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Austria and Hungary fight nature to stop the disappearance of the lake – Science-Environment News – Report by AFR

Kitesurfers and windsurfers flock to scenic Lake Neusiedl on the Austro-Hungarian border — but the water is so low some get stuck in the mud.

The salt lake and its marshes – the largest of their kind in Europe and a UNESCO World Heritage Site – may soon dry up completely, and locals are concerned.

The lake, just an hour from Vienna, last dried up in the 1860s but has been naturally replenished by rainwater.

But back then, it didn’t attract millions of tourists, nor did the area produce 120,000 tons of crops a year.

“Letting the lake and the region dry up is not an option,” said regional councilor Heinrich Dorner of the AFP news agency.

To avert what he sees as an economic catastrophe, Dorner is banking on a series of major projects, the largest of which is a canal that will bring fresh water from the Danube to Hungary.

But the plans have met opposition from environmentalists who fear any interference could hasten the sinking of the lake, the westernmost outpost of the great Eurasian steppe.

– ‘Natural cycle’ –

Hungary has hired a company owned by one of its wealthiest men, Lorinc Meszaros, to build the canal, although work has not yet started, according to a municipality official.

Meszaros, who is close to Prime Minister Viktor Orban, is already leading a huge real estate project on the Hungarian side of the lake, including building a marina, a sports complex and a hotel.

However, activists oppose it for both environmental reasons and fears of corruption. “The canal project is unacceptable… (and will) destroy the entire ecosystem of the lake region,” Greenpeace Hungary’s Katalin Rodics told AFP.

While other lakes fill up naturally over millennia, the shallow Lake Neusiedl – which Hungarians call Ferto – dries up naturally about once a century.

As its saline soil is exposed to salt-loving bacteria, algae, plankton and mud decompose, dry up and are carried away by the wind.

If freshwater from the Danube washes into the lake, it could dilute the salinity and stop the natural process, said Bernhard Kohler of WWF.

“It’s a natural cycle,” Kohler said. “We just have to learn to live with it again.”

But Councilman Dorner insisted that was not an option.

Alongside the canal, he hopes to dredge a million cubic yards of mud to deepen the lake for boating.

Farmers would also need to switch from water-intensive crops like potatoes, corn and soybeans, Dorner said, and instead plant spelt, sorghum or other crops better suited to arid climates.

Or even with wine, because world-famous grapes are already growing in the sandbanks of the salt marshes.

– Apocalyptic Landscape –

The last time Lake Neusiedl dried up was in the 1860s, leaving behind an almost apocalyptic landscape. Historians describe dusty clouds of salt that inflame people’s eyes, pile up in fields, and spoil crops.

Fish also died, and locals “complained that if the lake’s dry spell continues, they will starve to death”. But three years later, the water began its miraculous return.

But now, with tributaries cut off and more people relying on the lake than ever before, there are doubts as to how long a recovery would take.

Rain, the lake’s lifeline, is now also increasingly falling in summer, when it evaporates more quickly, as overall temperatures have risen and heat waves have increased due to climate change.

State water management manager Christian Sailer said it was necessary to save the “very complex region”.

“The climate is changing and that is having a negative impact on the lake,” he told AFP.

Last month more than 100 canoeists and rowers staged a rally on the lake to sound the alarm, some holding placards reading ‘Our lake must not die’.

And it’s not just the lake that’s disappearing.

There were once more than 100 salt marshes in the region, but due to the dramatic drop in groundwater levels, about 60 are “irretrievably lost,” said Johannes Ehrenfeldner, director of the Neusiedler See-Seewinkel National Park.

Many of the 350 species birders observe depend on these salty ecosystems, and if they dry up, “bird numbers will decrease,” Ehrenfeldner said, his binoculars trained on a black-and-white avocet scooping tiny crabs out of the mud .

“We run with our eyes open to our own demise,” he added.

#Austria #Hungary #fight #nature #stop #disappearance #lake

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