Hungary’s Landscape, Climate and Water Flow

Located in the lowest part of the Carpathian Basin, 84% of the country lies below 200m, with only 2% above 400m (mountain peaks reach 1,015m in the north) and river gradients are generally low. Rivers enter from the west, north and east and drain southwards. The Hungarian Danube traverses 417km, forming the border with Slovakia in the NW and afterwards flowing south. In the east, also flowing southwards is the Tisza, covering 595km before reaching Serbia where it later flows into the Danube.

Hungary is located at the “meeting point” of weather fronts (varying widely in direction and type), but overall has a moderate climate with strong continental influence. Seasons are usually well defined, with July and August averaging 28-30°C and December and January down to –15°C. Annual precipitation is 600mm with ranges of 300-1,200mm (decreasing over the last century); while evapotranspiration rates are similar at 500-600mm/year.

Natural highlights include:

  • the Danube-Dráva National Park - international protection for 500km2 of Danube/Dráva riverine habitat with a unique 28,000ha wetland, one of few remaining natural Danube floodplains;
  • the Szigetköz Landscape Protected Area - part of the Fertő-Hanság National Park and a Natura 2000 site comprising branching streams, old oxbows, gallery forests and wet meadows (NW Hungary);
  • Lake Balaton – the largest lake in the Danube Basin (605km2 surface area containing 2 million m3 of water) and a well known tourist area (west Hungary).

Manmade Impacts

62% of Hungary (5.8 million ha) comprises a fertile plain used for agriculture, with forests covering a further 19% of the territory. Out of the 3,200 settlements, the major cities are Budapest (greater metropolitan area: 2.5 million inhabitants), Győr (127,000), Miskolc (172,000) Debrecen (203,000) Szeged (158,000) and Pécs (157,000).

The vast majority of Hungary’s waterworks are reliant on groundwater: more than 90% of the population is supplied in this way. Water utilities supply 560 million m3 of drinking water/year and a further 240 million m3 water for economic and other public uses. Annual industrial and agricultural abstraction accounts for almost 5000 million m3 and 680 million m3 respectively: 95.48% of industrial use is power generation; 68% of agricultural use is for fishponds; 27% for irrigation.

Major rivers are important for transportation and Hungary contains 1,600km of navigable waterways. The Danube and Tisza are key international routes while the Dráva is used for internal transport. Cargo transport is very small (currently ca. 8-10% on the Danube and only 1-2% on the Tisza) and potential is limited by the lack of a connection between the two rivers. The water regime highly relies on the flow regime and has a major impact on the efficiency of shipping transport. Hungary’s rivers also play a vital role in disposing of effluent, as they are the major recipients of both municipal and industrial wastewater. There is little potential for hydroelectric power (ca. 1% of energy production generated by hydropower).

With 21,712km2 of Hungary below river flood level, flood control is a key consideration. Crucially, this area includes 1.8 million ha arable land, 32% of the rail network, 15% of roads and 2,000+ industrial plants.
The highest flood discharge in the Danube is 20 times low flow; flooding on the major rivers can last several months. In smaller rivers e.g. the Körös system, the ratio is several hundred to one and floods can develop in a few hours. Devastating, fast-rising ice-jam floods are especially dangerous. Flood control over past centuries has resulted in the construction of 4,181km of defences (mainly earthen embankments). Ten emergency lowland flood reservoirs (with a total volume of 360 million m3) provide protection for 97% of the floodplain area.


Out of 876 natural and 150 artificial water bodies identified in Hungary, 579 freshwater surface bodies have been classified as being “at risk” from organic, nutrient or priority hazardous substances (according to EU Water Framework Directive definitions). Approximately 70% of artificial lakes (mainly fishponds) are “at risk” from organic and nutrient loads. Organic and nutrient loads from point/diffuse sources are as follows (in 1,000 t/year); total nitrogen: 24.8/20.0; total phosphorus: 3.9/3.0; BOD5 (Biochemical Oxygen Demand): 60.0/3.2; COD (Chemical Oxygen Demand): 12.3/20.5. Point source load is mainly from urban discharges (80%-95% depending on pollutant).

None of the 108 groundwater bodies identified are considered to be “at risk” due to human intervention, but 46 sites are listed as “possibly at risk” (mostly from nitrate pollution from diffuse sources). Pollution has made phreatic groundwater near the surface unfit for drinking water - 349 water bodies have been identified as “at risk” and 234 “possibly at risk” from hydro-morphological alterations. These represent 42% and 25% of the total length of Hungarian water bodies respectively. In the case of lakes, 47 water bodies are “possibly at risk”, including Lake Balaton. 

For more detailed information and statistics on the above, download the fact sheet below.



  • » Tisza Basin
    The Tisza River Basin, covering a total of 157,186 km², is the largest sub-basin in the Danube River Basin. The Tisza River is the longest tributary of the Danube (966 km), and the second largest (after the Sava River) in terms of flow. The states in the Tisza Basin agreed on a close transboundary co-operation, aiming to achieve integrated management of the Tisza River Basin.
  • » Drava Basin
    The Drava River is the fourth largest, as well as the fourth longest Danube tributary. It connects the Alps with the Danube and the Black Sea. The Drava has been considerably regulated with dams constructed to generate hydroelectricity and channels dredged to direct its flow. Nevertheless, natural habitats along the middle and lower reaches host unique varieties of flora and fauna, and several endemic species.
  • » Flood Safety Projects along the Tisza river in Hungary
    Article in Danube Watch 02/2006
  • » The living Danube in Budapest
    ICPDR Danube Watch: The largest environmental investment to be implemented in Central Europe will fundamentally modernise the wastewater treatment system of Budapest, ensuring cleaner waters for all those living along the banks of the Danube.


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