Sunday, 9 September 2012

Hydronomics – A Case Study Of Central Planning

As promised, Schoolonomic is back – I arrived back from a school trip at Lake Tisza, Hungary's second largest water surface. The artificial lake houses a huge variety of wildlife, and has been an increasingly successful tourist destination. It's origins are, however less idyllic – the story of the construction of the dam supporting the artificial lake is not merely one of power plant construction, but one of disregarded property rights, flooded houses and a general example of the controversies of central planning. Read more to learn about the history of one of the country's biggest engineering projects.


So where is Lake Tisza?

The Lake Tisza, situated on the River Tisza, lays in the middle of the Great Hungarian Plain. The river's history has been at least as turbulent as those of the people living on it's banks – it's agrarian, yet market towns endured centuries under Hungarian, Turkish, Transylvanian and Austrian rule, prospering against the odds and housing a rich cultural heritage to this day.
The river itself is also a chaotic one – not a year goes by without floods, and the 19th century drainage of marshes didn't help in terms of economic sustainability. Settlements repeatedly expand over the dam lines, in search of arable land – only to find them flooded when the river inevitably comes. It is both a blessing and a curse – and just like the Nile, the river's history is embedded with the Hungarian national character.

Why build the dam?

Despite regular floods, much of the Great Hungarian Plain lacks the regular amounts of water and rain necessary to support the agriculture on which much of the region relies. Thus came the plans to build a channel serving both transportational and irrigational needs – the Eastern Main Channel. The idea, laying around since the 19th century, finally has been put to use during the 1950's, when the hardliner communist regime lead by Matyas Rakosi tried to demonstrate the power and economic strength of the young dictatorship by such grandiose projects.

Channel in practice

While initial construction began back in 1941 (under a different, right-wing, but ironically also authoritarian regime), the World War naturally suspended any such efforts – hence, the largest part of the channel was built starting from 1951. It was supposed to be self-supporting in terms of water flow, while also providing an alternative route for international river trade – however, the flood gate system supporting the channel was never built, and when construction finished in 1956, it was soon realised that the amount of water directed into the channel was simply not enough to sustain the area's irrigation. Hence came the new directive – build a dam, and hence bloat a lake capable of supporting the channel, while providing a source of electric power.

Dam and lake in theory

The Lake – not unlike the Channel – was supposed to be navigable, and in theory it would have provided enough electrical power to sustain the country's energy needs along with the atomic reactor of Paks. The area of the future lake covered not only forests and marshes, but also agricultural lands and the town of Újlőrincfalva – the former were confiscated without compensation, while the latter was flooded, while the latter's residents were relocated to a new, safe location. Construction was began in 1968.

Dam and lake in practice

However, the overly ambitious plans once again had their consequences. The trees in the lake area were only cut, not carried away – and while this provided and provides an excellent location for migratory birds, it had the side effect of making the Lake unnavigable. Also, the final phase of flooding aimed at the remaining elevations of the landscape was not completed – the dam's walls weren't build strong enough to sustain it, hence a larger number of islands remain in the lake to this day.


When it was finished in 1973, the resulting lake had an area of 127 km2 – it's 27 km long and 6 km at it's widest point. While both the dam and the channel failed to bring the promised efforts, the islands provided an ideal location for freshwater wildlife and birds. A national park was established – the first of 11 –, and in the end the resulting ecological – and touristic – advantages payed back the costs of planning errors. But it has to be noted that virtually none of the original goals were achieved – a fine study of the inefficiency of central planning.

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