Transboundary: Addressing management issues in a complex environment, Tisza River Basin (#346)

The Tisza River is faced with deteriorating water quality as well as floods with increasing frequency and levels. These issues are exacerbated by climate change. Action has been taken, both by national authorities, international actors and NGOs to develop more adaptive management schemes. The key lesson is that in water management, the biggest problem is the weak coordination among different fields and interests – such as agriculture, nature, navigation, flood defence.  


The Tisza river is one of the biggest tributaries of the Danube with a total catchment size of 157,218km² (14.4 million inhabitants) that covers in different parts the territories of Ukraine, Slovakia, Hungary, Romania and Serbia and Montenegro. Next to problems of water quality and pollution, one of the major problems and a big challenge the Tisza river basin is faced are floods with increasing frequency and level.

Alongside climate change, there are a number of anthropogenic factors increasing flood risk and damage caused by floods in the Tisza river basin. Among them the most important are reduction of water storage capacity by river regulation, deforestation, urbanization and surface sealing in the river valley due to human activities (settlements, commercial infrastructure, agriculture) in flood-prone areas.

As a consequence of climate change (CC) summer droughts affect the basin with increasing frequency. Socio-economically, the Tisza basin is characterised by major spatial disparities of mean income, unemployment and net-migration.

Action taken

River basin is of international interest and importance – the ICPDR has its Tisza expert commission and several NGOs with international relevance deals with the Tisza (FoE, Tisza Alliance – SZÖVET, Tisza Club; WWF - Hungary).

There are local people, NGO’s and also from regional water management that are seeking to develop more adaptive management schemes, which recently has been conceptually harmonized with the support of the NeWater project.

There are many international projects working particularly in the Hungarian part of the basin (ADAM,, SCENES, www.ymparisto.fy/scenes, CLIMATEWATER,

To address flood risk, several workshops, mental modelling sessions, tool development sessions, Training for Trainers activities and an active participation at international conferences had been undertaken as dissemination activities.

Lessons learned and importance of the case for IWRM

  • In water management the biggest problem is the weak coordination among different fields and interests – such as agriculture, nature, navigation, flood defense. Many overlaps between the responsibilities at different levels – municipalities, land owners, state land users, forest managers are a major problem. Communication and data exchange are poor. Combined, multi-purpose activities, projects have limited budgets. Traditional strengths and belief in technical water management characterise decision making of water managers while alternative soft measures and risk mitigation options are refused or weakened.
  • There is recognition and awareness of problems related to climate change and openness for new more adaptive (a.o. soft) approaches, such as integrated floodplain management. Society and specific interest groups are realizing ecological services – such as the sponge effect, shallow flooding to improve solid forming processes carbon sequestration. Micro grant fund established by the SZÖVET – Tisza Alliance and supported by the UNDP highlight the importance of the decentralized small scale measures in adaptive river basin management (
  • Economic weakness and dependence on national budgets in most of basins’ riparian states that might endanger all positive developments. The cross border cooperation is limited for “high level issues” and not tackling important threats such as PEP waste pollution from Ukraine or increased risk of potential mining sludge spill due to flash floods in Romania. Water as a commodity, as a common value to protect is not a guiding principle in the transboundary catchments. 

Photo credit: Zolakoma