The summary of the 'Balatorium 2023 Key Messages' was prepared by the szabadonbalaton team, with support from the Balaton Limnological Research Institute and the Balaton-UplandsNational Park Directorate.
It is meant to summarise the most important issues of the Balaton region for the creators and stakeholders of the BALATORIUM programme series. The 2023 programmes will focus on themes derived from these issues. BALATORIUM is a collaboration of researchers and artists for the sake of Lake Balaton. Its aim is to use art to make scientific knowledge about the lake and connected issues understandable and relatable, and to lay the foundations for a social dialogue on the future of Lake Balaton.
The programme is commissioned by the Veszprém-Balaton 2023 European Capital of Culture and is professionally coordinated by the PAD Foundation. Other partners: Moholy-Nagy University of Art and Design - MOME MAG, szabadonbalaton, Balaton Limnological Institute, Balaton-Uplands National Park Directorate, Bakony-Balaton Association of Ecological Education Centre, University of Pannonia Limnology Research Group.
The spatial and functional integrity of the Lake Balaton ecosystem is the basic prerequisite for
- the recreational use of the lake (including related investments) and
- the quality of life of both local residents and visitors in the area.
Lake Balaton is a managed ecosystem, a "cultural landscape", i.e. it has become what it is through the combined development of human use and the natural environment. The natural habitats in the landscape are not an additional attraction to bathing, but the reason for it being possible - including not only the aquatic ecosystem, but also the shore and even the entire catchment area.
Our favourite Lake Balaton activities are based on the properties of the lake. We can swim because the water is warm, but despite its warmth, it is still of good quality, unlike the algae-laden green water of fish ponds. We can enjoy walking along the shore because the scenery is beautiful, because of the view of the opposite shore is nice, the grapevines, the trees, the reeds are beautiful, because we are not eaten by mosquitoes, and because it is not far from our holiday house, our accommodation, our home. We fish because there are fish that bite, but it's not a fish farm. We go sailing because there is space available with water and waves, but it is not the sea. We come together, we meet our friends, because there are many different kinds of people here: anglers and sailors, pensioners and festival tourists.
What do we need for this? We need to preserve the characteristics of Lake Balaton, the Balaton region: clean water, fish, a beautiful landscape with trees, reeds and vineyards. We also need a walkable waterfront, a harbour, a beach, shops, restaurants, nightclubs and lots of holiday homes and accommodation facilities. These things are not independent of each other: you cannot have a forest and a hotel in the same place. It seems difficult to have water that is both consistently deep and clean and free of algae. High water levels will damage riparian vegetation and there will be no fish in a lake without pondweed and reeds.
These important relationships are not yet fully understood, and we need information about the state of the lake, the ecosystem system, to make an informed decision. Successful recovery from the algal blooms and fish kills of the 1970s, 1980s and 1990s took nearly 40 years, based on a well thought-out science-based policy strategy. Today, this is lacking, development and decisions are unaligned with scientific facts, and the objectives for the lake as a whole are not clearly defined and agreed.
There is no short, fast solution to many of the challenges Lake Balaton is facing. The problems have unfolded and are still unfolding over decades, and it is only through decisive change and adaptation that their impact can be reduced over a long period of time.
Generic, global issues:
The effects of global climate change and the wave of extinction caused by human activities are currently being felt everywhere on Earth. Lake Balaton and its catchment are heavily and increasingly utilized, even compared to the global average, so this region is also affected by these global changes. The expansion of intensively used areas increases the impact of both global climate change and the global biodiversity crisis. Appropriate, targeted measures could help adapt to these processes and reduce their impacts.
Lake Balaton and its adjacent landscape is a shared natural resource, or in other words, "natural capital". It is not easy to realize and accept that every decision we make has an impact on this shared resource. In some societal processes related to natural resource management, individuals can apparently benefit by maximising their gains at the expense of society. This is called the ‘tragedy of the commons’ and the ‘trap of individual decision making’: in the absence of an agreed set of rules, the most short-term benefit can be achieved by taking disproportionately from the common resources. In the Lake Balaton area, enforcement of existing rules is often lacking, or the effect of sanctions is small compared to the gains resulting from non-compliance. Society's memory of slow change does not go back more than a few decades, since everyone considers the the "original, natural" state of the system to be what it was when they first came to know it. This is the problem of the "shifting baseline". In addition, a large and complex system does not usually change smoothly, but rather in a delayed way and reaches a limit in a sudden and often irreversible way ("tipping point"). This tends to make us underestimate just how risky our decisions are. Therefore, there is a need to exercise self-restraint at both individual and community level for the sake of Lake Balaton: all natural resources are inherently finite, so future-proof planning and decision-making is not possible with a focus on constant growth.
In order for Lake Balaton to change in a way which preserves its value and use, mindful decision-making is needed at individual, regional and national levels, taking into account the interests of local people and tourism at the same level of priority. The right decisions from the consumer, tourism, land use and economic viewpoints can only be made on the basis of data and knowledge about the water system and the ecological system of the lake and the region. The consequences of our decisions will stay with us for decades or even longer. Therefore, it is important that we make decisions and lead development in ways that will achieve the goals we originally set out to reach, even in the face of expected changes in the climate, the living environment, our society and the economy.
The tightening regulation of water levels, the increasing frequency of algae blooms, and the expansion of paved, developed, intensively cultivated areas in the catchment and on the shore.
Why is this a problem?
Over-regulation of water levels is a problem because it narrows the littoral zone, reducing the area of the most species-rich habitats of the lake - such as deep-water reed wetlands. The unstable water quality indicates that, in addition to the continuous external nutrient load from the catchment area (mainly from sewage and partly also from fertiliser leaching), there is periodically a high internal load due to thermal layering and the resulting lack of oxygen. The change in nutrient conditions drives a significant change in the general character of the lake and in the ecological connections between organisms. Some species may go locally extinct and others will proliferate unusually. Algae blooms may lead to oxygen deficiency, widespread fish kills and allergic reactions in bathers. The sprawl of built-up areas means that natural habitats are reduced to smaller and smaller spaces, and these areas are becoming gradually less ecologically connected. Paved surfaces allow for more pollutants to leach into the water and retain more heat than green surfaces. Alien species that create closed groups dominated by a single speices are spreading, instead of plants and animals characteristic for the landscape.
How do we know that these processes have already started?
Fish have been introduced in Lake Balaton for decades to contribute to maintaining fish stocks. This is currently done to meet the needs of angling and is necessary partly due to the lack of spawning locations. The reed beds are visibly fragmenting and clumping, and large areas of deep water reed stands have been lost. In the summer of 2019, algae concentrations in Lake Balaton reached a record high, far exceeding the water quality limit for bathing. On the northern shore of the lake, a contiguous town area is developing between Balatonfűzfő and Balatonfüred, with only a small patches of natural habitat left between settlements, and the area of semi-natural habitats (e.g. vineyards, orchards) is also rapidly decreasing. Around the lake, species that are highly sensitive to human presence have disappeared, and even moderately sensitive species are declining, while invasive plant and animal species that are highly transformative of the habitat are spreading (goldenrods, bullheads).
What happens if this continues?
As reedbeds continue to shrink, fish, birds and mammals that feed or reproduce in reedbeds may disappear from the lake. High water levels will sometimes damage waterfront facilities, including buildings. Further deterioration of water quality may render a large part of the lake area unsuitable for bathing during the summer season and fish kills may occur. High population density could lead to problems for the electricity, water and sewage networks. Increased development also reduces the quality of life for humans: who would go to an urban desert in summer? During increasingly frequent, longer and more intense heat waves, the use and value of densely built areas deteriorates and the health of residents and visitors may be harmed.
What do we know for sure and what is uncertain?
An alternative proposal for water level regulation has already been developed, which would be more beneficial for riparian wildlife but also acceptable from a tourism perspective. The link between water levels and tourism has not been investigated in detail, but they do not seem to be connected at all. It is difficult to predict from climate models exactly what water conditions can be expected on the lake, but it is certain that we should expect water levels to fluctuate significantly due to climate change, regardless of the water level regulation regime. The nutrient that is most important for water quality (phosphorus) is clearly identified, but we only have imprecise data on phosphorus loads originating from the catchment area and from paved surfaces. It is not yet completely clear when and how much previously accumulated phosphorus can be released from the lake sediments. The necessary basic data are available, but the change in built-up area around Lake Balaton has not yet been quantified. Little information is available on what would be the optimal land use or the minimum amount of semi-natural area that should be left in the landscape to maintain the condition of the lake. However, we know that these three main processes (water level control, algae growth and development) are mutually reinforcing: the riparian zone is also being narrowed by development, not just by water level control. High water levels also increase the frequency of algal blooms.
What has to be done?
A new water level regulation system with a lower average and higher variability has to be applied. Where possible, reedbeds and wetlands in or near the lake should be restored in a targeted way. Where shoreline protection works are in need of rehabilitation, they should be constructed to function as natural habitats and also allow human use of the shoreline, including during extreme water levels. To ensure good water quality, soil erosion and water run-off from agricultural areas in the catchment area should be reduced and the use of fertilisers and other chemicals should be limited. Feeding for fishing should also be regulated, and the management of fishponds in the catchment area should be monitored. Strict adherence to current building development regulations would already be a step forward in terms of land use, but it would be essential to target the protection and even restoration of natural habitats and semi-natural ecological corridors throughout the catchment area. In the immediate vicinity of the lake, local building regulations would need to be amended in several places and introducing local bans on alterations or construction would be necessary. Targeted research should be launched to understand the ecological, social and water systems of Lake Balaton, while more detailed, systematic and accurate monitoring and open communication of data are needed.
What can I do?
At an individual level, it is important to avoid damaging and fragmenting wetlands both on and off the waterfront. Property owners should avoid filling in waterfront plots and clearing reed beds. It is important to retain rainwater in gardens and cultivated areas rather than allowing runoff, to avoid the use of fertilisers not only near the shore but throughout the catchment zone. Restricting land-use pressure is primarily in the hands of property owners: buildings and paved surfaces should not be extended, and green areas in gardens, especially large, mature trees, should be protected. Anglers should not build fishing platforms, piers and moorings in reed beds, and are advised to use a maximum of 1.5 kg of exclusively plant-based bait per day. Everyone should actively try to avoid car transport, since shifting to active and public transport also helps to halt the growth of land occupied by transport infrastructure.
Download the spreadsheet in PDF format HERE.