Data Is Power
Washington Needs to Craft New Rules for the Digital Age
THE Hungary of pre-war days had a shape somewhat resembling a soupplate, a border of hills and high tablelands and a low, flat center. For hundreds of years that center remained in a primitive condition. From all the surrounding hills the rivers poured their waters down into the level plain, which the floods of centuries had made one vast marsh. Settlements were formed only on the scattered knolls that rose like islands out of the morass. These few tiny villages were in constant danger of floods, for only a few feet increase in the height of the surrounding water would completely ruin every settlement. Communication between them was practically impossible, and the life led by their inhabitants was primitive in the extreme. The surrounding swamps were unhealthy and malarial. The few sickly inhabitants had to eke out a miserable existence through fishing and duck-hunting, and, in the dryer places, through herding cattle, sheep and horses. Such was the picture of Hungary to be gained from the writings of English and American travellers who saw the central plain fifty years or more ago. John Paget in 1838, Arthur Patterson in 1867, and even Ellen Browning in 1896, all described it as a dreary waste where almost no men dwelt. But it is not necessary to quote the works of travellers from foreign lands. Hungary's most popular poet, Petöfi Sándor, was a child of the great plain, and nearly all his works speak of the monotonous, dreary life of the fishermen and shepherds in the isolated settlements.
When I went to Hungary last summer I expected to see something of this life, but I searched for it in vain. I travelled through the center of that great plain, all along the eastern border of Hungary. Where was the life that Petöfi sang about and that early travellers described? It has almost entirely vanished, for the marshes are no more. Last June I saw, south of Szegedin, finer fields of wheat than I had ever seen before in my life. Making inquiry about the section, I found that it used to be the duck-hunting marsh of Count Sziráky. The south of the County of Szabolcs was a very different place from what I had expected. Instead of drifting sand dunes, interspersed with stagnant pools and swamps, I saw a landscape dotted with attractive bits of woodland, the entire region very intensively cultivated and densely settled with a prosperous farming population. Farther on, in the old region of the Ecsedi Lap in the County of Szatmár, I looked in vain for the smallest fragments of the famous marsh, from the blue lights of which the peasantry derived so many tales of the Will o' the Wisp, or Lidercz. The old marsh land gives a humus loam which produces tremendous crops. It was not the country I had read about. Some miracle had changed that barren waste into one of the finest agricultural regions in the world.
The impulse to this work of transformation came in the days before 1848, when an awakened Hungary felt the thrill of self-consciousness and sought to burst the shackles that bound her to the House of Austria. The Iron Gates at Orsova, where the Danube passed out of the territory of former Hungary through a narrow chasm in the Carpathians, were widened and enlarged by the use of dynamite. This engineering feat prepared the way for the straightening of the smaller rivers which wandered at will over the perfectly level plain. Embankments were built along the sides of the new more direct channels. This was the most stupendous part of the entire undertaking, and required the labor of armies of men for years. Finally success was attained, and the Danube, Tisza, Maros, Berettyó, Körös and other rivers flowed faster through shorter channels, between high protecting walls. The marshy interior waters were then drained off through a network of canals, from which the slow-moving water was forced out by powerful electric pumps. Finally, sluice gates and locks were constructed to prevent the water from flowing back into the areas regained for agriculture.
When the work was finished, millions of acres had been reclaimed in Hungary. Of this area, 4,000,000 acres remain in Hungary since the Treaty of the Trianon; and this portion which she still holds constitutes one quarter of the entire area of the present Hungary.
The entire region originally reclaimed was divided into districts which were geographical units. The inhabitants of each district were responsible for the condition of the embankments, the sluice-gates and the pumping stations within their area. For this purpose the district was thoroughly organized. Trained engineers were employed, guard houses were placed at frequent intervals along the banks, and at flood time the guards patrolled the banks night and day. The expense of this was met by taxes levied on the property holders of the district.
The second main precaution was the organization of a system of water reports. Every village in Hungary was compelled to send a report every morning to the Department of Agriculture in Budapest. This report gave the amount of rainfall during the preceding twenty-four hours, and the rise or fall of the level of the rivers and streams. From these reports Budapest compiled and sent out charts showing at a glance the sections which might be threatened by floods in the near future. If the reports showed heavy rainfall in the Transylvanian mountains and a swelling of the mountain streams, the people of Szegedin would expect to encounter the effect of this in a certain number of days or hours. From long experience they had come to know almost exactly the length of time required for floods on the headwaters of the Maros to reach its confluence with the Tisza. And to know ahead was to prepare. If the coming flood was likely to be unusually severe, the people of the affected districts would set to work to heighten the embankments, and that there might be no delay at a critical hour vast stores of suitable material were kept ready along the banks.
The third precaution went still farther in eliminating the cause of floods. Though the country might need timber, none was allowed to be removed from the high mountain sides. So long as the hillsides were covered with forests, heavy rainfalls were less likely to cause floods. Meanwhile, many sections of the lowlands were reforested, and an attempt was made to supply the entire needs of the country without removing any timber from those places where the flood prevention program might be interfered with.
This finely planned system of flood prevention was of course completely disrupted by the Treaty of the Trianon. When the new boundaries of Central Europe were arranged, no thought was taken of the matter. The self-determination of nationalities and their military defense were taken as the paramount issues. The wooded mountains came under the rule of Czechoslovakia or Rumania and these nations needed timber and money. Thus, many hillsides have become bare. The rain in many places has already washed down the thin layer of earth, and where once forests stood nothing but rock can now be seen. As a result, the full force of mountain storms is beginning to be felt almost immediately in the plains. (Note: At the Peace Conference the Hungarians proposed that an international commission should be appointed, with regulatory powers over forests and in other matters of mutual concern; and such a commission has lately been constituted.)
It was not to be expected that Czechoslovak, Rumanian and Jugoslav officials would send daily rainfall reports to the Hungarian Department of Agriculture at Budapest. Though the lowlying Hungarian villages still send in their reports, small benefit can be derived from the resulting charts as such a system is practically useless unless it is complete. What is more, the sections where the floods begin are now entirely in Czechoslovak or Rumanian territory. Yet the present Hungary is the region where they will cause their greatest damage. And the people of the plains are no longer able to know in advance what is coming.
The worst feature of the present political arrangement, however, is that practically every one of the local flood defense districts is disrupted. These districts were geographical units, and were divided not according to ethnological, historical or political lines, but solely with a view toward the efficient guarding of the embankments and the prevention of floods. The new borders cut right across these districts. Of course it is useless to protect the embankments on one side of the new boundary unless they are protected on the other side. Even if the Hungarians keep up the embankments on their side of the border, there is the danger that the nation on the other side will fail to keep its embankments in proper condition. If the river breaks through beyond the border, then the water will spread out all over the plain. That the plains may be safe, it is necessary for the Little Entente states to guard the embankments quite as zealously as Hungary does. But they do not like to spend money and labor on something that will simply protect the citizens of Hungary. To a great extent they are neglecting the banks of the rivers in their newly acquired territories.
Last summer I myself approached the border on many of these embankments. On the Hungarian side at very frequent intervals were large piles of brushwood and other material suitable for strengthening the banks and making them higher. On the Little Entente side there was no sign of any such material. At frequent intervals on the Hungarian side were the huts of the embankment guards. On the Rumanian and Jugoslav sides of the river there were no embankment guards. While Hungary was guarding the embankments, the Jugoslavs and Rumanians were guarding the border. This neglect has seriously harmed the canals, the business of which was to draw off the interior waters. Even though the rivers do not burst their banks, still a great deal of interior water remains in the soil and interferes with agriculture.
It might seem that a solution for these difficulties would be for Hungary to build embankments all along the border, so that the foreign waters could not drain down into Hungarian soil and so that there might be no danger even if embankments should break further up-stream. Apart from the undesirability of building a new Chinese Wall around Hungary to shut her off from her neighbors, there is the further difficulty that this defense has been expressly forbidden by the Treaty of the Trianon (III, 292), for fear that it might be used for military purposes.
Last December the inevitable happened. Heavy rains in the mountains caused torrents to sweep down the denuded hillsides of Transylvania. The waters spread out between the towns of Vésztö and Okány in Eastern Hungary. Thousands of peasant homes were covered by the floods. Many people died of starvation clinging to the tops of trees. It seems futile to send money to relieve the survivors, for under present conditions every year threatens to bring a repetition of the disaster. The only help worth while must remove the cause of the floods, and this, it seems, can only be done by neighborly agreement between Hungary and the Little Entente states. It is to be hoped such agreement, part of a general political and economic understanding, will not long be delayed.