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Schriftenreihe des Europa Institutes Budapest, Band 25:127–145.


Water in Hungary: with Tradition and Unique Problems to the EU



The present paper deals with water related issues in Hungary. First, it summarizes major, rather peculiar features of water resources management. Second, major fields of management are classified together with strategic drivers such as tradition, transition of the past fifteen years, changing concepts, EU accession, international dimensions and climate change. Third, future challenges are outlined. Within this we discuss a number of challenging problems. Most of them existed before, but in our changing world they require new answers. Examples include water availability and uses, water quality management and accidental pollution, public water services, extreme droughts, unusual floods and on how they can be sustainably treated by using advanced decision support systems, as well as the relation of water and agriculture. The paper is completed by thoughts on crucial issues of implementation of plans and strategies: financing, affordability and governance, as well as closing remarks.


Major features

Hungary is located in the deepest part of one of the closest basins of the Globe, the Carpathian basin (Figure 1). Two third of the country is lowland (84 % of the Hungarian territory is below the altitude of 200 m) and its climate is under strong continental influence which plays an important role in determining main meteorological and hydrological conditions.

Altogether twenty-four rivers bring water into the country from West, North and East and only three leave the country towards the South: the Danube, the Tisza and the Dráva. The entire country is in the river basin of the Danube.

From the viewpoint of water, Hungary is a country of extremes which leads to unique problems. This feature largely stems from geographic conditions outlined. Without the aim of completeness, major strategic features of water resources management can be summarized as follows:

– (a) The regularly inundated area due to floods (Figure 2.a) and the so-called excess waters (Figure 2.b) is large, about one third of the territory of the country. In the Hungarian Great Plains large area has no natural drainage.

– (b) There are areas–mostly in the East–which are seriously impacted not only by floods and excess waters (occurring mostly during winter and spring seasons), but draughts also form a prime concern (Figure 2c., 2.d). The problem is unique even in an international comparison.

– (c) Considering the long-term average inflow, Hungary is one of the richest countries in Europe: the head specific surface water resources amount to about 11 000 m3/cap/year. In contrast, the contribution within the country (600 m3/cap/year) is by far the smallest on the continent.

– (d) Thus, 95% of the surface waters are of foreign origin and only four medium-sized catchment areas are located within the boundaries of Hungary. Stemming from this feature, water quantity and quality basically depends on surrounding countries: efficient international collaboration in the Danube- and Carpathian Basins is a key element of water resources management in Hungary.

– (e) Water management is a difficult task in many areas, due mostly to the low density of the river system. Overall, the less developed East faces many more problems than the Western part of the country.

– (f) Due to hydrogeological conditions, groundwater is available throughout the country in sufficient quantity: it is the major source of drinking water supply. Confined aquifers and bank-filtered water resources are vulnerable to pollution and thus their protection has a high priority.

– (g) Public water supply has a nearly full coverage. However, due to non-sustainable past strategies, the development of sewerage and wastewater treatment is far beyond: the so-called “utility gap” (the difference of the ratio of population connected to public water supply and that one connected to the sewer system) is one of the largest in the continent.

– (h) Reconstruction needs of aged infrastructure are high. Also, a number of contamination problems were inherited from the past which should be properly treated.

– (i) The quality of water is poor in those rivers, which have low dilution capacity. Shallow lakes face the problem of eutrophication to varying degree. Groundwaters – depending on regions – are characterized by high concentrations of ammonium, iron, manganese and arsenic of geological origin. Many wetlands and terrestrial ecosystems in large areas also depend on groundwater.

– (j) Water management in the country basically depends on international factors. Hydrological conditions are likely to respond unfavourably to land use changes and to potential climate alterations. The territory of the country consists of shared catchments. The exposure and risk are high, and the relevant international agreements are not strong enough.


Strategic drivers

Water management was considered in the past mostly as a sequence of well-defined technical tasks. For today it became evident that it is not the case: integrated and sustainable management requires a broad scope and a strategic view. We list only a few of the reasons. First, water is a problematic media. It may be a resource, a public and an economic good, a risk factor, a national asset or a source of beauty, all at the same time. Second, water related objectives on various scales are often ambiguous and contradicting, and problem owners and users are rather diverse. Third, many different needs of the society, ecosystems, nature conservation and various sectors should be simultaneously fulfilled. Fourth, the future is unknown. Also, there are uncertainties of all sorts and thus there is a need for alternative strategic paths which can be adjusted according to the actual developments. These depend a lot on drivers which play a particularly important role for Hungary.

Figure 3 demonstrates a simplified classification of water resources management, its drivers and the interlinkages of the two. Major elements of management include demand management, water quality management, flood control and prevention, municipal water management and finally rural water management. The most important drivers are (i) tradition, (ii) transition of the past fifteen years, (iii) changing concepts, (iv) EU accession, (v) international dimensions and (vi) climate change. It is worthy to note that drivers cover a broad range of scales from local to global, fully in harmony with the very nature of water related issues.

In Figure 3 we also indicate the order of magnitude of investment costs associated to meet goals in various fields (see the last column). The implementation of plans depends a lot on the latter via phasing, financing and affordability. Finally, the role of governance is stressed: it is the single most important key of strategy implementation.

Next we offer a brief discussion on drivers.

Figure 3. Elements of water resources management and strategic drivers


Tradition and heritage

Hungary is a country of strong tradition in water management and its research. As an example, regulation of the two large rivers, Danube and Tisza (Figure 1), as well as their tributaries started more than 150 years ago. Regulation of the Tisza River was considered as the second conquest of the country and the established flood protection system has operated safely until the end of the 20th century (see later). Similarly, there have been broad experiences in irrigation, navigation, water supply and others. Due to the specific features of water management, the roots of river basin agencies were created already in the 19th century and they formally function for more than fifty years. It is worthy to note that today’s community based organizations (CBOs) already operated in the Tisza Valley in the 18th century.

Forty years of socialisms suggested the unbroken, uni-directional development of water management and did not really for alternative solutions. On the positive side pioneer master plans have been regularly prepared, but they assumed a guaranteed implementation by the state which then never has been the case. The politically influenced priorities led to non-sustainable actions between 195o and 1990 (see Box 1).


Some consequences of the unbalanced developments in the socialist era             Box 1

• Utility gap lead to nitrate contamination and increasing levels of the groundwater under settlements.

• Irrational mining activities in the Transdanubian Mountains resulted in drastic decline of karstic water levels. Lots of springs and karstic wetlands have disappeared.

• Industrial activities based on outdated technologies of large residuals caused hot spots with highly contaminated soil and groundwater.

• Continued river regulation and the modification of runoff conditions at smaller scale involved disturbed ecological conditions in surface waters.

• The use of cheap agrochemicals is partially responsible for the high nutrient content of the surface waters resulting in eutrophication and in some places nitrate contamination of the groundwater.

• Maintenance of existing infrastructure was neglected and many developments were not completed (e.g. the regulation of the Danube and Tisza).

• Many environmentally degraded sites were created where remediation is needed.

• Interest and funding in research has been significantly reduced.



The past decade brought unique changes in the political, economic and social structure of Central and Eastern European (CEE) countries including Hungary. The transition was associated with a strong privatization, the transfer of foreign capital, decentralization and institutional changes such that sometimes responsibilities remained without ownership.

The transformation of the economy and the scarcity of financial resources also influenced water management. Impacts appeared among others via emission reductions in various sectors, decrease of water consumption due to real pricing and others (see Box 2).


Features of the transition                                             Box 2

• Too many and sometimes contradicting laws passed by the Parliament. Difficulties in developing new legislation.

• Negotiation with the EU.

• Dominance of short term goals. Lack of sufficient infrastructure maintenance. * Strengthening economy which is still very far from EU average. Affordability is a major issue.

• Collapse and structural changes of sectors (industry and agriculture) leading to significant reduction of emissions. Industry has recovered relatively quickly (foreign investments contributed significantly), while agriculture is still on an uncertain development path.

• On the positive side water quality of rivers has significantly improved due to emission reductions in industry and agriculture, as well as emissions of neighbour CEE countries.

• Real pricing led to about 50 % reduction of drinking water consumption and wastewater generation. Due to the latter concentrations of the raw wastewater became higher which then caused obvious problems in the operation of wastewater treatment plants. As contrasted to the frequent overload of the eighties now the hydraulic underload cause dilemmas in operation and design alike.

• Economic upturn and a relatively rapid renewal of industrial production resulted in growth of the GDP since 1995 which can lead to increasing emissions. Agriculture seems to show somewhat similar signs. The development of the economy plays a decisive role in water management since investment needs are enormous and the operational burden will grow.

• In the municipal sector investments never observed before took place. This was associated with shortcomings primarily due to lack of experiences in financing and management, and in setting subsidies.

• Public awareness is growing: people are increasingly willing to pay not only for water supply, but also for wastewater treatment and accession to healthy natural waters.


Changing concepts

It is often said that water is one of the key elements influencing development of the 21st century. The recognition is clearly reflected by the “Rio process”, many international efforts, the notion of sustainability and the related vast amount of publications produced during the past decade. In short, the philosophy and underlining concepts of water management have been changed a lot and the ongoing trend towards more integration is foreseen to be continued (see e.g. Somlyódy, 1995).

First, “protection” is replaced by prevention, meeting short-term demands replaced by seeking long term sustainable solutions, quantity approach replaced by an approach of stressing water quality, ecology and nature conservation. Water awareness is growing: it is becoming more and more appreciated from the viewpoint of the economy and society. Secondly, the obvious decline of traditional water engineering and integration of water management is mentioned. Integrating with land use management, environmental management and nature conservation, and finally with the economy and the society cannot be avoided. Thirdly, global and regional dependence is to be emphasized, which in the case of Hungary is especially important. Fourthly, an uncertainty of our “predictions” is of key importance.

In short, the re-thinking of water management is an unavoidable task. The joining of the European Union (EU) offers a unique opportunity in this respect: the system in transition may be easier adjusted to future needs. This is a key from the viewpoint of re-shaping the Hungarian water management.

EU accession

The process of the EU-accession has accelerated the transition in water management, by defining a number of rational actions that would be implemented anyway, but probably with a slower time schedule. Furthermore, it has brought new planning and monitoring concepts, new priorities and standards, some of them are definitely advantageous, others need adaptation and one can find those, which are difficult to implement.

One of the major issues of the integration procedure is the harmonization of the Hungarian legal system with the EU legislation. About twenty new EU harmonized legal instruments were introduced into practice thus significantly reducing the legislation gap which has serious economic consequences for the coming decade. One part of the decrees has entered into force new standards for water used for drinking, bathing and fishing, while other decrees and governmental programmes have been launched to control activities leading to pollution of waters, such as discharge of hazardous substances and urban wastewater, sludge disposals, use of pesticides and nitrate pollutions of agricultural origin.

The Water Framework Directive of the EU (EU WFD) is the future unified strategy of sustainable water resources management which came into force end of 2000. As an umbrella law it integrates earlier daughter directives. Its central objective is to ensure the good (ecological) status” of waters within 15 years. It defines basic ideas following changing concepts as discussed before and incorporate prevention, the principles of precaution, polluters’ pays, cost recovery by the users and public involvement. The European law basically influences water management practices in Hungary for the coming decades. Its implementation is a necessity which provides background to the preparation of the river basin management plan aiming at achievement of good status of the waters and the fulfilment of the requirements of basic directives mentioned above.

International relations

There are a number of frameworks for improved management of shared river basins: the EU water policy, the Helsinki Convention (protection of transboundary waters) and Danube Conventions, and its operational board, the International Committee for Protection of Danube River (ICPDR), as well as many bilateral agreements. The ICPDR has a strong co-coordinative role in the preparation of the River Basin Management Plan for the most international” Danube river basin (to which a considerable part of 13 countries belong). The straightening of the bilateral co-operation is an essential interest of Hungary being the most transboundary” country in the basin with eight neighbours. Although a number of joint programmes are going on, the main issue is still on how the results can lead to efficient integrated actions as a part of management plans of shared sub-basins, as well as on how these can be harmonised with local and regional actions driven by the EU WFD and ICPDR.

Climate change

Beside fundamental political, economical and social changes, alterations in the climate make even more difficult the set-up of new water management strategies. According to recent studies, the climate of Hungary will likely to be shifted to a more Mediterranean one with more frequent extreme events. This would result in reduction in surface runoff, in soil moisture and recharge to groundwater. One of the serious consequences is less water available for increased water demand, especially for irrigation. Winter floods may start earlier and lead to the increase of maximum flood levels. Water balance of lakes will be negatively affected. Retention times and salt contents may increase. The oxygen and nutrient household can also be adversely affected. Terrestrial ecosystems may alter toward drought resistant species. From a strategic viewpoint climate change’s likely impacts would be an additional, unpleasant element on already existing problems, primarily in the Tisza-valley, which has been already facing problems of water shortage. Therefore, the future should focus stronger on analyses of climate impacts under alternative scenarios, on flexible planning and the application of adoptive measures if postponement of actions would result in too high costs.


New answers to old problems

In this section we address a few important quantity and quality issues following Figure 3 to demonstrate the diversity of problems and challenges we face, and to give an impression on difficulties of the implementation. Many of these issues existed before, but they got a different interpretation and judgement due to changes in existing drivers or the appearance of new ones.

Water availability and uses

The total water abstraction at present is about 6000 million m3/year, 75 % of which is for cooling water use. Inside the remaining part public is the major user with 40 %, the industry takes a little more than one quarter and agriculture uses the rest (irrigation–15 %, an extremely low value, fishponds–5 % and animal breeding–15 %).

As noted, structural changes of industry and agriculture, and increasing pricing resulted in considerable decline of water uses, especially for surface waters. The modification of the demand structure, the limited surface water resources along small and medium water courses and the availability of aquifers with good permeability providing cheap local supplies for the water demand almost everywhere lead to the present situation, when 75 % of the total abstraction (except cooling water) is from groundwater. Beside the traditional dominance of groundwater in drinking water supply (94 %), abstraction of groundwater for industry and for irrigation has been gradually increasing, and nowadays it exceeds the amount used from surface water. This new situation may lead to non-sustainable exploitation to be properly handled when preparing river basin management plans according to the EU WFD. Although the use of groundwater on the country level is less than 50 % (see Box 3), but some karstic and porous aquifers in the East are already seriously overexploited.


Groundwater resources and the EU WFD                                      Box 3

The available groundwater resources estimated according to the Water Framework Directive, i.e. considering water demand of the groundwater dependent ecosystems are about 250 million m3/year and 1450 m3/year from karstic and from porous aquifers, respectively. These values are significantly smaller than previous estimates not taking into account ecological criteria. In addition to these resources, rivers flowing in their gravel terraces can provide the so-called bank filtered water, which is much less sensitive to the ecological criteria. The estimated total capacity, primarily due to significant resources of the Danube is large; it is about 1800 million m3/year. Drinking water of the capital is fully served from this source.


Climate change would influence both, the supply and use side. A recent assessment has shown that the specific water demand for irrigation can increase by 20–50 %, while the surface runoff and recharge of groundwater in the south-eastern part of the country may be reduced by 30–60 % and 25–80 %, respectively.

In respect of the future, water demand is anticipated to remain more or less unchanged in industry and municipalities. The bottleneck is formed by the agricultural sector. Here many uncertainties are faced due to the existing, outdated irrigation system designed for earlier large scale state owned farms, the unavoidable shift from the present small plot structure to medium sized farms and impact of the EU accession. Irrigation demand will definitely grow, particularly in the Tisza valley where availability depends a lot on foreign uses and vulnerability to climate change impacts is high. The solution should be based on a number of hard and soft tools including pricing, planning with neighbour countries and the potential joint construction of reservoirs in upstream countries to cope with extreme events.

Water quality and accidental pollutions

According to a five-class water quality evaluation system, Hungary’s rivers show a medium quality (generally in the 2nd and 3rd class), after a significant improvement during the past 14 years. It is the result of changes in industry and agriculture, the construction of many wastewater treatment plants, as well as the increasing legislative pressure. The worst ranking is resulted in by microbiological classification due to the discharge of untreated sewage waters, while the best is demonstrated by oxygen budget and micropollutants. The latter fortunate situation shows the relatively small role of industrial emissions. Worst class water quality exclusively occurs in smaller rivers, which are recipients of untreated or only partially treated wastewaters.

Nowadays quality parameters sometimes start to show slightly increasing trends again, justifying rising production in industry and agriculture (the latter results in increasing diffuse source of pollution). For this reason, it is of crucial importance that the observed development of industry and the expected stabilisation of agriculture should not lead to increasing emission, which is an essential task of legislation. New concepts are to be introduced gradually. The implementation of the Integrated Pollution Prevention and Control (IPPC) Directive of the EU on the basis of the polluters pay principle will lead to the introduction of appropriate technologies. The cost of this development according to the best available is technology (BAT) is extremely high. Nitrate pollution from agricultural origin is controlled by separate decree aiming at introducing good agricultural practices.


Cyanide spill on the Tisza River                                     Box 4

The ever observed largest water pollution accident of the region originated from a wastewater pond in Nagybánya (Romania) end of January, 2000. The application of poor and outdated technology and the exclusion of environmental legislation led to the spill of about 100 tons of highly toxic cyanide within half a day. The contamination reached via the River Szamos the Tisza-Danube system and caused a damage of the ecosystem never seen before. The cyanide spill was associated with that of heavy metals, primarily copper and zinc. The case was further complicated by snow melting, rainfall and a flood resulted in. Peak cyanide concentrations were higher by two orders of magnitude than internationally accepted standards. As a result about 1000 tonnes of fish was killed and the food chain was highly damaged. It was fortunate that cyanide remained in a complex, dissolved form. The same statement did not apply for other heavy metals which were partially deposited in the river bed and flood plain. They represent a risk on the long run. A number of court cases were launched. Until now none of them led to a resolution.


Surface water quality depends a lot on transboundary loads and accidental pollutions from upstream countries, and thus they play a crucial challenge when talking about national strategies. It is anticipated that the joint and simultaneous implementation of the EU WFD in individual countries and the collaboration in the frame of ICPDR will lead to an improved situation in the future, though the case of the striking cyanide spill on the Tisza River (Box 4) does not offer too much reasons to be optimistic.

Groundwater quality was already referred to. Problems of natural origin are due to the reducing conditions in the alluvium resulting in dissolved iron, manganese, ammonium and arsenic concentrations higher than the standards, particularly in porous aquifers. Karstic water and bank-filtered water show fewer problems, though they are rather vulnerable. The Hungarian register of point sources of pollution contains 15000 items, out of them almost 15 % represent real pollution. The legislation defines an immediate action if the pollution is above a certain acceptable limit and requires monitoring of all potential pollution sources otherwise by 2007. Beside serious pollution found in shallow groundwater in the vicinity of hot spot point sources, under settlements and some intensively cultivated agricultural area, relatively good qualitative conditions can be found elsewhere.

Hungarian legislation complying with the relevant EU-directive on groundwater protection was launched in 2000, controlling the pollution of the soil, too. The governmental decree does not give licence for new activity if risk of pollution of the groundwater arises, while in the case of already polluted area a multiphase investigation is required to determine the appropriate measures.

Public water services

Public water services including drinking water supply, sewage collection and disposal represent the closest daily contact between water and people. The present level of unbalanced infrastructure is shown in Figure 4. for various settlement clusters and the country as a whole, which together with EU directives specify at least two major tasks as follows:

– (a) As noted earlier, drinking water supply relies almost entirely on groundwater. The former Hungarian standards were less stringent for certain components than that of the EU. Compared to the new requirements, 75 % of the waterworks will need additional treatment (in terms of iron-, manganese-, ammonium-, organic material- and arsenic removal, or their combination). The most serious economic consequences stem from the high arsenic content in South and South-Eastern Hungary, which influences more than a million inhabitants in 400 settlements. Solution to this problem should be based on the usage of new water resources and the development of advanced water treatment with high arsenic removal (not without difficulties if other contaminants are also present). According to national plans all settlements have to be supplied with drinking water that meets relevant EU standards by 2009. The estimated investment cost is 600–800 million Euro.

– (b) To meet requirements of the Urban Wastewater Directive, a National Sewerage and Wastewater Treatment Program was established which incorporated a detailed scheduling till 2015. The plan is to solve wastewater management with tertiary treatment in settlements greater than 10000 population equivalent (PE) by 2009 and to have at least biological treatment in already existing treatment plants at the same time. This step would cover 85 % of all the discharges by spending only on 40 % of all the costs. The rest of settlements down to 2000 PE will be handled till 2015. The implementation will certainly necessitate actions stemming from specific Hungarian features. For instance, settlements in the region of sensitive lakes (e.g. Lake Balaton) should meet more stringent standards than that of the related EU directive. Another example is that sewerage and treatment will be required in settlements smaller than 2000 PE if they are impacting vulnerable groundwater. The estimated investment cost of the program is about 3 200 million Euro. Implementation plays a crucial role: saving possibilities are at least 20 %.

There are two additional areas where actions are very far from being obvious:

– (c) One of them is formed by small rural settlements (with low population density) where more than 30 % of the country’s population lives and the level of water service is very low (see Figure 4). Here, a number of questions should be addressed. Is expensive sewerage really the solution? Or rather, the focus should be on-site and “natural” treatment? How can it be ensured that such facilities are built and operated safely? Is there a way to motivate people to apply alternative solutions of ecosanitation focusing on closing water and material cycles on the household level, as well as re-use and re-cycling? Or is it too early?

– (d) The second cluster of tasks stem from the lack of legislation and/or appropriate programme of measures. Here we can list among others sludge treatment which is frequently inadequate, the development of urban storm water runoff systems, restoration of drinking water distribution networks of high losses, as well as aged sewer systems.

Extreme droughts

We already have had many negative experiences in draught conditions and their consequences. Droughts of several years have appeared in the past, the last one between 1983 and 1994. The recent dry period started in 2000 suggesting that the return time is shorter than in the past. It is not yet clear whether we are facing a trend influenced by climate change or events still belong to natural climate variability.

Terrestrial ecosystems of lowlands and shallow lakes are particularly sensitive to droughts, when the inflow does not cover the evaporation and the continuously decreasing water level can cause “irreversible” changes in the ecosystems. Whatever the cause, the changes can reach such an extent that water management should deal with the problem. Compared to historical droughts, when the anthropogenic pressure was small, nowadays human activities significantly worsen the impact. According to the EU Water Framework Directive measure to mitigate adverse impacts of droughts should be part of the planning. The main conclusion of recent studies is however, that instead of applying different water transfers, adaptation of water uses to the water regime should be preferred (Box 5).

The “Hungarian Sea”: Lake Balaton                                           Box 5

Lake Balaton is the largest standing water body in Central Europe, one of the most significant shallow lakes with a water level regulated by a control gate, the most important recreational site in Hungary, a national asset. The lake faced the problem of eutrophication which was properly handled by reducing phosphorus loads by about 50 % leading to a low tropic status similar to that of the early seventies. However, severe water shortage has been experienced during the past four years causing water level drop by about half a meter. Unpleasant consequences incorporated degradation of beaches, proliferation of macrophytes and attached algae in the near shore zone and difficult uses of harbours by sailing boats. It was felt that transfer of water from another watershed is a must. A comprehensive assessment drew conclusions as follows (Somlyódy and Honti, 2004):

• The present ecological status of the lake is good and does not justify any interventions, independently whether we consider the open water or the shoreline region.

• Large water level fluctuation due to natural variability in rainfall, runoff and evaporation was typical also in the past. However, long run average water balance of the lake is positive and thus the water level will be rehabilitated.

• By using meteorological and hydrological data no climate change impacts could be justified.

• The hydrologic generator developed on the basis of observations for the past hundred years, water level recovery needs a time period between four months and three years. The lake will be filled up even if climate change impact is twice as large as assumed by climatologists.

• The present extreme event occurs say once in two hundred years. If climate change is assumed, this may happen once in about thirty years.

• Water transfer may seem to be a favourable idea to prevent future negative changes. However, the detailed assessment has shown that it would result in only ecological risks (change of the chemical composition of the lake’s water, increase of the external and internal nutrient loads, enhanced algal growth, proliferation of invasive species etc.) and no benefits. Thus, it is wiser of not interfering and to adjust our needs to the lake.

• Measures recommended incorporate to dredge harbours and selected beaches, and the removal of unpleasant macrophytes. Additionally it is proposed to increase the capacity of the single outflow, the Sió Canal which would allow storing more water in the lake without flood risks, if once filling up already took place. This would allow to lift lowest water levels by about 20 cm. It is noted that the behaviour of the lake led to a success story: the last eighteen months resulted in a filling up which happened a little faster than the mean scenario.


Extreme floods: sustainable control and advanced tools

About one quarter of the country is exposed to floods, which is exceptional in Europe (Figure 2.a). Flood dykes of 4200 km length protect 700 settlements, 2.5 million people, 2000 industrial plants and indirectly about 30% of the GDP. Flood protection has been successful in the past, but recently the Tisza Basin has exhibited new signs of increasing risks: peak flood levels show a clearly increasing trend. Reasons are manifold: primarily impacts of land uses changes primarily in upstream countries and climate alterations are speculated to which siltation of the flood plain bed should be added. On the basis of hydrological and hydraulic analyses further increases in peak water level are anticipated which could hardly be tolerated by the existing protection system.

The raising of existing levees and dykes
would not lead to a sustainable solution. It was felt that the supervision of the existing plan is needed and new measures should be introduced. A program was launched for improving flood control along the Tisza River and was named as the “New Vásárhelyi Plan” after the famous Hungarian civil engineer who was the principal investigator of the river regulation 150 years ago. Basic elements of the plan are the establishment of emergency reservoirs of a total volume of 1500 million m3 and cleaning up the flood plain also including the creation of conveyance corridors.

As a basis of planning ARES 1.0, an advanced flood control decision support system (DSS) was used (BME, 2003). This has sophisticated hydrologic and hydraulic components which are able to compute rainfall-runoff on the watershed and river beds alike as well as soil moisture changes. It also has a hydrologic generator allowing to analyse not only historical extreme events but also likely future ones. It incorporates an optimization routine which can be employed to define the optimal reservoir setting to achieve the largest peak level reduction. It can handle scenarios for climate- and land use changes. As input, the model system uses among others a topographic model, satellite images for land use pattern and radar observations to describe spatial variations in precipitation. The DSS can handle the entire Tisza Basin of about 160 000 km2 extension, including all the upstream countries.

In the frame of the first phase of the project six reservoirs have been identified considering also needs of rural and agricultural development, nature conservation, landscape management, as well as ecological and social implications. At the same time, the entire effort is put into the framework of a basin wide international collaboration by recognising that flood control and prevention should be considered as a part of the security policy of Hungary.

Water and agriculture

Once upon a time Hungary was an agricultural country where water played an extremely important role. For today the situation has changed: agriculture became a small sector representing not more than 5 % of the GDP. Still many problems remained open. Structural changes have not yet been finished and it strongly depends on the EU policy. It is likely that arable land will decrease. The intensively and extensively cultivated areas will be further rearranged and the nature conservation areas will grow. The future challenge of water management is on how it can participate in the development of an integrated land use management policy considering also welfare conditions and the status of rural settlements. This should consider a number of issues we already touched upon: seasonal inundation of flatlands (excess water) primarily in the Tisza Basin and its drainage system of a huge capacity (about 800 m3/s), drought and the existing irrigation system (irrigable area amounts to approximately 300 000 hectare, but out of that only 20% is irrigated at present) and floods discussed earlier (see Figure 2.d for areas negatively impacted by all three extreme phenomena).

From the figure it is obvious that in the future a sustainable strategy is needed. Excess waters–instead of transporting out from the catchment by drainage systems–can be collected in local reservoirs or artificially infiltrated into the groundwater and in summer this stored water can be abstracted for irrigation purposes. This solution would be in harmony with the intention for restoring the natural water conditions. The system is mosaic-like; the application needs appropriate adaptation of the land use, which is facilitated by the actual situation of transition. Lands excluded from the cultivation will likely show important overlap with the areas seriously endangered by excess waters, since the regularly occurring damages will trigger via market conditions the modification of the land use.

Irrigation will be part of the technology in the intensively cultivated areas, which will unlikely coincide with the existing irrigation infrastructure. Attached to the ongoing structural changes, new, more suitable areas can be selected for cultivation where water is available safely and economically, and soil moisture conditions in the root zone are favourably. In intensively cultivated areas the importance of non-point source control will grow (the Lake Balaton region is an example) which will require to launch agricultural-environmental management programs with the active participation of farmers.

Governance and implementation

Economic aspects and affordability play an important role in implementing plans (see Figure 3). The first phase of the implementation of EU water policy until the end of 2009 consists of programmes for eliminating major gaps in pollution control and public water infrastructure. The estimated cost is about 3000 million Euros. In that phase cost-effectiveness is the major driver. Even if financing can be done successfully and cleverly, more than 1 % of head specific GDP and about 4 % of the net income should be spent, which is significantly higher than in EU member countries at present.

Costs of the second and third phases (by 2015 and 2027, respectively) in implementing the EU WFD can be less accurately estimated. As important tasks the realization of the program of measures determined by the first river basin management plans and the elimination of gaps in meeting environmental objectives should be mentioned. The financial needs will remain approximately unchanged, however at least two difficulties should be envisaged: (i) the support from EU will likely be reduced and (ii) the introduction of the cost recovery principle in the water services by 2010 will cause additional affordability problems.

As noted before governance is the single most important factor to implement our comprehensive plans. Governance in a broad sense includes the legal, administrative, institutional and financial system alike. The legal harmonisation and the related administrative re-adjustments are almost finished; however considerable fine-tuning is needed at regional levels in order to clarify the still existing overlapping. As demonstrated in Box 6, the administration which went through a number of changes during the past two decades is rather sophisticated and its functioning may not be without problems and conflicts.


Administration                                               Box 6

Ministry of Environment and Water Management governs the state administration for environmental protection, nature conservation and water management. This Ministry is responsible for the implementation of the Water EU Directive. For this purpose an Interministerial Board was set-up. Organization consists of the National Chief Directorate of Environment, Nature Conservation and Water (dealing with technical tasks) and the National Environmental and Water Chief Inspectorate (dealing with legal control and related administration). At the regional level there are similar institutions in 12 regions, with the difference, that the licensing from environmental and water point of view is at separate institutions and 10 National Park Directorates are responsible for nature conservation. The National Chief Directorate of Environment, Nature Conservation and Water and their regional organizations will be responsible for the preparation of the River Basin Management Plans. Regional Water Management Councils are established for coordination and consultancy of water management tasks of regional importance. Their role will certainly increase in decision making related to the approval of River Basin Management Plans. For managing state and municipal tasks, stakeholders might establish associations fulfilling important roles amongst public, productive sectors and water management.


Water and major water structures are owned by the state and municipalities. Private ownership is marginal. The municipalities’ property consists mainly of infrastructure in public water services. The success of water management in the settlements depends on the governance system at that level. The transition period has produced many changes which led to unclear situations. Examples include responsibility and ownership without real power, lack of resources, professional knowledge and clear development plans, unclear setting in financing, abuse of subsidies and others.

Development of governance and institutions are crucial. In contrast to technical measures, it does not need serious financial backgrounds. However, it requires – particularly at the present transition phase – capacity building and the creation of advanced institutional culture. It requires continuous education and permanent learning from our own mistakes to improve conditions of future decision making. It also necessitates a much better job in public participation than in the past.


Closing remarks

Hungary’s water management is characterized by tradition, knowledge and unique future problems. This is what we bring in the European Union. In turn, the implementation of the new EU water policy simultaneously with all the other EU countries is a unique opportunity. It will determine our water management for the coming 25 years. It will offer a systematic framework with well-defined deadlines and hopefully will lead to improved implementation. It will ensure conditions for exchanging experiences. This is important since the realization of the EU WFD obviously has never been done and it is still a task in front of not only Hungary, but all the Member States. And finally the EU accession will guarantee funding without which we can not execute our plans: our economy is not strong enough. Challenges are huge. The opportunity is there. The rest depends on us.



BME (2003) Scientific bases of improving flood control and prevention in the Tisza Basin. The New Vásárhelyi Plan (manuscript in Hungarian), Department of Sanitary and Environmental Engineering, Budapest University of Technology and Economics, Budapest

Somlyódy, L. (1995) Water Quality Management: Can We Improve Integration to Face Future Problems? Water Science and Technology, Vol. 31., No. 8

Somlyódy, L. ed (2002) Strategic issues of the Hungarian water resources management (in Hungarian), Hungarian Academy of Sciences, Budapest

Somlyódy, L. and Honti, M. (2005) Water transfer to Lake Balaton: to act or not to act? Water Science and Technology (in press)