Seminar on integrated water management in the Tisza river basin

09/12/2003

Cooperation among five Tisza basin nations

The Tisza river is one of the large tributaries in the Danube catchment in eastern Europe. It is the major river in the Carpathian basin, originating in Ukraine, then flowing along the border with Romania and Hungary and touching briefly upon Slovakia before crossing southwards across the Hungarian plain to reach the Vojvodina region of Serbia and entering the Danube between Novi Sad and Belgrade (draining thus a catchment of about 157,000km2). In 1997-1999, a Ramsar Small Grants Fund project compiled extensive documentation on the Upper Tisza region (shared by Hungary, Romania, Slovakia and Ukraine) in preparation for a transboundary Ramsar Site in the Tisza floodplain that would eventually stretch over 400km and cover about 140,000 hectares. As a major concrete step to this end, Hungary and Slovakia announced recently the establishment of a transboundary Ramsar Site covering 23,000ha on their parts of the Upper Tisza floodplain.

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The five countries within the Tisza basin have their own needs and interests. Ukraine is located upstream and its main concern is how to deal with flash floods from the Carpathians after heavy precipitations or snow melt. Romania also contributes water to the Upper Tisza, not directly but through a series of tributaries, of which the Szamos became known due to the cyanide spill near Baia Mare in January 2000 that polluted the river system of the Tisza with damaging consequences downstream to the Danube (which enters Romania on its way to the Black Sea). Hungary lies midstream and has some of its most prestigious wetlands linked to the Tisza, such as the Hortobagy Ramsar Site. Finally, downstream Serbia is most concerned about the quality and quantity of Tisza water entering its fertile plains of the Vojvodina region. Hungary and Slovakia are on the path to entering the European Union within a few months. Therefore for some time already, they have worked to achieve good (ecological) status of water, as required by the EU Water Framework Directive. Romania has also begun this process. Serbia and Ukraine are countries in profound transition, still much more isolated and pursuing different development imperatives. Despite the important differences at national level between the five catchment countries, they have all adhered to a number of legal instruments at international level, including the Convention on Measures to Combat Pollution on the Tisza River and its Tributaries (Szeged, 1986), the UN-ECE Convention on the Protection and Use of Transboundary Watercourses and International Lakes (Helsinki, 1992), the Convention on the Protection and Sustainable Development of the Carpathians (Kiyv, 2003), the Danube Convention, the Ramsar Convention, and others.

The management of water, agriculture, landscape and the environment in many countries is usually the responsibility of independent sectoral ministries, local authorities and other official bodies. The competing demands of water and land users, which differ throughout the river catchment, may result in policy conflicts and require often complex, expensive capital works to maintain a landscape that is potentially unstable with respect to economics and water management.

Where traditionally river floodplains supported flood tolerant grasses, water meadows and fishponds, modern agricultural production demands low and tightly regulated water levels and protection from seasonal inundation. This trend has been exacerbated by the availability of arable area, crop intervention payments, and grant aid for drainage, including pumped drainage within floodplains. This led to the development of arable agriculture that demands low water levels in associated rivers. With these, apparently reduced, flood risks, urban building has also increased within drained floodplains.

Ludasko Lake Ramsar Site in Serbia, in the Tisza downstream floodplain of Vojvodina region, where Tisza water is heavily used for intensive arable agriculture.

In addition to the altered nature of floodplains, the land use of the upper catchment is also crucial to the overall risk management situation. Loss of uncultivated land, especially within the buffer zone of headwater streams, is increasing the speed of runoff, suspended solid and nutrient loads, and producing more unstable catchment behaviour, where the retention time of rainfall is reduced, leading to larger flood pulses downstream. Cumulatively, the reduction in upper and mid-catchment water retention leads to more flood events downstream where river channels no longer contain peak water levels, even from minor flood events. Within the Hungarian plain, disruptive downstream flooding and consequent disruption of economic activity has been frequent, and is driving the relevant authorities to greater cooperative efforts to regulate the Tisza, primarily for socio-economic reasons.

In two consequent Food and Agriculture Organization regional conferences for Europe, Hungary has emphasized the need for technical assistance to address the recurrent problems and work towards integrated water management in the Tisza river basin. Subsequently, the FAO prepared a first project outline, adapted to the requirements of the EU Water Framework Directive. To encourage dialogue, present the individual views concerning the Tisza river basin management of the five basin countries, and achieve as much common ground as possible, the FAO Subregional Office for Central and Eastern Europe organized a seminar on 20-21 November 2003 in Budapest. It was further supported by Wetlands International, in the framework of a Dutch-supported project on transboundary cooperation on Ramsar Site designation in the Upper Tisza river basin.

The seminar brought together for the first time about 60 representatives of the five countries, from Ministries of Environment, Forestry, Water, Agriculture, and Rural Development, from Water Management Authorities, NGOs and international organizations. The Ramsar Secretariat was invited to moderate the discussions. The Council of Europe presented its initiative on the sustainable spatial development of the Tisza river basin, signed in September 2003 during the 13th session of the European Conference of Ministers responsible for Regional Planning (CEMAT), foreseeing the setting up of a joint commission. The FAO summarized its experience on developing a coherent economic and environmental basis for the much needed collaboration among different stakeholders to integrate agricultural practices and agricultural water management with river flow and aquifer management. Agriculture has a particular responsibility not only for the use of natural resources, but also for the existence values that accrue to water courses and wetlands. The agricultural sector is beginning to shoulder this environmental responsibility. Ramsar Contracting Parties addressed the issues in Resolution VIII.34 on "Agriculture, wetlands and water resource management". To this end, and to strengthen Ramsar's pillar of "international cooperation" in the context of integrated river basin management (cf. Ramsar Handbook 4), the seminar was a useful first step to creating meaningful exchanges between the agricultural sector and water and environmental managers.

Farmhouse, Ludasko Lake.

The seminar participants concluded that, despite existing bilateral agreements, concrete steps are needed towards more basin-wide and multi-sectoral cooperation among the five catchment states. The existing Tisza Water Forum, initiated by Hungary and Romania for coordinated flood management, should be gradually transformed into a more multi-disciplinary committee. With the support of all five countries, it should be given a larger mandate to cover all aspects of integrated river basin management. The FAO was encouraged to develop its project outline further, building on the existing, mostly bilateral, initiatives and actions of the coordinating bodies that are already in place. Furthermore, the project should explore and provide directions for the better use of international funding opportunities from the EU (Interreg, ERDF), EBRD, GEF and others. For Ramsar Administrative Authorities in these countries, this is the opportunity to get involved in wetland and water management at catchment scale, by interacting with the respective agencies responsible for water management and agriculture.

-- reported by Tobias Salathé, Ramsar.

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