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Schriftenreihe des Europa Institutes Budapest, Band 11:173–185.


Hungarian Water Resources Management and its Strategic Driving Forces


Natural and hydrographical conditions

Hungary is located in the catchment area of River Danube, at the bottom of the central basin of one of the closest rings of mountains on earth. Eighty-four per cent of its territory is less than 200 m above sea level. The proportion of areas without an outflow, or subject to inundations, is great. Several major shallow lakes of Europe are situated here, including the largest one, Lake Balaton. The rivers arrive from three directions in a fan-shape and leave the area in the fourth one, to the south.

The climate of the country is temperate, but it is under strong continental influence. The annual average precipitation is 600 mm (with great fluctuations; it is between 300 and 1200 mm). The regional distribution of precipitation is uneven. West of River Danube there is usually a sufficient quantity of precipitation in an area where water supply is good in any way. In contrast the catchment area of River Tisza obtains little precipitation: as the average of many years shows, 54 per cent of the area gets less than 550 mm, and 80 per cent less than 600 mm. The standard deviation of the precipitation data of the Tisza-valley is much larger than that of the Danube. Consequently the deficit, in comparison to the average of many years, is also significantly larger.


Floods and excess water

The rate of flow of our major rivers is determined by hydro-meteorological conditions outside the country, hence it is an extreme one: the characteristic low flow at entry of the Danube is 570 m3/second and of the Tisza is 45 m3/second, whereas their biggest flow at floods is 10,300 m3/second and 3,550 m3/second, respectively. The seasonal variations of precipitation are great: autumns and springs are often accompanied by a harmful quantity of surplus water. On flat areas the water causes temporary inundations. The deeper parts, consisting of almost one-fourth of the country, are threatened by floods. At other flat areas it is excess or inland waters of different extent and frequency which may cause inundations, affecting altogether 52 per cent of the area of the country and two-thirds of the cultivated land. The Danube overflows its banks every 2 to 3 years, and the Tisza leaves its bed every 1.5 to 2 years on an average. Major floods occur on the Danube every 10 to 12, and on the Tisza every 5 to 6 years. The duration of significant floods at the upper stretches of the rivers is 5 to 20 days, and 15 to 120 days at the middle reaches (such a long period is not characteristic of other European rivers). The flow of the tributaries and their upper courses are often turbulent. In the region of the Upper Tisza and at the Rivers Körös the water level may rise by 8 to 10 meters within 28 to 36 hours of a significant precipitation. The area of 21,300 km2 endangered by floods is the largest in Europe.

Flood control is an issue of safety as well as of economy: among others it protects 628 residential areas (including 60 towns) and 2.3 million people, 32 per cent of the railway lines, 15 per cent of roads and, indirectly, national wealth of the value of about 5000 billion Forints (about 20 billion dollars).

According to Hungarian regulations, dikes should be designed with a safety height of 1,0 to 1,5 meters, for withholding the height and force of extreme floods occurring without ice once in hundred years. Flood control has been successful in this century and during the past decades as well, despite the fact that only 60 per cent of the dikes meet the above requirements. The situation is least satisfactory in the Tisza-valley, consisting of 75 per cent of the flood area, where that proportion is only 52 per cent.

On the flat region of the country (43,600 km2 ) there is the danger of the appearance of excess (inland) waters which represent a unique problem even in international comparison. It damages crops, inhabited areas and buildings, and also communications structures. A strategic consideration of the drainage of excess water is a basic task for the future, which should be done on the basis of the possible agricultural and other uses of the area, in the context of flood control, irrigation and environmental protection. It is noted that in addition to floods and excess water, damages are often caused – mostly in the eastern part of the country – by droughts, representing the other extreme.


Water supply and demand

Water arrives to the country by 24 rivers and leaves it by three (Rivers Danube, Tisza and Dráva). Ninety-five per cent of the surface waters come from abroad, and we have only four medium-size catchment water courses (such as the River Zala), which are situated fully inside the country. About three-fourths of the runoff is carried by the Danube and Dráva rivers, whereas the rivers located in the catchment area of the Tisza river carry hardly one-fourth altogether.

In addition to the surface water resources there are lakes and reservoirs, and also underground stocks of water. The latter yield more than 90 per cent of our potable water.

The demand for water, as permitted by law, was around 8 x 109 m3/year in 1997. The actual utilisation of water is only 78 per cent of that quantity.

Reservoirs would allow having a larger utilisable water supply than the low flow may yield. Its value is small, about 500 million m3/year and it can hardly be developed. A large part of the reservoir capacity is controlled by foreign countries after the Trianon Treaty. Significant reservoir capacity can be found in Slovakia and Romania, but first and foremost in the Ukraine.

Water quality

The water quality of rivers is determined to a large extent by the condition of waters entering the country. In 1997 water quality was usually characterised by classes II and III of the five-grade system of classification, corresponding to the European norms (where I. is the best and V. is the poorest category). It was a result of improvements due to economic recession and decreasing pollution. The implementation of wastewater treatment programs (in Germany, Austria and partly in Slovakia), and the economic recession of the East-Central European countries influenced the quality of water entering the country. Water quality of the major rivers is acceptable as a result of significant dilution, and class V quality is found exclusively in smaller streams which receive the untreated or only partially treated sewage of larger cities.

The majority of our lakes and reservoirs (Lakes Balaton, Velencei, Fertő, Tatai, and the Kisköre Reservoir) show the consequences of eutrophication (nutrient enrichment), even though to a different extent (e.g. due to the reduction of phosphorus loads, the trophic state of Lake Balaton has significantly improved during the past decade or so). In the Danube River similarly to the big European rivers, there is also an excessive growth of algae, though the problem is not as severe as for lakes.

The deterioration of subsurface water quality can be attributed to point sources and diffuse pollution (animal husbandry farms, the use of fertilizer and other chemicals etc.), and to the appearance of elements of natural origin (such as arsenic, which reaches a particularly high level in Békés county in the east). Most frequently, problems are caused by iron, manganese, nitrate, ammonia, and solutions of organic matter, primarily in the Great Plain.

The groundwater is contaminated in the vicinity of settlements. In absence of detailed observations, it can be guessed that the restricted use of agricultural chemicals in the past decade has had a beneficial effect on water quality. The state of bank-filtered resources and karstic waters is generally good, but these stocks are rather vulnerable. Deep ground water can be mostly used without treatment.


Water supply and sewerage

Water supply represents the closest daily contact between nature and people. It is done under the ownership and administrative control of the local governments. The quantitative level of water supply is up to West European standards. The average drinking water supply, inside homes, outside homes, or, by public taps is 80, 91 and 98 per cent respectively, of the population (data from 1998), which means a rather broad variation of the level of comfort. The supply of small villages within these figures is far the least sufficient. The level of sewage lags far behind water supply. According to data of 1993, 43 per cent of the population are linked to the public sewage system, 10 per cent have appropriate sewage disposal, 21 per cent has inadequate solutions, and 26 per cent live in areas without sewerage.

The 1990s were characterised by a development of the water infrastructure by dimensions never experienced before, despite all the difficulties of the economic transition. The cost of investments was almost HUF 200 billions (nearly one billion dollars), and as a result not only the level of the supply of potable water has increased, but also that of the sewerage and wastewater treatment.

Of the 21 countries examined by OECD (1997) the level of the sewerage is the lowest and the so-called utility gap – the percentage difference between water supply and sewerage – is the largest in Hungary. As far as treatment is concerned, the situation is even worse: little more than 40 per cent of the collected sewage is treated biologically. Wastewater disposal in small villages is of a critically low level. The lack of the solution of sewage treatment significantly contributes to the growing pollution of surface waters (at least half of the loads derives from this source). The rising level of groundwater under the villages leads to the deterioration of the quality of groundwater and hence water at deeper layers.


Institutional aspects

Water is a problematic medium: it can simultaneously be a resource, a consumer good and an article of consumption, a risk factor, a national asset, or, the source of natural beauty. General and specific water related goals of regions are often contradictory, or ambiguous, whereas the sphere of owners and users is of enormous variety. A strategy and the resulting intended actions would reflect these difficulties. Their realisation can only be done on the basis of the rules defined by institutions in democratic countries and by the market economy.

The past ten years have brought about radical changes in the political system of the country. The fundamental transformation of the economy and the scarcity of financial resources have often negatively influenced water resources management. Understandably, this brought about primarily a slower level of investments in several areas, and the neglect of maintenance, no matter whether it was the area of water supply, sewerage or flood control.

Changes were brought about by privatisation, decentralisation, by the disintegration of earlier institutions and, subsequently, by the creation of new ones. Meanwhile several important, though not always well considered laws were passed. The current Hungarian policy of water management is basically governed by the (several times) modified Act LVII. of 1995 on water management. Its contents reflect the characteristic features of the transitory period, yet it is based on the right principle of decentralised, but integrated water resources management. The law is implemented (together with a number of other, relatively fresh laws related to the environment and the development of towns and villages). However, there ensued constant changes of legal norms justified, by arguments for our prospective accession to the European Union. It is the Ministry of Transport and Water Management (KVM), which is responsible for the tasks of the state in the area of water management. It co-operates with the Ministry of Agriculture and Regional Development. The latter became responsible for water management outside urban areas (irrigation, excess water control, supervision of water management associations, etc.) in 1998. Further, there is co-operation with the Ministry of Environment (in the field of water quality management), and with the Ministry of Internal Affairs (which supervises the local governments performing important tasks of water management). Such a division of tasks may raise several problems and may hinder the realisation of an integrated water resources management.

Of the regional organisations the 12 Directorates of Water Management, having almost fifty years of experience, and organised on the river basin principle, is of decisive importance. They perform the public tasks of the state. Similar public tasks are performed by the Environmental Inspectorates (following the territorial divisions of the Directorates of Water Management), the directorates of national parks and nature conservation, the State Public Health Organisations asserting the interests of public health, the institutions of agriculture, tourism, communications and law and order and, naturally, other institutions of regions, counties, etc. (general assembly, committees of regional development, etc.).

Regional committees for water management have also been set up. They are forums of conciliation between society and professional bodies. Democratic, voluntary organisations, founded by the ‘owners’ in ‘uniform’ areas, associations of water management and water utility associations, (depending on the intentions of the inhabitants and aiming at the development of public utilities) may also become equally important.


Future impact of historical developments on water management

The present situation carries the imprint of the developments of the past one hundred and fifty years. The issues related to the regulation of the Tisza river and the Gabčikovo–Nagymaros dams on the Danube, have grown into a professionally unclarified/unsettled political problem. The non-sustainable developments of almost fifty years before the political change occurred are also equally important. Well known problems include the development of water infrastructure, characterised by an open water and material cycle; the rising groundwater level in the vicinity of several towns and villages of the Great Plain due to the lack of sewer systems; the drastic effect of irrational mining of karst waters in the Central Hills of Transdanubia; of the small swamps of the hilly region near Lake Balaton, of the small lakes of the area, or the polluted soil and groundwater in many places resulting from outdated industrial technologies.

Besides the current situation, some of the most important strategic driving forces influencing water management of the future, will be presented. Economic upturn and a relatively rapid renewal of industrial production resulted in the growth of the GDP since 1995. The development of the economy is going to be decisive for water management, as the investment demand of the coming decades is enormous, and the operational burdens will be growing. Structural changes play a decisive role in agriculture: they will project future demands in water management. In harmony with several other areas, the directions for the development of irrigation and excess water management will have to be considered.


The EU-integration

Sustainable development is in the focus of the water resources management policy of the EU as expressed by the recently approved Water Framework Directive. Its aims include securing the supply of healthy potable water satisfying rational demands for water, preserving ecosystems and the prevention or reduction of risks. The three major groups of problems to be managed are: water pollution, water shortages and the effects of other human interventions. The basic principles contain protection, cautious approach, prevention of damages at the place of origin, the polluter-pay principle, integration, subsidies, and international co-operation. The practical implementation of the policy incorporates a number of means, among them wastewater emission standards, water quality criteria (rivers, lakes, etc.), ‘zones’ and river basin administration.

These principles constitute the basis of all the existing EU legal norms. The ten directives pertaining to water (among them surface water, dangerous substances, fishing, groundwater, potable waters and urban wastewater treatment), constitute important elements of realisation. They are complemented by additional directives (such as sludge disposal, integrated pollution prevention, environmental impact assessment etc.). In addition, a multitude of other regulations attempt to contribute to the achievement of an integrated water resources management which would include the effects of ‘all’ the activities related to water and water demands.


International dimensions

The international relations of Hungary have not been changed by the events of the past decade. They have acquired fundamental importance after the Trianon, and subsequently the Paris Peace Treaties. As a consequence, the political boundaries differ from those of the catchment areas. These had been the natural borders of the catchment areas and of the state for centuries. Thus, from a water management point of view we have become a ‘transit country’. Today, Hungarian water management works under entirely different conditions from the ones originally envisaged, and its operation fundamentally depends on international factors. Runoff conditions are decisively the function of the hydrographical and land use conditions of surrounding countries. We are highly exposed and the risk is great. Under such conditions the realisation of an efficient water management in a shared catchment area (belonging to the territory of several countries) is one of the decisive dilemmas of the future. In this respect our accession to the EU may play the role of catalyst.

It is the duty of our country to comply with the Helsinki Convention (1992) concerning the protection of water-courses crossing borders, of international standing waters, and the Convention of Sofia (1998) on the protection and sustainable use of the Danube river, since these are international legal norms. However, they are not sufficiently exact. It is in our elemental interest to strengthen the existing, ‘soft’ bilateral and multilateral agreements, to assert the polluter-pay principle, and to look for new forms of efficient co-operation.

In the future we should know more about land use changes in the neighbouring countries (for instance, about deforestation), about the existing and planned reservoirs and about their operation (in both periods of draught and flood), about the existing and potential release of pollutants and about their risks. Recent striking experiences are evidence to the fact that the improvement of protection against damages by floods and accidental pollutions necessitates a reliable monitoring and early warning network, covering the entire Carpathian basin, and the enhancement of environmental security in several neighbouring countries.


Changing principles and needs

The nature of the tasks of water resources management is in the process of change. Principles are also changing. Traditional hydraulic construction has decreasing importance and water management has to be increasingly integrated into regional development, environmental management and nature conservation and, ultimately, into the economy and society.

The majority of tools of the future will be outside the sphere of classical water management and they should be employed within the current conditions. The need for reconstruction is enormous. The replacement of the existing infrastructure is proceeding slowly; it is costly, clumsy. The existing social and economic linkages may be decisive.

In the past, despite successful developments, many projects had unexpected effects within the country and abroad. Often the goals and demands were incorrectly defined. In other cases the factors and criteria deriving from development had changed, or new ones appeared (such as the protection of the environment), which were recognised only with certain delay. Consequently, few projects of water management were realised according to the original plans (and others were not implemented at all).

In the future ‘protection’ would, in all probability, be replaced by prevention, and instead of the satisfaction of short-term demands there would be a quest for long-term solutions. Quantitative views will be replaced by a concern for water quality, ecology and the protection of nature. In summary, water is being constantly re-valued and reassessed from the angle of the economy and society.


Science, research, profession and education

Hungarian research in the area of water resources management has a glorious past, has been financed from central resources, primarily by the ministry, for decades. Today it is struggling against the lack of resources. The Water Resources Research Centre (VITUKI) used to be its central base. In addition to VITUKI, there are several academic institutions and university departments which are engaged in research related to water. However, this sort of activity is, again, only accidental.

Apparently for the time being there is no concept and demand for interdisciplinary researches in the area of integrated water resources management. The R&D commissions of the Ministry of Transport and Water Management serve the short-term needs of the branch, when preparing decisions. Experimental research has been relegated into the background. Opportunities of **?**in situ**/?** measurements are discouraging. Ageing is characteristic of the researchers in the field. There is little replacement and many ‘schools’ have disappeared. The number of articles published by Hungarian authors in foreign, refereed periodicals has been dropping alarmingly. Professional ‘vacuum’ is becoming a decisive feature in an increasing number of areas (only a few promising researchers can be mentioned by way of exception).

Currently the conditions of research in water management are weak if compared to developed countries. The emerging of small and medium engineering enterprises is a positive feature. Major foreign engineering and consultancy companies have also appeared together with their advisors and subsidiaries. As a result of a number of PHARE and other projects, the current methods of engineering and strategy development, often related to large regions and catchment areas have appeared. They are based on alternative scenarios, and contain environmental, economic, financing and feasibility elements in addition to the technical ones.

The general professional status of water management has been acceptable until now, although the lack of a new generation of engineers has already become conspicuous in many water inspectorates. Naturally, one of the preconditions of safeguarding replacement is the training (at a high level) of civil engineers and holders of Ph.Ds. Such training is offered in the given area only by the Budapest University of Technology and Economics. In recent years there have been several positive changes. Besides general improvement of knowledge of foreign languages, a relatively easy availability of scholarships and the possibilities of attending courses at more than one place became possible. New courses were launched at the Civil Engineering Faculty in 2000, concentrating on infrastructure, water and the environment. Students attend far more courses on hydrology and hydraulics than earlier; they also study new subjects such as ecology, hydrobiology, water chemistry, water quality management, environmental economics, river basin planning etc. Changes are expected in post-graduate courses and in the Ph.D. programs, a precondition for which is the increase of support by the strengthening market and industry, similarly to practices in Western countries.


Major features of Hungarian water resources management

Let us now summarise the major strategic characteristics of Hungarian water resources management;

(1) Hungary is a country of ‘superlatives’: it is located at the bottom of one of the most closed basins on earth. The proportion of areas without runoff, or prone to inundation, is high on the Great Plain. Hydrology is characterised by extremes: floods, excess water and draught are key issues of equal significance. The per capita surface water supply is one of the largest in Europe, but it is overwhelmingly of foreign origin. A contribution of the domestic runoff is by far the smallest on the Continent. The potable water supply is decisively based on groundwater. The utility gap between water supply and sewerage is one of the biggest on the Continent (the situation of small villages is significantly worse than that of the towns).

(2) Water resources management in Hungary basically depends on international factors. Presumably, the hydrological conditions react sensitively on land use changes and potential climatic variations. As a result of the separation between the natural catchment areas and the state borders, the territory of the country consists almost exclusively of shared river basins, belonging to several countries. Runoff conditions are basically functions of land utilisation in the neighbouring countries. We are greatly exposed and have a major risk while the existing agreements are weak. Accession to the European Union is a pillar determining the future.

3) Despite the general abundance of water, water resources management is difficult in some regions, aggravated by a low density of water courses. The valleys of the Danube and Tisza rivers significantly differ from each other. The latter one represents a more difficult task.

(4) The country is characterised by polluted upper groundwater in the vicinity of residential areas, by vulnerable bank-filtered resources and protected deep layer waters. Of our surface waters the quality of those having a small capacity of dilution is poor. Our shallow lakes show signs of different degrees of eutrophication.

(5) Several unsustainable developments of the decades before the political change, the frequent neglect of the infrastructure due to economic reasons, and incomplete developments, including the regulation of the Danube and Tisza rivers present difficult tasks for the coming decades.

(6) The future promises uncertainties deriving from political transition in a broader sense, from the economy through emissions to the development of water and environment experts.

(7) Similarly, changing concepts of water-management should also be taken into consideration in the future which, as contrasted with often belated reaction to events, protection and short-term thinking, would focus on prevention and long-term, sustainable solutions. This will frequently raise issues of introducing solutions based on new concepts, the combination of which with the existing water infrastructure is not an easy task. Comprehensive research is of fundamental importance.

(8) The cost of investment in water resources management is huge: phasing actions and finding the proper forms of financing are key issues, particularly during the transitory period of the economy.



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