Hungary's fertile plains - is irrigation the answer to climate change?

Hungary was once known as the "bread-basked of Europe" largely because of the fertile and productive great Hungarian plain. Agriculture now plays a lesser, but still imporatant role in its economy - but experts are warning its exactly this sector of the economy which will be hardest hit by climate change. The Hungarian government is about to debate the draft version of an action plan designed to minimise the impact of climate change and sustain productivity.

Photo: archive of Radio Prague
“The sun shrivels up the sparse alkali flats, parched herds of grasshoppers are grazing about – not a new blade in all the stubble, not a handbreadth of green in all the broad meadows”

This is how the 19th century Hungarian poet, János Arany described the parching summer heat on the Great Hungarian Plain. Those concerned by the adverse impact of global warming fear this scene will become more common if the problem of climate change is not dealt with. The inflation rate in Hungary last year climbed up to 8 per cent, mainly due to the restrictive economic policy required for balancing the country’s budget but a big increase in certain agricultural prices – between 40 and 50 percent - also made a significant contribution. Professor Istvan Land is a soil scientist, and says this sudden price hike was the result of a very hot and dry summer last year – and not the first one in the past decades.

“In agriculture, drought is coming every 3-4 years. It was a hundred years ago also, but now maybe, it is now more often and therefore, Hungarian agriculture and the society as a whole became more sensitive to such problems. Last summer, it was very hot, very dry. It means decrease in grain production of 20 per cent and in corn production of 50 per cent. Consequences are very simply the prices of the food are coming up, so not only the farmers suffering the effect of the drought but all people in society buying bread and eggs and milk and meat and so on.”

After the serious drought of 2003, professor Láng was asked to head the climate change research project sponsored by the Ministry of Environment and Water Management and the Hungarian Academy of Sciences. He summarised for Insight Central Europe the findings of the committee:

"We can only minimise the losses but not completely exclude. The fertile soil is the largest water reservoir in Hungary. The normal precipitation is accumulated in the soil. But the percentage of water accumulated depends on the structure of the soil, therefore, the agricultural practice in soil cultivation is very important for the future. The second is the irrigation possibilities. Unfortunately, in Hungary, we have only 2-3 per cent of the land surface which is irrigated. We have sufficient water because from these two main rivers, Danube and Tisza, a huge amount of water is coming in, but also going through the country. So, we have potential reservoir for irrigation but irrigation needs to create a so-called irrigation system, which is costly. Economic policies should be changed to make better economic conditions for irrigation for the future."

As professor Láng pointed out, the key issue of creating irrigation systems is an expensive project. Former OECD and World Bank advisor, György Raskó, now an agrarian entrepreneur, suggests a solution:

"We have enough money from Brussels: under rural development, we could invest billions of Forints, or even euros, in the irrigation infrastructure. The market is there, the demand is there, and if we had this infrastructure, then in the next couple of years, independently of whether global warming is [there] or not, the Hungarian agriculture could be again a very important exporter of agricultural raw materials and processed food for those regions, which were so-called traditional markets for the Hungarian food sector."

All of this will only be achieved if Hungary gives proper answers to the challenges of global warming. If all goes as planned, the government is to draw up a two-year action plan of concrete measures as the first step on the road of regaining the ‘breadbasket of Europe” status.