Threats multiply against top European beauty in Hungary
SZIGLIGET – Fishermen in small wooden boats drift among the reeds and calm waters of Lake Balaton, the largest lake in Central Europe and one of Hungary’s natural treasures.
Like many villages dotted along the shore of what is popularly known as the ‘Hungarian Sea’, the quaint village of Szigliget has unexpectedly maintained and nurtured its traditional character for centuries.
Its imposing fortress, whitewashed peasant houses and small vineyards on gentle slopes have remained virtually unchanged despite two world wars, 45 years of communism and Hungary’s transition to a market economy.
However, new and formidable threats are looming. Real estate speculation, the clearing of the countryside to improve tourist access and climate change combine to cast a shadow over all this territory.
Many of the lake colonies have already fallen prey to speculative real estate development. Szigliget mayor Daniel Balassa says a recent wave of construction has made him fear that his village’s idyllic atmosphere will soon make it the next target.
“We don’t need huge buildings here, or building along the entire coastline. We have a beach and a marina, we don’t need anything else, ”Balassa told The Associated Press next to a reed bed by the lake.
The lake is nearly 80 kilometers long and 200 kilometers of shoreline. With its silty bottom and shallow water – the average depth is only around 3 meters – the lake is home to a delicate ecology that provides a seasonal destination for a variety of migratory birds.
But the Hungarian government sees the lake as a potential gold mine for national and international tourism.
In 2016, he designated the region as a priority tourism development area and earmarked 365 billion forints ($ 1.27 billion) from Hungarian and European Union funds to improve railways, roads, marinas and the renovation and construction of hotels and guest houses.
According to the Hungarian Tourism Agency, 232 such projects have been undertaken in 56 localities in recent years.
“There is enormous destruction of the environment. Trees are being cut down and good quality reeds are disappearing, threatening the entire ecosystem, ”Angela Badzso, co-chair of the citizen action group Unity for the Balaton, told the AP.
The reeds are used to maintain a healthy balance in the water and to ensure a dynamic habitat.
“As the reeds disappear, they are less able to filter the water from Lake Balaton. This is one of the reasons why algae growth is higher and fish die, ”Badzso says.
Zoltan Kun, conservationist and environmental protection expert, said that while Balaton’s water quality has improved significantly since the 1990s, declining reed cover threatens to unbalance the complex ecosystem.
“The sad truth in Hungary … is that we measure the success of development in square meters of concrete, rather than numbers of certain birds or square meters of reeds around the lake,” Kun said.
After Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban and his ruling Fidesz party came to power in 2010, the government dissolved the country’s environmental protection ministry. Kun says this has significantly reduced the state’s ability to take care of its natural resources.
The conservation regulations that exist are often applied selectively, Kun said, or only involve meager fines once the damage has already been done.
Istvan Boka, chairman of the Lake Balaton Development Council and ruling party lawmaker, argues that existing environmental regulations are sufficient to prevent the destruction of intact parts of the lake.
Recent developments, he says, “have all taken place on an already developed shore.”
During Hungary’s socialist era, Lake Balaton was a popular getaway for many workers who could enjoy vacations subsidized by their unions. Citizens of East and West Germany could also visit the lake, making it a common meeting place for families whose members live on both sides of the Iron Curtain.
Since then, it has remained an affordable destination for Hungarians from almost all economic backgrounds, although much of the infrastructure built during the socialist period has become dilapidated and needs to be renewed.
But now luxury accommodation is on the rise and plans are underway to increase sailboat traffic on the lake, aimed at more affluent tourists.
Balassa, the local mayor, said that if the magic of the lake and its villages makes growth in tourism and development to some extent inevitable, it must be carried out on a “human scale” that respects natural and cultural integrity. of the region.
“Not all new projects are necessarily a terrible thing. You just have to find a common ground that is satisfactory for everyone, ”said Balassa.
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