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Hungary: Flood-borne environmental injustices against Roma communities

20 June 2023

The Hungarian floods and flash floods that have affected Roma communities in recent years must be analysed from the perspective of environmental injustice. This case study describes the unequal burdens Roma people faced during the 2001 flood of Szabolcs-Szatmár-Bereg County and the 2010 flood of the Sajó, Herdánd and Bódva rivers in Borsod-Abaúj-Zemplén County. It also shows how these historical incidents serve as lessons for similar events that happened in the past year and are expected to recur in years to come. Two hundred and twenty-seven Roma settlements in Hungary reported at least one flood-related occasion during the last decade. This case study also raises concerns over the vulnerability of Roma communities to flash floods in the mountainous areas of Hungary.  

Although Hungary has not experienced major floods, only drought in recent times, past experiences show that the situation could quickly turn from excess to shortage, and back to excess water. In recent years, extreme droughts hit the Carpathian basin hard, yet heavy rainfall and thunderstorms resulted in flash floods in areas with a higher share of the country’s Roma population. According to different climate models and predictions, the North Hungarian Mountains are seriously threatened by flash floods and face a higher risk of regular floods.

Roma minority share and flash flood exposition

Source: Central Statistical Office and NaTÉR database.

The most recent significant damage was caused by a storm in Ónod in 2022. In 2020, the most affected area was Miskolc. In 2018, the Pétervására and Füzesabony areas of Heves County suffered from flash floods, resulting in a flood emergency situation. In 2017, flash floods were also observed in the Ózd basin area, causing damage in several settlements.  

According to the scientific literature, floods and flash floods can have significant health impacts on minority groups such as Roma communities, particularly those that are socio-economically disadvantaged and have limited access to resources and information. ‘I can say that flash floods affect us living by rivers and streams,’ says an anonymized interviewee. For example, if a flood event is not predicted and hits a community unexpectedly, it can cause physical injuries. Water-borne and vector-borne diseases can also occur. Communities living in areas with poor sanitation and waste management are particularly vulnerable to these diseases.  

As part of this study, participants were surveyed and asked to rate their residential areas and surrounding environment on a scale of 1 to 10. On average, Roma respondents gave scores 1.5–2 points lower than non-Roma Hungarian respondents. Furthermore, while a significant portion of the non-Roma Hungarian group (19.7 per cent) reported feeling under-appreciated (scoring 1–3), nearly half of Roma respondents (47.7 per cent) expressed the same sentiment. These findings suggest that Roma individuals may perceive themselves as being viewed as a marginalized societal group. Additionally, a significant proportion of the Roma respondents (44.2 per cent) felt that they have no influence on socio-economic and political processes. ‘After floods or disasters, there is no help to assist us. Unemployment is very high among the community. There is no means to get back on our feet,’ says another Roma person interviewed for this case study. This lack of perceived agency may contribute to a lack of motivation to seek change, as Roma individuals may feel there is no reason to do so.  

‘The county’s Roma self-government doesn’t receive funds for reducing this kind of damage. Funding can be acquired, but finding someone who will help is not common, so we can’t intervene in these situations.’

In the case of floods, Roma settlements are disproportionately affected compared to other communities. Roma people are often marginalized and live in poverty, which makes them more vulnerable to environmental hazards. ‘Floods affect those areas the most where local conditions dictate it, where defence is inadequate, and it is inadequate in many places where Roma live,’ recalls another interviewee. In most case, floods cause damage to Roma homes, infrastructure and crops, all of which have severe economic consequences for the already marginalized communities 

‘We all know what the situation is like for the Roma in Borsod County. This community always has a harder time recovering,’ explains a local Roma, anonymized for safety reasons. Furthermore, the lack of preparedness and inadequate emergency response to the flooding exacerbates the environmental injustices faced by Roma people. The government’s responses to the 2001 and 2011 floods were inadequate, and it took a long time for aid to reach the affected communities. ‘[S]erious protection has been built in areas such as Felsőzsolca due to the floods experienced in recent years. The situation regarding floods is reassuring there. This is lacking in many places,’ an interviewee explains. The lack of basic infrastructure, such as flood protection, water supply and sewage systems in these communities, reflects systemic discrimination and neglect by the authorities towards Roma people. 

Of the group surveyed, 81.7 per cent (N = 698) reported being affected by floods in the sample area. Upon closer inspection of the distribution of the affected group, it became clear that the proportion was higher among Roma respondents, with 87.9 per cent having been affected by the floods. Another aspect of environmental injustice in this case is the unequal distribution of benefits. ‘The county’s Roma self-government doesn’t receive funds for reducing this kind of damage. Funding can be acquired, but finding someone who will help is not common, so we can’t intervene in these situations,’ a local Roma community representative notes.

While the floods had a negative impact on Roma people generally, some Roma communities, such as those living in affluent areas, may actually have benefited from the flooding. Following the floods, 14.6 per cent of Hungarian respondents did not receive any aid or assistance, while the corresponding figure for Roma respondents was 21.1 per cent. Some of the Roma community referred to the floods as ‘golden floods’ where, as one interviewee notes, ‘those who were closer to the fire [a phrase in Hungarian to have adequate connections] got more assistance and aid from the local authorities’.

In the case of affected Roma settlements, some were totally renovated and rebuilt after the floods. This was mainly in Szabolcs-Szatmár-Bereg County, while the renovations were not completed in Borsod-Abaúj-Zemplén County due to financial cuts and lack of resources. ‘As a Roma self-government, we cannot take a stance on compensation, for several reasons. First, we do not have access to the resources, they are not distributed here or to us. Second, we have no say as to where the money should go.’ This lack of consistency and disparity in distribution may also be indicative of discrimination against the Roma community as a whole.  

The role and responsibility of the state in the case of floods is being questioned by some, who believe that changing the composition of the Hungarian parliament could provide a solution to the gaps in flood prevention and response. They suggest that a ‘normal leadership made up of skilled professionals who know what to do in case of a flood’ should lead the defence and reconstruction efforts. Others believe that during times of disaster, ‘the focus should not be on political battles and gaining political advantage’, which they experienced. Instead, ‘there should be agreement between parties’ to ensure that the town is not sacrificed and that the defence efforts are organized. 

In conclusion, the Hungarian floods in 2001 and 2010 exposed Roma communities to very real environmental injustice. And according to the interviews, future flash floods will harm Roma even more. The lack of preparedness and inadequate emergency response to the flooding, coupled with systemic discrimination and neglect by the authorities, illustrates how environmental hazards disproportionately affect marginalized communities. ‘It’s a bit sad, but we are quite marginalized during these events,’ says an interviewee.

Photo: The Sajó river overflows a road near Sajoivanka, Hungary. 20 January 2023. Credit: Reuters/Marton Monus.

This chapter is part of our ‘Minority and Indigenous Trends 2023: Focus on Water’ flagship report. Discover all chapters >

Author(s)

Gyula Nagy