EU funded projects to bring clean drinking water to Hungarian settlements affected by polluted groundwater

April 24, 2014

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Polluted groundwater threatens the health of half a million people living in the Pannonian Basin

According to the National Public Health and Medical Officer Service (ÁNTSZ), over a million Hungarians drink water containing contaminants that increase the risk of serious illness and disease.  An estimated 300 Hungarians die each year as a result of consuming arsenic-contaminated groundwater.

“Money spent on preparations alone on this region’s declining population would have been enough to pay virgins in white dresses to hand deliver buckets of water for five years.”

The Pannonian Basin, spanning most of Hungary and parts of Romania, Serbia, Croatia, and Austria, is the largest area affected by groundwater arsenic contamination in all of Europe.  According to a study published in 2011, some 500,000 people living in Hungary and Romania are exposed to levels of arsenic in their drinking water considered unsafe by the European Union.

The National Water Management Administration is reportedly organizing 33 projects intended to bring safe drinking water to 227 settlements, or roughly half those affected.  The administration hopes to complete the public procurement process and the projects themselves in time to qualify for some HUF 100 billion in EU financing available through the middle of next year.

Groundwater contamination

Containing natural levels of arsenic, manganese, iron, and concentrated ammonium, Hungary’s groundwater has been further contaminated by the lack of of adequate sewage treatment, the use of manure, fertilizers and pesticides in agriculture, and high levels of concentrated nitrate and phosphorus seeping into the ground from landfills, animal farms, and mining operations.

Long-term exposure to any of the these contaminants poses serious health risks to people and animals.   At present over a million Hungarians drink water that, according to the National Public Health and Medical Officer Service (ÁNTSZ), contains contaminants which increase the risk of serious illness and disease, including cancer.  An estimated 300 Hungarians die each year as a result of consuming arsenic-contaminated groundwater.

Agriculture, mining (coal, gold, uranium), and commercial livestock have also contributed to the challenge of ensuring all Hungarians have access to safe drinking water.

But while representatives of the Hungarian government promote the country’s water-decontaminating technology and expertise to countries like Kuwait, Vietnam, Azerbaijan, and Indonesia, it seems Hungary itself has yet to fully avail itself of this technology.

Hungary failed to meet 2012 deadline for implementing EU Drinking Water Directive

In 1998 the Council of the European Union adopted “Council Directive 98/83/EC of 3 November 1998 on the quality of water intended for human consumption”, otherwise known as the Drinking Water Directive.

The Directive set forth EU drinking water standards, specifying 48 microbiological and chemical indicators which must be monitored and tested regularly to ensure the quality of water intended for human consumption.

Hungary formally adopted the standards set forth by the European Union’s 1998 Drinking Water Directive in 2001. Hungarian authorities decided on a two-phased plan that was supposed to bring Hungary’s at-risk regions into full compliance by the end of 2006, and the rest of the country by the end of 2009.  However, in 2003 the National Development Agency acknowledged that there were virtually no national funds available to finance this program, but that upon joining the EU the following year Hungary could obtain over HUF 100 billion in EU grants.

In 2004 EU funding was utilized for two projects that brought safe drinking water to about 70 settlements at a cost of around HUF 9.5 billion. Inexplicably, these were the only two projects to be undertaken prior to 2013.

Hungary having failed to meet the 25 December 2009 deadline for providing safe drinking water to all of its settlements, the European Commission gave Hungary until 2012 to comply with the EU Drinking Water Directive.  The deadline came and went without Hungary meeting its commitment.

Lack of resources and fear of political repercussions causes inaction

Hungarian news website Origo.hu published an article in 2013 on Hungary’s failure to comply with the directive.  Interviewing over twenty individuals, including mayors, water distribution executives, regional public tender organizers, regional politicians, and government officials, both former and current, Origo reported that efforts to encourage local governments to take the initiative to solve the problem had failed for a variety of reasons, including lack of financial resources, a desire not to incite panic, and political considerations.

One of the individuals interviewed by Origo.hu said, “Now honestly, who gives a crap about arsenic? Those who were interested had no influence, and it wasn’t in the interest of those who did have influence to make anything happen.”

Origo reported that the residents of those settlements affected by Hungary’s contaminated drinking water were often unaware of the problem, reporting that “while Hungary’s government has failed to provide adequate structural solutions to addressing the problem of contaminated drinking water, it has stepped up efforts to distribute clean water at the affected settlements with the help of its armed forces”.

At one such settlement in January 2013, Origo.hu asked a man to share his thoughts about the contaminated drinking water situation. “No one ever told us that our water was not good, and we have been drinking it since we were born. Just now we’re reading articles on the internet about how our water is contaminated with arsenic. We’re sending the articles back and forth to each other and laughing because we’ll probably need to have one of our lungs removed to make room for our enormous livers,” the man said while standing next to a military vehicle.

Marta Vargha of the Hungarian Environmental Health Institute told Origo.hu that the Hungarian government’s National Public Health and Medical Officer Service, or ÁNTSZ, started a campaign in 2009 to raise public awareness about the issue. The campaign even targeted the mayors of small settlements and water companies about how it is their responsibility to inform consumers of these problems.

But it seems this was not in the interest of either the mayors or the water companies.

The mayor of one such settlement told Origo.hu that “people will only pay their water bill if they are getting healthy water.  That’s why it wasn’t in the interest of the water companies to inform the customers of the arsenic-contaminated water. Even with a good attorney, the best a settlement’s residents could hope for is a reduced water fee, or some kind of compensation for those who have become ill, and nobody wanted that.” The mayor also pointed out that water providers and political decision-makers were afraid of the “panic or huge public outcry” that might result from public awareness of the arsenic-contaminated water, which is why they were eager to downplay, or understate, the significance of the problem.

The mayor’s comments were not unfounded. Last year, Hungary’s small-town and regional newspapers referred to the water coming out of people’s faucets as “arsenic containing water” and to the water being distributed by members of the armed forces as “healthy water”.

Water providers justified inaction by shifting the blame onto EU technocrats, claiming that the quality of Hungary’s drinking water hadn’t actually got any worse, only “the measurements have changed”, and that the water is “drinkable, just not compliant.”  The city of Mak’s official website tried to allay people’s fears by announcing that “The current level of arsenic in the water is like if someone threw a concentrated drop of arsenic in a watertower.”

Why didn’t the local governments want to decontaminate the water?

Speaking anonymously, an employee of a regional fund distributing agency told Origo.hu, “The first big mistake was that the government assumed all it had to do was put the money in the window and that alone would be enough to attract the local governments – who enjoy complete autonomy in deciding their own water management issues – to apply for tenders and solve their problems for themselves.”

“Decontaminating arsenic-contaminated water isn’t like building a stadium or digging a well. The fact that people can’t actually see the difference makes it hard for the people to get excited about it,” one source told Origo.hu, “Unlike in the 1980s and 1990s when it was a big deal and exciting for rural Hungarians to finally have access to natural gas lines, people are getting excited about broadband internet and sewer lines. It’s no coincidence that sewer-line construction enjoys more popularity: people are thankful to their mayor because their excrement now disappears with a single move and they no longer have to clean up around the outhouses.  But arsenic decontamination? Billions are spent on that. When it’s all done, the same old colorless and odorless water runs from the faucet, just like before. What’s more, it’s likely that the waters well-established taste even changes after it has been decontaminated.”

While the EU funding only covers the structural improvements needed to facilitate clean drinking water, the long-term sustainability of the proposed decontamination operations would need to be paid for by the local water fees. That alone made some mayors wary of delivering a solution because higher water fees could cause them to lose elections.

Some mayors estimated the rise in water fees to be anywhere between HUF 150 and HUF 250 per cubic meter, while others thought annual water fees would double.

Some mayors, like Szentes mayor Imre Szirbik, didn’t see the point – “My grandma lived for 101 years in a settlement of the Hungarian Great Plain that has the second highest amount of arsenic-contamination in its water. I’m 60 years old and I’ve been drinking this water since my childhood. Nowadays many people don’t believe this is a real problem, and that a few self-important agencies are trying to prove themselves in front of everybody.” According to Szirbik, lots of mayors felt like they were being forced into this program but remained hopeful that “people would finally come to their senses and realize that the luxury of flushing their toilets with arsenic-free water is unnecessary.” Szirbik also said there were problems with the technology used to decontaminate the water and that for a long time people didn’t even know how to decontaminate the water.

According to the Szirbik, the lack of local funding had nothing to do with the town of Szentes not addressing their contaminated water, although apparently many small towns were either unable or unwilling to contribute the 10 to 15 percent of the total investment necessary to undertake the project with EU funds.

One mayor told Origo.hu that his village had the will, but not the means. “The initial cost estimates for the village were HUF 250 million, and the 10 percent we would have had to put up would have been HUF 25 million. All the while, our village only receives HUF 17 million in subsidies from the government and we hardly have any other sources of income”.

The forming of regional partnerships

One of the conditions to meet in order to qualify for the EU funding was for settlements to partner up and seek solutions that would serve a number of settlements within a region.

One such consortium consisted of a number of settlements in the Northern Great Plain region.  Others were also formed and had their water management proposals and projects placed under the jurisdiction of the regional National Development Agency. However, many of the local mayors remained distrustful of the projects because they believed that  compartmentalizing and assigning separate responsibility for separate parts of the projects increased the likelihood of failure.

“As is customarily the case, this was a truly good Hungarian project”, says Bela Nagy, the mayor of a small village.

Many people were expecting to get lots of money out of this, and so began the battles over preparations and planning, and tuning-up of costs increased greatly because to accommodate for the expenses that needed to be accounted for. Horrid amounts of money were spent on preparations. If we look back at just how much, we would realize that the money spent on preparations alone on this region’s declining population would have been enough to pay virgins in white dresses to hand deliver buckets of water for five years.

According to Nagy, his village was so small that its vote in the regional consortium was hardly enough to give it any real representation in the large group of settlements.  Nagy continues:

I didn’t want to hinder bringing a solution to the problem, but that my only interest was to make sure my settlement would receive only what it needed and to ensure only the required technology because, firstly, I wanted to make sure the cost to our settlement was as low as possible, and secondly, because it was clear that our settlement would have to pay higher water fees in the future to cover the operational costs. I asked how much the water fees were expected to rise every time the consortium met. Those who were in a position to answer never gave me one. It was as if a majority of the mayors didn’t even care about the consequences, or they simply bowed-down because they thought the larger settlements and politicians would decide without them anyway. If anyone spoke up or placed a question to the planners, the consortium’s entire council would start staring at their watches as if they were waiting for the chance to go home.

National government steps in

After Fdesz-KDNP came to power in 2010 the Ministry of the Interior took over the water management responsibilities which had previously been overseen by the Ministry of Rural Development.  As one official told Origo.hu, “What couldn’t be accomplished in the last 10 years would now be muscled through by (Interior Minister) Pinter.”

In addition to assuming responsibility for managing temporary solutions to the water contamination problem, the national government took steps to ensure it would be the one to exclusively manage the problem, giving itself the right to take over any local government project deemed to be at-risk of not being completed in time. The government also gave itself the authority to award tenders through accelerated public procurement proceedings.

By the time the national government decided to step in and take charge of improving Hungary’s drinking water in 2013, a majority of Hungary’s local governments had already issued public tenders relating to water decontamination.

One source close to the matter told Origo.hu, “Every single call for tenders [related to the Drinking Water Directive] is being announced right now. Even if every available company submitted tenders, we’ll be happy if they can complete the work before time runs out” and the project no longer qualifies for EU funding.

Having stripped local governments of the authority to undertake such projects on their own, the national government proceeded to take over 33 such projects by October 2013. The 33 projects will improve the water quality for 227 settlements. (Origo.hu estimates these projects will reach half of those affected by the contaminated water).

The National Water Management Administration (under the Ministry of the Interior) handles everything from issuing the call for public procurement tenders to deciding who is awarded the contracts.

Of the 33 projects, eleven are still in the planning phase. To date contracts have been awarded for just two of the projects.  A tender for the second project valued was announced in January 2014.  Initially projected to cost HUF 30 billion, the contract was recently awarded through public tender to a consortium of five companies for HUF 34 billion.

An article published yesterday by Origo.hu looked at the ownership of the companies which have so far been awarded contracts for the water decontamination projects. Origo.hu writes that a number of the winning companies have either little or no experience in any such related projects, and are owned by prominent Fidesz supporters or by people close to prominent Fidesz politicians and officials, including the CEO of the state-owned National Tobacco Concession Company. So far, the companies that have been awarded the tenders include Meszaros and Meszaros (owned by Felcsut mayor Lorincz Meszaros, a former classmate and personal friend of Prime Minister Viktor Orban) and companies owned in part by Orban’s son-in-law and a Fidesz MP.

It is obvious that the Fidesz-KDNP government is eager to award the balance of the contracts in time to avoid missing out on EU funding. Let’s hope water decontamination experts at Meszaros & Meszaros and other companies close to Fidesz know what they’re doing.

Referenced in this article:

Geochemistry and arsenic behaviour in groundwater resources of the Pannonian Basin (Hungary and Romania), Applied Geochemistry, Volume 26, Issue 1, January 2011, pages 1-17.

Ammonium removal from drinking water – comparison of the breakpoint chlorination and the biological technology, BME Department of Sanitary and Environmental Engineering

GUIDE: GROUNDWATERS IN HUNGARY II. compiled by the Water Management Directorate of VITUKI Environmental Protection and Water Management Research Institute on behalf of the Ministry for Environment and Water

A szűz lányok nem jöttek, a mérgezett víz maradt, Origo.hu; 2 April 2013.

Az arzént is meg lehet szokni, Origo.hu; 5 January 2014.

Szűk körnek osztanak csak lapot az év egyik legnagyobb bizniszében, 22 April 2014.