By Robin MarshallSwept along
Apr. 27, 2000
The flooding that has devastated much of eastern Hungary is easy to ignore here in Budapest. To many people it registers as little more than a distant annual event, as relevant to the city slickers going about their everyday life as the annual inundation of the Nile banks.
But the flooding is relevant. The Government quickly declared a state of emergency, Prime Minister Viktor Orbán has spent several days around the flood plains of the Tisza, the area has been a regular feature on national television and radio news and has even featured on the BBC and CNN channels.
There is also a financial impact. Repairing the damage done, temporary flood prevention measures and more long-term projects all come with a hefty price tag. The World Bank and Hungary have not always agreed on how much needs to be spent, but neither are talking in small numbers here.
And then there is the human cost. All of this is going on just two or three hours from Budapest. The television pictures are impressive, but nothing actually prepares you for seeing the area first hand. If you think the Danube has been high recently, jump in a car and go see for yourself. Very few people understand the potential power of a river (or any large body of water, come to that) to lay waste to its surroundings.
A combination of saturated ground with high water tables and excessive snow melt have created this disaster. But talk to people along the Tisza and they will tell you this is not nature alone. River folk know their waterways. They know that flooding is a natural part of the country cycle, they are not quick to see the hand of man in what nature is quite capable of doing on its own.
But recent history has altered some of that. They know that cyanide and heavy metals deposited into the water cannot be blamed on nature, and now they think that man again has, at least partially, made things worse. Once more it is beyond Hungary's control in that the source of the trouble is beyond the country's borders, this time in the Carpathian Mountains, where massive tree felling has altered the natural balance. Trees absorb much of the excess water and help bind banks together. Man alters, nature destroys, and eastern Hungarians suffer.