If land reclamation systems are malfunctioning or not functioning at all, unpredictable floods may occur, house cellars flooded, wet agricultural land may be formed, and floods will cause crop damage and forest degradation. It is only a part of the troubles that can threaten Latvia because the land reclamation in our country has been neglected for a long time. Although the public authorities in charge do not possess full and reliable information on the condition of land reclamation systems and there is no future vision on the development of land reclamation systems either, one invested more than 230 million euros of the European Union funds and state budget funds in renovation and maintenance of land reclamation systems since 2007.
A striking example of the long-term neglect of land reclamation systems were the rains of 2017 and the subsequent floods, which caused damage to the population and infrastructure, as well as to farmers and foresters. The losses exceeded 380 million euros, partly compensated by allocating 22.8 million euros to farmers from the state budget and European Union funds, while 17.7 million euros were allocated from the EU Solidarity Fund to the departments of the Ministry of Agriculture and the Ministry of Transport for the restoration of land reclamation systems, roads, bridges, and railways. Given the processes caused by climate change, one expects extreme and rainy weather much more in the future.
The Ministry of Agriculture is the leading responsible authority for the land reclamation systems, which are fragmented in terms of ownership and whose total length in Latvia is similar to the length of motorways. However, the maintenance and renovation of the state-owned land reclamation systems have been delegated to the state-owned limited liability company “Zemkopības ministrijas nekustamie īpašumi”. In general, this system involves many public authorities, local and regional governments, and landowners. The State Audit Office assessed both the activities of the Ministry of Agriculture in the development and supervision of amelioration policy, as well as the actions of state-owned “Zemkopības ministrijas nekustamie īpašumi” Ltd in the use of financing allocated by the government and European Union funds during the audit.
We invest without a systemic approach and an overall vision
Neither the Ministry of Agriculture nor the state-owned “Zemkopības ministrijas nekustamie īpašumi” Ltd has a forward-looking vision on the development of the system, the plan for the renovation of land reclamation systems where all national and federal land reclamation systems would be assessed and prioritised. The selection of land reclamation systems for renovation and maintenance work is non-transparent. Information on the selection process and the systems planned to be restored and maintained is not publicly available, which prevents landowners from planning the renovation or reconstruction of land reclamation systems promptly.
“It is impossible to streamline something about what one does not have extensive information or even any data. Therefore, the audit findings that the funding from the government and European Union for land reclamation is allocated without sufficient link with real costs and is distributed in a non-transparent manner are not surprising, not to mention that no one has assessed the suitability of the existing land reclamation system built during the Soviet times for modern farming methods and climate change,” admits Auditor General Elita Krūmiņa.
At the same time, the state budget funding for the maintenance of land reclamation systems increases every year assuming in the calculation that one will carry out the maintenance work in all renovated land reclamation systems once a year. However, the audit detected that one did not carry out the maintenance work in all the refurbished land reclamation systems on an annual basis.
There is also a specific contradiction in the conditions for granting Latvian and European Union funding. It is clear from the maintenance and operating rules that one should prioritise the preservation of deteriorated land reclamation systems with progressive damage. In its turn, the European Union requirements provide for the maintenance of renovated land reclamation systems, which are in good condition.
The auditors conclude that one should establish a technologically modern, extensive, and up-to-date information on land reclamation systems and planned renovation and maintenance work funded by the state budget and European Union funds in Latvia. Also, the Ministry of Agriculture should ensure close cooperation among the institutions involved and coordinated supervision, first and foremost on all types of sharing systems since land reclamation systems are a single organism where damage to one stage affects any other stage of the system undoubtedly.
The historical heritage of land reclamation is underestimated
According to estimates of the Latvian Hydrologist Association, the total value of all land reclamation systems is impressive, that is, at least seven billion euros. Historical evidence suggests that the origins of land reclamation in Latvia date back to late 18th century, but with the establishment of an independent state, the Land Reclamation Board was founded which planned and managed land reclamation systems, conducted studies in problem areas so that new farms could reclaim and cultivate their land further.
Most of the existing land reclamation systems were built during the Soviet period and adapted to the economic model of the time, that is, centralised planning and collective farms basically. Then, one paid much attention and resources to land reclamation; there was even the Ministry of Land Reclamation and Water Management and almost 20 thousand employees in this sector in Latvia.
The accountability structure changed radically with the restoration of Latvia’s independence when only a small part of it was recognised as a state-owned land reclamation system. Still, about 70% of the systems were transferred to landowners by vesting legal responsibility in them for the operation and maintenance of the systems by actually cancelling supervision over how they provided operation and maintenance. Currently, no one has renovated most federal land reclamation systems due to lack of funding for 30 years at least. The last comprehensive inventory of land reclamation systems in agricultural and forestlands was made 30 years ago. Research on land reclamation is also inadequate.
The State Audit Office appreciates the activities of auditees in communication with the public and owners of land reclamation systems that started at the end of the audit and hopes that the Ministry of Agriculture and state-owned “Zemkopības ministrijas nekustamie īpašumi” Ltd will actively implement the recommendations.