Austria and Hungary fight nature to stop lake vanishing

Kitesurfers and windsurfers dot picturesque Lake Neusiedl on the Austrian-Hungarian border -- but the water is so low some get stuck in the mud.

A boat seen sailing near Neusiedl am See. Photo by Dimitry Anikin on Unsplash
A boat seen sailing near Neusiedl am See. Photo by Dimitry Anikin on Unsplash

The salt lake and its marshes — the largest of its kind in Europe and a UNESCO world heritage site — could soon run completely dry, and locals are worried.

The lake, only an hour from Vienna, last dried up in the 1860s yet was naturally replenished by rainwater.

But back then it wasn’t drawing millions of tourists, nor was the area producing 120,000 tons of crops a year.

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“Letting the lake and the region run dry is not an option,” provincial councillor Heinrich Dorner told AFP.

To avert what he sees as an economic disaster, Dorner is banking of a series of major projects, the biggest being a canal to bring fresh water from the Danube river in Hungary.

But the plans have run into opposition from environmentalists, who fear any interference could accelerate the demise of the lake, the westernmost outpost of the great Eurasian Steppe.

‘Natural cycle’

Hungary has tasked a company owned by one of its richest men, Lorinc Meszaros, with building the canal, though work has not yet started, according to a municipal official.

Meszaros, who is close to Prime Minister Viktor Orban, is already in charge of a vast real estate project on the Hungarian side of the lake, including the construction of a marina, sports complex and a hotel.

But activists are against both on environmental grounds and over fears of corruption. “The canal project is unacceptable… (and will) destroy the whole ecosystem” of the lake region, Katalin Rodics of Greenpeace Hungary told AFP.

A boat of a sailing school sails in front of the marina in Neusiedl am See, Burgenland, June 5, 2022. (Photo by Alex HALADA / AFP)

While other lakes naturally fill up over thousands of years, shallow Lake Neusiedl — which Hungarians call Ferto — naturally dries up about once a century.

READ ALSO: The best lakes and swimming spots in Austria

As its salty bed is exposed to saline-loving bacteria, algae, plankton and mud decompose, dry out and are swept away by the wind.
If fresh water from the Danube ends up being flushed into the lake, this could dilute the saline levels and stop the natural process, said the WWF’s Bernhard Kohler.

“It’s a natural cycle,” Kohler said. “We’ll just have to learn to live with it again.”

But councillor Dorner insisted this is not an option.

As well as the canal, he hopes to dredge out one million cubic metres of mud to deepen the lake for boating.

Farmers will also have to switch from water-intensive crops such as potatoes, corn and soy, Dorner said, and instead plant spelt, millet or other crops more suitable for arid climates.

Or indeed to wine as world-renowned grapes already grow in the sandy banks of the salt marshes.

Apocalyptic landscape

The last time Lake Neusiedl dried up in the 1860s, it left an almost apocalyptic landscape. Historians describe dusty clouds of salt inflaming people’s eyes, piling up on fields and spoiling crops.

Fish, too, died, and locals “lamented that they’ll starve if the dry spell of the lake continues”. But three years later, the water began its miraculous return.

A boat floats in a driving channel in the reed belt in Rust at Lake Neusiedl in the Bay of Rust, Burgenland on June 5, 2022. (Photo by Alex HALADA / AFP)

But now with tributaries cut off and more people depend on the lake than ever before, there is doubt on how long a recovery would take.

Rain, the lake’s lifeline, also now increasingly falls in summer, when it evaporates faster, as overall temperatures have risen and heatwaves have increased because of climate change.

Provincial water management head Christian Sailer said it was vital to save the “very complex region”.

“The climate is changing, and that negatively affects the lake,” he told AFP.

Last month more than 100 canoeists and rowers staged a rally on the lake to sound the alarm, some holding posters reading, “Our lake must not die.”

READ ALSO: Which regions in Austria have the best (and worst) weather?

And it’s not just the lake that’s vanishing. More than 100 salt marshes once dotted the region, but as groundwater levels have dropped dramatically, about 60 are now “irreversibly lost”, said Johannes Ehrenfeldner, head of the Lake Neusiedl-Seewinkel National Park.

Many of the 350 species bird watchers observe depend on these salty ecosystems, and if they dry up, “bird numbers will dwindle,” Ehrenfeldner said, his binocular trained at a black-and-white avocet scooping tiny crabs from the mud.

“We’re running towards our own demise with our eyes wide open,” he added.

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‘Best quality’: What you should know about Vienna’s drinking water

As Europe suffered its worst drought in centuries, residents in Austria's capital were feeling fortunate for their plentiful water supply that courses from streams in the green forests of the Alps.

'Best quality': What you should know about Vienna's drinking water

A rarety in the EU, the two million inhabitants of Vienna get their tap water from dozens of springs — the main one some 655 metres (2,150 feet) above sea level.

It’s a serious subject in Vienna, where access to clean drinking water has since 2001 even been guaranteed in the constitution — a world first, according to the city’s website.

“Vienna is in the fortunate position that, as a city of millions, firstly, we have enough water and secondly, that it’s water of the best quality,” Juergen Czernohorszky, Vienna councillor in charge of the environment, told AFP.

READ ALSO: Everything you need to know about Austria’s world-class drinking water

The summer of 2022 was the hottest in Europe’s recorded history, as climate change drives ever longer heat spells and the drought parching the continent was the worst in at least 500 years.

Yet at the main Klaeffer spring feeding Vienna, some 150 kilometres (90 miles) outside the capital, the underground source bears water that is less than six degrees Celsius (43 degrees Fahrenheit) in temperature.

Some 10,000 litres (2,600 gallons) per second flow out from the Klaeffer spring alone, feeding a river named Salza that coils down a steep uninhabited valley.

The water system was set up about a century and a half ago under the Austro-Hungarian Empire to provide the city with fresh water to overcome diseases such as cholera.

READ ALSO: The best lakes and swimming spots in Austria

Today, the city’s sanctuary still encompasses 70 sources in untouched mountains south-west of the capital with a system of 130 aqueducts.

A pipe that connects Vienna through a 90-meter long tunnel with the Klaeffer spring is pictured near Gusswerk. The water system was set up almost a century and a half ago under the Austro-Hungarian Empire to provide the city with fresh water to overcome diseases such as cholera. (Photo by JOE KLAMAR / AFP)

Thirty-one reservoirs in and around the city store the water, drawing officials from as far away as China to marvel at them, municipal water company Wiener Wasser spokeswoman Astrid Rompolt told AFP.

Each Viennese consumes around 130 litres of running water per day for some 30 euro cents ($0.30) — 15 cents cheaper than the same amount in Paris.

In Vienna, there is also enough to feed fountains, swimming pools, 1,300 drinking water fountains and even 175 mist showers that allow passers-by to cool off in the light spray.

READ ALSO: What makes Vienna the ‘most liveable city’ and where can it improve?

The growing city plans to renovate 30 kilometres of pipeline per year to prepare for increasingly hot summers expected as the impacts of climate change intensify.