My little holiday chalet on Lake Szelid is in the “Little Plain” of Hungary, the part to the East of the Danube which cuts the country into two halves. The East is considered to be the less developed and poorer part. Both plains, called Puszta, in the country are in the East. There is serious drought in the plains.
Lake Szelid is around 12 kilometres from the small town of Kalocsa, which used to be a prosperous market town with the residence of the Archbishop, and its ornate church with two towers at its centre. The road leading to the town from the lake goes through a couple of villages and runs along miles and miles of agricultural land.
The photo below shows the usual sight of ripe corn and sunflowers at this time of the year.
The little plain
Kalocsa town which I wrote about last year is well known for producing red sweet peppers and chillies, which are made into spices exported all over the world. The market usually has a huge selection of locally grown fruits like melons, peaches, apricots, grapes, apples of amazing size, plums and pears. The tomatoes offered come in all sizes and there are usually marrows, green and yellow courgettes and a variety of squashes.
Many farmers specialise in acacia and other delicious honeys. Since Hungarians love their poppy and nut cakes, one can buy both by the kilogram. As a vegetarian, I only looked at the variety of salamis and smoked meats last year, when Mike wanted to taste the local specialities. There is also locally caught fish on offer in a specialist shop used mostly for the preparation of the spicy Hungarian fisherman’s soup.
A half empty market
What hit me yesterday, when I entered the Kalocsa market was that around half of the tables were unoccupied. Last year, when we visited this market with Mike, all tables were full of produce. This time, the first table I saw stepping into the market had a few meagre looking heads of corn which would normally have been used as animal feed. It would not have made it to a market for human consumption. This was the only corn available.
I asked the old woman offering the produce how her harvest was this year. She told me that more than 80% of her corn and sunflowers have dried out during the July heat. She was really worried about her livelihood and the repercussions of the drought on all human and animal food supplies. Several larger chicken farmers in the area will struggle to find the necessary animal feed for their in-lay hens. Many of their eggs are usually bought by wholesalers of organic eggs supplying supermarkets in the capital, Budapest.
There was a good supply of peaches, melons and other fruits. I asked why they thrived and was told that orchards were allowed to be irrigated. Many of the farms have wells, which the state has started to charge them for. The wells have not dried up yet, but one had to dig a bit deeper to get to the water.
Corn and sunflowers lost in the Great Plains (Alföld)
Journalist Kiss Imola reported on Thursday 14 July in the 444.hu independent newspaper that this year’s drought in the Great Plains of Hungary, the Alföld, brought crop damage not seen for decades. The loss is huge: 300,000 hectares of corn and 200,000 hectares of sunflowers were lost. There are areas where none of the crop can be harvested. The damage is estimated to reach HUF 400 billion (about £1bn).
In Transdanubia, the Western part of Hungary, the yield was more favourable and according to the government enough to provide food for the country’s population. However, livestock keepers are worried about the supply for animal feed, and there is not enough straw. In the meantime, the Hungarian Minister of Agriculture has visited Ukraine to talk about the release of stocks stuck due to the war with Russia.
‘Desertification’ of the Alföld
24.hu, Hungarian news asked Dr. András Lukács Balázs, senior scientific associate of the Hungarian Ecological Research Centre, about whether the Hungarian Great Plain is really turning into a desert, and what one can do to avoid a drought similar to the current one.
Scientists have been warning for decades that due to its continental climate and the nature of the basin, the Carpathian basin, especially the lowland area making up 10% of Hungary, is more exposed to drying out due to climate change. Of course, the climate models vary and their reliability also varies but, according to most of them, desertification awaits the Great Plain in the long term if we do nothing. My cousin tells me that there was huge deforestation of ancient woods in the 19th century, which was never replenished.
“And this is no longer the future. The visible signs of transformation are the reduction of grassland coverage, the drying up and deforestation of native closed forests, the spread of cacti, the disappearance of smaller bodies of water, the appearance of native species of the Mediterranean and the fact that more and more watercourses are being reclassified as seasonal, and we could go on and on.”
Drought has never been unknown in the Great Plain. Drier years have been recorded, but now the situation is completely different due to human interventions and climate change. Looking at meteorological data going back 100 years, there are large fluctuations, but the trend is clearly discernible: the amount of precipitation reaching Hungary is clearly decreasing, but its temporal distribution is also becoming extreme, the Great Plain is constantly drying.
Abundance of water until 19th Century
Dongér-Kelőér Water Association writes in an article published on Válaszonline.hu, about the Homokhátság, a sand ridge, a part of the Alföld:
“Hungary, in the middle of the Carpathian basin until the 1900s, was a country with abundant water and thus strong agriculture. Foreign chroniclers who passed through it in the Middle Ages referred to it as the land of seas of fish. Drainage began as early as the 19th century, but mainly after the Second World War. It is now mechanised and implemented with “great efficiency”, drying up the country in a few decades.”
Due to climate change and droughts, without adequate water replacement, the Homokhátság will become a semi-desert. More water evaporates and leaves via outlets (700mm) than the amount of precipitation that arrives (500-550mm). This became a reality by 2020: the Sand Ridge was then classified as a semi-desert environment.
Most people think of the desert as the endless, lifeless sea of sand of the Sahara, and the question arises as to whether Hungary will reach that stage. According to 24.hu there is no scientifically based answer. But the evidence is there that desertification has begun and the Mediterranean-like climate involves the replacement of most of the fauna and flora. If the country continues like this, the process will intensify.
The water must be returned
What can Hungary do? Although one cannot make rain or stop climate change overnight, according to the Hungarian Ecological Research Centre it is, however, possible to offset negative processes to a very large extent. The key to the solution is to retain water. Science has been urging this for a long time, and now the European Union has also issued specific action plans. Sadly, the scientist interviewed adds, in practice nothing is happening in Hungary.
Since the river regulations of the 19th century, ie the drainage of the areas covered by water, the basis of the country’s water management is to get rid of the water coming from the entire Carpathian basin as quickly and efficiently as possible. This was to enable agricultural production to be carried out on as large an area as possible. Accompanied by less and less precipitation for decades, long periods of heat, the ground water has sunk to a great depth, and the soil itself has become bone dry.
When the waters are artificially diverted for decades, and there are periods of several years of drought, the moisture content of the soil also disappears in parallel with the surface waters: the ground water level gets deeper and deeper. At first, the relatively short roots of the herbaceous plants become dry, and later the trees do not even reach the ground water. With a slogan borrowed from the Green Guerrillas, the specialist gives the main sentence of our topic:
Either we return part of the arable land to the water, or we have to give it all over to the desert.
It is (should be) mandatory to stop diverting water
The solution may therefore be a complete change of strategy. At the local, regional, and state level, the water that comes year after year with precipitation and tidal waves should be stored, even if the state buys it and then floods certain areas. Obviously, it is also an economic issue because the fields cannot be ploughed “wall to wall” as now. The part that would be covered by water falls out of agricultural production in a given year. However, in return the plants of the surrounding area would get water and could produce a better crop, thus reducing the degree of drought.
Moreover, the trends, confirmed by this year’s experience, point to either one acting this way, or the drought causing even greater damage.
Retention of water is no longer just the talk of scientists. In 2000, the Water Framework Directive of the European Union stipulated that Europe’s surface and underground waters must be maintained in good condition. This means that the waters (and inevitably their environment) must be restored to the most natural state possible with technical interventions, following an ecological and catchment point of view. The goal is to use them in a high-quality, long-term and sustainable way.
The EU directives are also mandatory for Hungary, except that Hungarian politics is delaying their implementation. The Hungarian government is not willing to spend money on it.
Like in Britain, the risk of unprecedented cost of living crisis is looming in Hungary. Orbán spent a lot of money on potential voters at the April elections. These resources are sorely missed now that government investment is vital to avert a major catastrophe.