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Austria and Hungary battle nature to stop lake vanishing

ILLMITZ, AUSTRIA (AFP) – Kitesurfers and windsurfers dot picturesque Lake Neusiedl on the Austrian-Hungarian border – but the water is so low some get stuck in the mud.

The salt lake and its marshes – the largest of its kind in Europe and a UNESCO world heritage site – could soon run completely dry, and locals are worried.

The lake, only an hour from Vienna, last dried up in the 1860s yet was naturally replenished by rainwater.

But back then it wasn’t drawing millions of tourists, nor was the area producing 120,000 tons of crops a year.

“Letting the lake and the region run dry is not an option,” provincial councillor Heinrich Dorner told AFP.

To avert what he sees as an economic disaster, Dorner is banking of a series of major projects, the biggest being a canal to bring fresh water from the Danube river in Hungary.

Kitesurfers and windsurfers dot picturesque Lake Neusiedl on the Austrian-Hungarian border. PHOTO: AFP

But the plans have run into opposition from environmentalists, who fear any interference could accelerate the demise of the lake, the westernmost outpost of the great Eurasian Steppe.

Hungary has tasked a company owned by one of its richest men, Lorinc Meszaros, with building the canal, though work has not yet started, according to a municipal official.

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

But activists are against both on environmental grounds and over fears of corruption. “The canal project is unacceptable… (and will) destroy the whole ecosystem” of the lake region, Katalin Rodics of Greenpeace Hungary told AFP.

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

As its salty bed is exposed to saline-loving bacteria, algae, plankton and mud decompose, dry out and are swept away by the wind.

If fresh water from the Danube ends up being flushed into the lake, this could dilute the saline levels and stop the natural process, said the WWF’s Bernhard Kohler.

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

But councillor Dorner insisted this is not an option.

As well as the canal, he hopes to dredge out one million cubic metres of mud to deepen the lake for boating.