. The rapid development of precision management techniques is an important pillar and the interest of governmental, business and academic stakeholders is quickly growing. Increasing agricultural soils’ water retention capacity and to better provide farmers with access to water resources via eased permit administration and extended annual irrigation period (April 15th-October 15th). Besides the advancement technical tools and improving policy environment, irrigation development faces to major challenges: the lack of cooperation among farmers and fragmented land ownership structure with often opaque and confusing owner communities due to the ‘undivided common land property’.

The notorious ownership institution of ‘undivided common land property’ is one of the greatest challenges for Hungarian land policy. It a property type, covering 2.4 million hectares of agricultural land, which fragments Hungary’s land ownership since the political regime change in 1989-1990. It stems from re-privatization of large state cooperative lands via compensation tickets. Its elimination is long on government agendas. The dispersed land structure hinders efficient external financing and hence development. The Ministry of Agriculture is determined to get rid of this measure and clear the picture on land ownership, to ease the process of heritance to support land transfer inside families (as a flagship measure in supporting family farms). A related bill was passed in the National Assembly in July 2020, to be in force from January 1st 2021.

Agricultural governance aims to enhance cooperation among farmers amid a slowly clearing land structure by the establishment of ‘irrigation communities’, administered under the National Land Centre (as of July 1st 2019). The first irrigation community launched in West Hungary under the coordination of a local integrator company in May this year.

As policy is subject to change periodically marked by government cycles, one factor should be the backbone of long-term irrigation development, supported by precision techniques: a regained and growing trust among farmers and their cooperatives.

Sources

National Chamber of Agriculture (NAK)
Ministry of Agriculture
Water usage and irrigation in Hungarian agriculture, Research Institute of Agricultural Economics (Hungarian)
From the scour channel to fok irrigation, Lithosphera (Hungarian)
The geomorphologic environment of Medieval flood plain agriculture, Foldrajzi Értesítő, Hungarian Academy of Sciences (Hungarian)
Agronapló newsportal (Hungarian)
Agrárszektor newsportal (Hungarian)
HVG newsportal (Hungarian)

Image credit: “Draw well, Orion and faint airglow”, by György Soponyai, via Flickr.