Saturday, October 12, 2013

Nagykörü, Hungary

Post written by Maggi Sliwinski

On October 7th, we began the first of our three big IGERT trips. We left our hostel at 6:15am and headed to the train station, where we would begin the half-day journey to Nagykörü, a small town in Hungary where we would spend 3 days. We traveled to Budapest, where we caught a train to Szolnok, where we were picked up by our hosts Peter and Bela, plus Motszi the dog. Motszi was not too happy to have new people around, but he got used to us eventually!

Our first quick stop was at a flowing well that was tapped into the aquifer over 1000 feet below ground. The water was hot and sulfury, but Peter filled up six jugs to take home for drinking water. The sulfur smell did wear off, and it tasted good. The water in Nagykörü was chlorinated, so that's why Peter wanted the fresh aquifer water. There are apparently lots of hot springs throughout Hungary, and also some geothermal electricity capacity. The spring was also near our first view of one of the tributaries to the Tisza River, the river our trip would be focused around. The tributary was channelized, and was almost empty.

Flowing well

View of a tributary to the Tisza River

We arrived in Nagykörü where we had our lunch at the local restaurant. We were served tomato soup and fried fish and potatoes. It was a really yummy meal, but there was lots of food to eat. Lots of us couldn't finish, I just hope our hosts and the chef weren't offended by our small stomachs. After lunch we dropped our stuff at the guest house, Gazdasági Ellátó, and had a bit of free time to relax before evening workshops. The evening workshop took place in the local community center, which was a really nice building. To start us off, they served shots of Palinka, a local fruit brandy, to us all. Apparently this is a traditional practice before meetings.

Community center
Palinka being served before our first meeting.
Our cute guest house rooms.
The Tisza River is able to rise 10m (30 feet) in just a day or two during spring time with snow melting. Historically, the water would flow onto the flood plain, where it would scarcely be above my hips and only in the lowest lying areas at that. The yearly flood of the river would reinvigorate that land with nutrients and soil moisture, and would allow fish to spawn. Before the river was managed by humans, the region was widely known for its highy productive fisheries, and its huge variety of hardy fruit trees. The region was also well suited to raising cattle and pigs, since they can wade through shallow floods and consume native vegetation. What is not well suited to this periodic flooding is monoculture crops of corn and wheat.

The town was full of flowers.
The town also had lots of fruit trees, which would
have been abundant in the landscape before
monoculture cropping was introduced.
The river has been heavily managed since the mid-1800s because someone then decided that the region should be used to grow wheat, because of high demands for wheat coming from expanding cities and frequent wars. Today, the people in the region depend on the government to protect their farm fields from the river, and fear river flooding, even though it used to be the life blood of the region. There is no memory left, accept in historical records, of how the Tisza River used to be. This region is also impoverished because there are a lot of absentee landowners and corporations run the farming enterprises from afar.
One of the dikes and Motszi the dog

Our first speaker was Atilla Lovas, the water engineer for the local water district, responsible for managing the Tisza River in this region. He told us about the establishment's way of managing the Tisza River, which involves dikes, dams, and emergency reservoirs. The emergency reservoirs are low-lying areas on farmers' fields, which can only be used when the river is at dangerously high levels. The farmers are compensated if their fields are flooded. Atilla was quite proud that his agency had moved away from simply continually raising the dikes to trying to figure out how to lower the water levels through the use of emergency reservoirs. The dynamics of the river make it particularly important to manage well, although we heard from our hosts that there are other frameworks through which to view water management.

One of the control structures leading into an emergency reservoir.
Our hosts Peter and Bela, both geographers, are sifting through historical records to determine what the region used to be like, and using sophisticated models and theories to determine what the region could be like in the future. If the river were allowed to flood more naturally, and people were more flexible and adapted to the river rather than adapting the river to their demands, it could change the region for the better. Floods would not be a surprise, but a welcome re-invigoration for the land, and a locally based economy could be a means to relieve poverty. Peter and Bela are part of a "shadow network" of people who are making sure that everything is in place (research, models, planning, support) when an opportunity arises to actually shift the region to this new way of sustainable thinking and acting.

Our second day was spent at the Tisza Lake, which is actually a reservoir formed by a dam for flood control. It's a beautiful reservoir, but it's being clogged with sediments falling out of the river, making it less capable of holding high water levels. However, this makes the area a prime spot for migrating and nesting birds. The government is trying to establish eco-tourism around the lake--we were joining in a small meeting of service providers who were working on establishing more "complex" programs--such as birding tours. It was nice to be outside and it was really warm, so we enjoyed our few hours around this place. I asked Peter if this lake and tourism center fit with his vision for the Tisza River, it does not. The reservoir is part of the unnatural river regime, and it would probably not survive if the river's natural flooding regime were to be restored.

The new building at the Tisza lake.
Tisza Lake dock.
Tisza Lake
Me searching for birds....not the right time of year!

After our trip to the lake and through the new tourism centers animal exhibits, we headed out to see two oxbow lakes--one that was cut off from the flooding river and one that is still flooded periodically. The one that is flooded periodically is much healthier looking.
Cut-off oxbow lake, more clogged with trees.

Flooded oxbow lake, less clogged with trees.
On Tuesday evening, Ilonka, Shelli, Hannah, and I took the opportunity to go see Peter's horses and help him move them to a new spot. We all also got a chance to ride bareback. Two of Peter's kids came along too, although they know English they seemed very shy to talk with us. But it was heartwarming to see Peter interacting with his children, it's clear that he loves his family and his home, which is probably why he wants to see the Tisza River restored to what it used to be.

Peter and his son, plus the wild horse (that I did not ride)
Ilonka and I on horses at sunset with a crescent moon behind us.
On Wednesday morning we had a couple more presentations from Peter and Bela to talk about shifting the river out of its current management regime and to a new, more sustainable one (we also had another shot of Palinka--at about 9am!). One thing that spoke to me was Bela's portrayal of the the nested hierarchy. People often show the three-legged stool for sustainability, with society, economy, and ecology contributing equally to sustainable thinking. Bela's diagram looked like this:

This diagram is very similar to something I had come up with on my own about a year ago because I am dismayed that people think the environment is only one leg of a three-legged stool. Everything that humans need and manufacture starts somehow from the environment. This diagram makes much more sense and should help people to re-frame how they think about sustainability.

After our morning presentations, we had a chance to meet with a local goat farmer who makes hand-crafted goat cheese. We took a walk to the Tisza River and then had to head to Budapest. This trip was really awesome because we met two actors in the "shadow network" that we've read about in papers, and had a chance to see the landscape that the role-playing game is based off of first hand. It will be helpful to have this in mind when we see the game played again in Poland this coming week.

This young man sold us locally produced and hand-made goat cheese.
He milks his herd (about 15 goats) every morning, by hand, by himself.
The group (minus Marie--sorry!) with our hosts Peter and Bela.

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