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Adaptation At The Sub-basin Level: Innovation And Tribulation In The Tisza

Congress: 2015
Author(s): Shanna McClain (Carbondale, USA)

Keyword(s): Sub-theme 12: Transboundary river basins and shared aquifers,
Abstract McClain, S.

Watershed Science & Policy NSF IGERT Program, Southern Illinois University-Carbondale, Carbondale, IL, USA

The Tisza River Basin is the largest sub-basin to the most international basin in the world--the Danube--and faces several water management challenges that are exacerbated by climate change. The European Union Water Framework Directive guides water management at the basin level, but not at the sub-basin level. The Tisza sub-basin, however, is larger than most of the basins present throughout Europe, yet actions are not consistently taken to govern adaptation at the sub-basin level. As a result, the Tisza sub-basin has had difficulties in developing and operationalizing frameworks to address climate change impacts and reduce climate-related vulnerabilities at the sub-basin level.


Comprising nearly 20% of the Danube River Basin, the Tisza sub-basin stretches across Hungary, Romania, Serbia, Slovakia, and Ukraine. While the countries of the Tisza share in the natural beauty and other benefits, they also share the challenges related to severe flooding, water scarcity and drought, and land and soil erosion, as well as poor water quality from agriculture, industry, and mining. Increasing variability in water availability and increasing severity in extreme weather events due to climate change threaten to exacerbate existing risks in the Tisza, as in other rivers.

The EU Water Framework Directive (WFD) guides European water management at the basin level and incorporates an adaptive approach through five-year cyclical basin management plans. The Tisza countries have proven unique in this regard by forging a Memorandum of Understanding to manage activities at the sub-basin level. From this MOU, a formal Tisza Group was formed and housed within the International Commission for the Protection of the Danube River (ICPDR). An additional innovation is the formal recognition of climate change as a combined pressure to both water quality and quantity in the Tisza Basin Management Plan.

Though an effective institutional structure has been developed at the Danube basin level (namely, the ICPDR), the WFD guides management at the basin level, not at the sub-basin level. The WFD also provides that national legislation address environmental pressures to the basin. The option of supplementing basin management plans with detailed programs for managing different sectors, issues, water types, and sub-basins is mentioned in the WFD, but only as a warning that these will not exempt Member States from their obligations to basin level management. This presents further challenges when considering that funding from the EU can be obtained from multiple levels, but due to the formation of basin organizations, the projects are typically applied for by the ICPDR. Projects can be undertaken at the sub-basin level, but it requires coordinated action by the Tisza Group, which was established as the platform for coordination among international, regional, and national activities, and ensuring harmonization of activities across the sub-basin. A further challenge arises from interstate politics and differing opinions on the future of the Tisza Group. Whether activities in the Tisza sub-basin should occur solely on an ad hoc basis, whether the Tisza should have a formal Commission (as its sister sub-basin the Sava has), or whether the Tisza Group should be designated as a permanent expert group to be housed at the ICPDR have been discussed without resolution to date.


A questionnaire containing 22 open- and close-ended questions was administered to more than 70 individuals with a working knowledge of the Danube basin and Tisza sub-basin. The questionnaire was designed to elicit information on adaptive governance in the Tisza sub-basin, and how it relates to polycentric governance. The interviews were conducted from January to July 2013. Responses were integrated into a qualitative analysis, along with relevant literature reviews, throughout the paper.


Responses indicated that adaptation is guided by the cyclical process of the EU Water Framework Directive at the basin level via the ICPDR, as well as through national level actions by governments. However, it is important to note that climate change is not explicitly mentioned in the Water Framework Directive. Although the Tisza sub-basin is larger than 64 of the 71 European basins, no legally binding instrument exists to manage adaptation at the sub-basin level, which gives limited attention to adaptation in the Tisza. Responses reflected that the majority of Tisza-related projects occurred at the local level, via pilot projects funded by the EU, and did not include activities where two or more Tisza countries were involved. Additionally, responses indicated that political, legal, and financial challenges exist in determining how to manage sub-basin level activities.


To achieve successful adaptive governance, institutions should be resilient through the uncertainties linked with climate change. However, the policy and management platform must exist for these activities to take place. Building and utilizing coordinated networks such as the ICPDR can help pool resources and people under a common position, and can be a vital strategy for developing ideas and maintaining continuity. While the Tisza Group was created to manage the pressures on water resources in the Tisza, the activities of this group have faltered as a result of inadequate funding, unclear direction, and the lack of a legal framework to direct these actions.


Ultimately, adaptation efforts in the Tisza sub-basin raise questions of effectiveness of subsidiarity. Subsidiarity is a guiding principle for EU governance that requires action--and interaction--beyond that of international, national, and local levels. However, there are challenges with managing transboundary waters in a nested, consistent, and effective manner at the sub-basin level within the existing EU legal and policy frameworks. Drawing from the literature of polycentric and adaptive governance, and from interviews conducted within the Danube basin and Tisza sub-basin, this paper concludes that inadequate political attention and resources are provided at the sub-basin level. As a result, the Tisza sub-basin has been unable to effectively address climate change impacts and reduce climate-related vulnerabilities at the sub-basin level.

2011 IWRA - International Water Resources Association - - Admin