5. New hope for Hungarian Sea

Posted: 16 January 2001

Author: Anna Várkonyi

The shallow blue waters of Lake Balaton long ago turned murky green through pollution. But scientists' attempts to put matters right were frustrated in the past by political interference and apathy. Now the problem is being tackled afresh. Anna Várkonyi reports.

Hungary is a landlocked country, but sometimes with a little exaggeration we call Lake Balaton the Hungarian Sea. In my childhood its waters used to be blue. All the Lake region used to be natural, a quiet place with no mass tourism. The colours were bright, the reeds were full of birds. There were no highways or cars, just railways. It was a great experience to arrive from Budapest and see the endless blue water from the train.

You can see how the quality of the water deteriorated if you survey human activities. The beauty of the lake, the picturesque landscape, the lake as a bathing area were all explored at the beginning of the 19th century. The railway from Budapest to Trieste via Nagykanizsa was built along the shore. To regulate the waters a sluice was built on Sio Canal in 1863. This resulted in the disappearance of the Kis-Balaton wetlands, the natural cleaning system of the Zala River before it entered the lake.

Tourist resort

Construction of the railway along the southern shore in 1861 gave a major impetus to property development near the sandy beaches, and property values soared. Vigorous development continued in the early decades of the present century, but no comprehensive plan was drawn up. The railway on the northern shore, commissioned in 1910, ferry services between the two shores and steadily expanding tourism established closer contacts between formerly isolated communities. Easy access to the Lake attracted more and more visitors and it became the most important resort in Hungary.

Lake Balaton is many things to many people. Winegrowers and connoisseurs knew it as the location of some of the country's best vineyards. Ornithologists draw attention to Balaton as an ideal habitat for many kinds of birds.

Reeds at Tihany, Lake Balaton© Tamas RévészFor holiday-makers, Lake Balaton means a concentration of resorts. Before the political changes, the lake was a place where people from the East and West met. On hot summer weekends nearly a million would rush toward the Lake and burden the water with sun oil, urine and other organic materials.

Fifty-one species of fish have been identified in Lake Balaton. The commercial catch is about 1,000 tons a year, but angling as a sport is also very popular, with 230,000 licence holders packing practically every yard of its 200-kilometre shoreline.

Rescue plan

The first comprehensive development plan for the region was prepared in 1957 by Tibor Farkas, the first of its kind in Hungary. This regional plan, which won international recognition, introduced land use zoning and outlined protective belts with a view to ensuring favourable environmental conditions for lakeside recreation. The planners also indicated an upper limit of 600,000 for the total number of permanent residents, holiday-makers and visitors present there at any one time.

This successful first regional plan was discarded wholesale in the 1970s, when the Government determined to develop Balaton as the most significant tourist area of Hungary. But the local government authorities along the Lake lacked political power and financial resources to create the necessary infrastructure such as sewage systems, water supply, and so on. The local government authorities sold zoned lands and protective belts to raise money. The building lots created were so small that a kind of resort slum was the inevitable result.

A multidisciplinary rescue effort was launched under the auspices of the Hungarian Academy of Sciences in order to save Hungary's most important tourist attraction and an important aspect of the country's heritage. Unfortunately, there was no collaboration between regional planners and other experts.

Water quality

István Láng, former General Secretary of the Hungarian Academy of Sciences and still the only environmental guru in Hungary explains: István Láng© Tamas Révész"The first signs of man-made eutrophication in Lake Balaton were recognised as early as the mid 1940s. The Hungarian public only became aware of the danger much later in the 1970s following two major fish kills in 1965 and 1975. In 1976, the Co-ordinating Council of Environmental Research on Lake Balaton (CCER) was founded to make recommendations for action at both national and regional levels. "In 1978 IIASA, the International Institute for Applied System Analysis, in Laxenburg, Austria supported by the scientific organisations of 17 countries, started a research project on the eutrophication of shallow lakes focusing on Lake Balaton as a case study. IIASA signed an agreement with CCER to carry out a four-year research programme to deal with both scientific and practical problems. In fact, this was the first time that the abundant information available on Lake Balaton was collected, processed and classified according to its importance."

The fundamental cause of eutrophication was an increase in the discharge of phosphorus into the Lake, 60-70 per cent of which is associated with solid particles. Phosphorus removal is the most urgent task in all areas, according to Láng, particularly at sewage discharges in the Zala River catchment.

"The drastic change in water quality in 1982 made that year a remarkable one," says Láng. "The annual average and peak values of eutrophication indicators exceeded all records, and a bloom of blue-green algae indicated a breakdown of,the aquatic ecosystem. The ultimate goal was to attain and preserve water quality levels that prevailed in the early 1960s, but already at that time the economic situation presented obstacles.

"The new policy was the result of a compromise. It comprised an integrated programme package which included an improvement in hygiene standards: more toilet facilities, biological treatment of wastewater with phosphorus precipitation at the major population centres, sewage diversion systems, sewage treatment facilities, as well as the completion of the first and second stages of the Kis-Balaton pre-reservoir system, the banning of industrialised livestock farms, the dredging of sediment in highly polluted sections of the Lake, and the restriction of the sale of detergents to those of low phosphorus content."

Finance needed

The next five-year plan was handicapped by the political changes. But in fact by 1987 many of the 1982 government guidelines had been achieved. Two-thirds of the sewers have been completed, but the sewage diversion system is still only a plan. The first stage of the Kis-Balaton pre-reservoir has been completed, but the second stage needs further investment. Only two km² has been dredged instead of the planned 12 km². The protection of the reed belt along the shore was a failure. Furthermore there was additional destruction by unidentified diseases. The limit on tourist accommodation happened spontaneously because of the political changes. The number of livestock farms decreased owing to the economic changes and fertilizer use in the vineyards also fell with privatisation.

Lake Balaton is still in danger. Five years ago, István Láng called for three important measures to save the Lake: a general Balaton Act, a government commissioner who has enough power and responsibility, and a foundation specialising in Balaton problems. If these were achieved, the outlook would be hopeful because the World Bank, the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development, the Austrian and the Swiss Governments have all indicated that they would contribute to the cost of the necessary measures to save Lake Balaton.

Of these measures, only one has been realised. The Hungarian Parliament accepted the draft of the Balaton Law in 2000, but the financial sources are still desperately needed. According to Sandor Herodek, the Director of the Balaton Limnological Research Institute of the Hungarian Academy of Sciences: blooms of blue-green algae are frequent in the most polluted western part of the lake. A eutrophication control programme has been formulated, based on intensive scientific research. Most of the municipal sewage is now diverted from recreational areas. Phosphorus removal was introduced at other sewage treatment plants. A reservoir was constructed to retain the nutrients carried by the Zala River. Pollution due to liquid manure was reduced. A soil protection program is in progress.

But the local government authorities still do not have enough political power to reinforce the basic laws.

Anna Várkonyi is a freelance journalist based in Budapest.