Drought threatens Hungarian lake with environmental crisis

International

People enjoy the sunny day in the Lake Velence in Agard, Hungary, Sunday, Aug. 8, 2021. Activists and environmental experts in Hungary say the effects of climate change and insufficient infrastructure are colliding to threaten the country’s third largest natural lake with an economic and ecological crisis. Lake Velence has lost nearly half of its water in the last two years as hot, dry summers have led to increased evaporation and deteriorating water quality. (AP Photo/Laszlo Balogh)

October 02 2021 06:00 pm

GARDONY, Hungary (AP) — Lake Velence, a shallow, freshwater lake in central Hungary, is a haven for over 100 types of birds, dozens of species of fish and throngs of tourists who come to bathe in its waters for relief from the hot summers.

But many of the lake’s visitors, both animal and human, have disappeared as extreme heat has brought the water to dangerously low levels, something activists and environmental experts say threatens the country’s third largest natural lake with an economic and ecological crisis.

They say climate change and insufficient infrastructure are colliding, with devastating effect. The lake has lost nearly half of its water in the past two years as hot, dry summers have led to accelerating evaporation and deteriorating water quality.

“We are talking about years of rainfall deficit, drought and a continuous water shortage,” said environmental management engineer and activist Tibor Horanyi. “For years we’ve seen what role global warming is playing in our lives, and it’s clearly connected to this low water level.”

The optimal water level for Lake Velence (pronounced ‘VEH-len-tseh) in August is 150 centimeters (5 feet), according to the local water authority.

But on Thursday, the water level stood at 80 centimeters (2 feet 7 inches), an amount of water that Horanyi called “critical.”

Hot, dry weather can result in as much as 1 centimeter per day evaporating from Lake Velence, according to official measurements. Those decreased levels have meant water temperatures are rising faster, causing diminished oxygen content, increased proliferation of algae and reduced water quality.

Following a long, cold spring, Hungary experienced its third hottest June since 1901 and then the hottest July on record, according to the national meteorological service.

The extreme heat caused the water temperature in the lake to rise by 10 degrees Celsius (18 F) within a week in June, Horanyi said, resulting in the death of more than four tonnes (8,800 pounds) of fish that were then removed by volunteers.

Otto Balogh, a local fisherman, told The Associated Press that the conditions in the water were clearly visible, and had impacted his catch.

“There are no fish. In the last three weekends that I’ve come here, this is the first time I caught anything,” Balogh said.

Shallow marshlands on the lake’s western end have dried up completely, and many of the birds normally seen in the lake’s bird sanctuary have disappeared.

“There aren’t any water birds now. They’ve gone somewhere else to find food, I suppose,” Balogh said.

In July, the local public health department ordered the closure of four beaches on Lake Velence, citing water quality samples that did not meet required standards.

While most of the beaches have since reopened, few bathers venture in the water, which due to the low levels scarcely reaches their waists even if they wade more than 100 meters (yards) out.

The low water levels, dying fish and closed beaches have led to a dramatic decrease in tourism at local restaurants, bars and hotels, said Peter Vas, a local resident and activist, threatening further hardship for a local economy already hard hit by the COVID-19 pandemic.

“A lot of money has been invested here by traders, restaurateurs and holidaymakers to make it a great place to enjoy themselves,” Vas said. “This lake has to be saved.”

Activists have urged Hungary’s government to take action to protect the lake from further deterioration, and to provide the resources necessary to bring the water back to minimum levels.

But continuing hot weather and infrastructural deficiencies have prevented a quick fix to the crisis.

Two reservoirs were built in the 1970s to provide water to the lake if levels dropped too low. But a spokesperson for the national water authority said that drought and extreme heat had caused low water levels in those reservoirs as well, leading to high algae content which makes the water unsuitable for remedying the lake’s water deficit.

Zoltan Tessely, the government commissioner responsible for the development of Lake Velence, told local television station Fehervar TV last week that he had submitted a proposal to the government for replenishing the water in the lake — but that the government had rejected the $133 million price tag, saying it needed the funds to support economic recovery after the pandemic.

Vas, the local activist, acknowledged that the lake has dried out before, noting that in 1863 the Hungarian hussars trained with their horses in the lake bed.

“But now it’s the 21st century,” he said. “We must have the ability to save this natural protected area.”

With no immediate solution in sight and only warm, dry weather in the forecast, only political will can avert an environmental disaster at Lake Velence, he said.

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