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Budapest's uniquely rat-free status seems to be a thing of the past

Budapest was certainly unique in at least one aspect in the past 47 years - it was the only capital where there were almost no rats. A document published by the World Health Organisation in 1998 said that the Budapest rodent control efforts constituted the best long-term anti-rodent project in the world. The city where two million people live had approximately 200 places where rat sightings occurred each year since 1990, which was considered outstanding. That is no longer the case, as Bábolna Bio, the company responsible for keeping Budapest rat-free since 1971, was dropped in 2018 in favour of RNBH, a consortium offering a lower price. But RNBH seems to be struggling as rats in the streets and houses of Budapest are becoming more and more commonplace in every district, and on 10 April 2019, a "small-bodied mammal" even caused a small electrical fire on the recently renovated section of Metro line 3 that has just been opened four days before - although the exterminators have no official knowledge of that mammal being a rat.

Most people living in Budapest have only heard about rats in urban areas from their grandparents, and while there were approximately 2 to 3 million rats in Budapest prior to the seventies, their rate dropped to 0.01 rat/person after 1971.

Ne maradjon le semmiről!

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But the number of rat complaints has increased sharply since the summer of 2018.

 Index received 130 letters about rat sightings in just a day after we asked our readers to tell us if they encountered rodents in Budapest. The rate of similar messages has hardly slowed down since. We received numerous accounts and photos of dead rats on the streets, and many saw rats around so-called "specially protected objects," such as public transport stops, subway entrances and train stations. A lot of readers complained about how difficult or impossible it is to contact the new rat control company, however, but the readers visited by them after reporting rat infestation were satisfied with the services.

Mayor István Tarlós first dismissed the rat situation, calling it a "campaign issue" last Thursday, saying that extraordinary rat extermination exceeding basic service had already been carried out in December, and spoke reassuringly about Budapest,'s rodent prevention efforts.

However, the mayor's deputy signed a proposal for the public procurement committee on 23 April that Index has managed to acquire. 

The proposal was meant to allocate 300 million Forints (€1.000.000) to RNBH for taking immediate rat-extermination measures, and it also contained several pieces of information that disprove Tarlós's statement regarding the extra services supposedly performed in December, and provide insight into the real depth of Budapest's rat problem. Ultimately, the Budapest Public Procurement Committee could not even put the proposal on the agenda, since it was not submitted according to rules of procedure, the president of the committee told the press after the meeting held behind closed doors on 24 April 2019.  

Patkány a Mikszáth téren

This issue is not to be taken light-hearted - a single rat consumes about twelve kilograms of food in each year, and if it doesn't find suitable sustenance, it will chew through anything in its way. They reproduce at an incredible rate - a female rat can produce a litter numbering anything from 10 to16 at a time, and they are fertile every three months. In ideal conditions, a single couple of rats can have 800 descendants in just a year.

Before the great Budapest rat extermination started in 1971, the yearly damage attributable to rats was around 300-400 million forints at 1970 value - at the time, the infestation rate of Budapest houses was 32.8%, and the rat population was estimated to consume 20 000 tons of food every year. Small sinkholes opened under roads fairly often, as rats tended to chew through the walls of sewers, and sewage gushing out from the holes could wash the soil out from under road surfaces, but rats were known to damage telephone cables and other pieces of public service infrastructure as well. An out-of-control rat infestation can cause serious problems for a city, so if Budapest managed to maintain its rat-free status for almost half a century, what is happening now, and what is the city doing to remedy the problem?

Fixing something that is not broken

A company called Bábolna Bio had been handling rat prevention in Budapest during the 47-year period starting from 1971, but they have lost their contract at the latest public procurement procedure concluded in 2018 where rodent control in the 525 square kilometre Budapest service area was commissioned to the formerly unknown RNBH consortium instead, until 2022. The group consists of four companies based outside of Budapest that were previously in the business of plant protection and pest control, mostly dealing with insects and mosquitoes, but not specifically with rats. The city planned for an estimated rodent control budget of 1.3 billion Forints (~4 million Euros) for the four-year period. RNBH promised to do the job for a little over 1 billion, while Bábolna Bio's price offer was 1.265 billion, so the contract was awarded to RNBH. Bábolna Bio has challenged the decision, but that procedure is yet to finish. In the meantime, the Public Procurement Arbitration Board decided to allow Budapest to sign the contract with RNBH, as not doing so would have endangered public health.

But tHE TRANSITION BETWEEN THE TWO COMPANIES DID NOT EXACTLY GO SEAMLESSLY, AS RATS OF BUDAPEST HAD THREE CAREFREE WEEKS TO REPRODUCE LAST JULY WITH NO EXTERMINATION WHATSOEVER.

Bábolna Bio's contract expired at the end of June 2018, while RNBH only took over rat extermination duties on 23 July, so for 23 days, there was no extermination at all. In those 23 days, the city of Budapest had received 430 reports of rat sightings, which was one and a half times as much as the number of complaints in the entirety of the previous extermination season.

Patkány a Teve utcában

The hiatus and the exceptionally dry weather provided the perfect conditions for rats to multiply, which they did not hesitate to do, as a significant increase in the number of rat complaints in the area clearly shows. As the consortium's leader, Mátyás Reisinger confirmed in an interview on Civil Rádió: RNBH received 1771 complaints in 2019 until March - for comparison, Bábolna Bio received 1500 to 2000 complaints that were proven to be correct in a year. The monthly data provided by Bábolna Bio shows that compared to the previous year, the number of rat complaints shows approximately a 70%  increase every month: 

As it was made apparent by the proposal mentioned above, the public health department of the Budapest Government Office had already assessed in October 2018 that rat infestation in Budapest requires "targeted, intensive action," however, RNBH only carried out the basic service included in their contract.

Trying to throw money at the problem

The General Assembly of the Budapest municipality called an extraordinary meeting in December 2018 to address the situation, where they decided to raise the 260 million Forint (€800,000) budget available for rat control in 2019 by 650 million Forints (€2,000,000). That is an incredibly high number considering that Bábolna Bio's yearly costs were less than a third of that, and with the addition passed by the Assembly, the 2019 budget already exceeds half of the price initially offered by RNBH for the entire term of the contract ending in 2022, the price that ended up winning them the contract - although the money has not yet been used, despite Tarlós claiming otherwise last Thursday.  

The proposal from the Mayor's Office dated 23 April that Index has acquired suggests immediately paying 300 million HUF to RNBH from the 650 million added to the budget last year in order for the consortium to commence extraordinary rat-extermination efforts lasting several months in the "most heavily infested areas." The document defines that as the I., V., VI., VII., VIII., IX., XIII., XIV., XIX., and XX. districts. The proposal suggested that RNBH's contract should not be terminated, only amended, reasoning that immediate, targeted, and intensive extermination is required. The proposal says switching service providers or involving others would cause delays and professional tensions, and

"failing to carry out the intensive extermination tasks constitutes a risk to public health the scale of which makes amending the contract vital." 

The proposal was ultimately rejected by the city's Public Procurement Committee, it did not even make it on the agenda. The president of the committee, MSZP's Norbert Trippon informed the press after the decision on 24 April that the Mayor's Office has submitted the proposal in a way violating the procedural rules, as the committee members must know about proposals 5 days in advance of a normal meeting, 3 days ahead in case of an extraordinary one, but the proposal was submitted the day before. Also, three committee members of Fidesz were absent from the committee meeting, so the party did not have the majority necessary to push the irregular agenda through. 

Politicians bicker...

The committee's vice president, member of Fidesz János Bácskai condemned the opposition for not allowing the committee to put the proposal on its agenda, characterising it as "reckless behaviour." MSZP's mayor candidate and committee member Gergely Karácsony told journalists that it's incomprehensible why Budapest would terminate the contract of Bábolna Bio after 47 successful years and why Tarlós had not taken steps to remedy the situation for six months, even after getting officially notified by the competent authorities about the danger posed to public health. He added that he doesn't support handing 300 million more Forints to a company that has proven itself to be unable to professionally carry out its tasks, and said Tarlós misinformed the public.

The communication of István Tarlós was a bit difficult to follow - this Thursday morning, in an interview on ATV, he did admit to an increase in the rat population, however, he claimed that contrary to that, the number of complaints has dropped. This is the same thing he told us earlier, on 18 April, when he said that "the 650 million extra budget and the extensive extermination has brought the number of complaints down to 350 per month." As it was made apparent by the data released by RNBH since then, that was simply not true - the last known number from March was 698, and the April 23 proposal made it apparent that there were no emergency exterminations performed yet paid for by the increased 650 million budget. Tarlós had an explanation on Thursday morning: the consortium was prepared to do the preventive winter extermination. The Mayor of Budapest stated that there is no danger of a public health emergency, and he said it's a "silly thing" that Budapest was ever rat-free:

There is no such thing as a big city without rats, Budapest was never in this life rat-free, and it will never be due to the large tunnel- and sewer-system, the railroad stations, and the illegal garbage dumps.

The mayor did not detail why the public procurement RNBH won in 2018 was titled "Maintaining the rat-free status of the Capital."

Patkány a 11 kerületi építkezésnél

The Public Procurement Committee's next meeting will be on Tuesday, and time is ticking: even the proposal successfully raising the available budget in December stated that even if intense extermination already starts during the winter, 9 to 12 months will at least be necessary to decrease the rat population to the levels experienced in the previous decades.

...and rats multiply

The current population of rats in Budapest is difficult to estimate, and the competent authorities are not eager to give straight answers. When we inquired about the relevant data available to the Government Office of Budapest, they did not provide us with much information - they told us that they are following the effectiveness of the rat extermination and prevention efforts, noting that are carried out by RNBH consortium - which is common knowledge - and that the Government Office did not see an increase in the number of complaints received about rat infestation. We also sent our questions to RNBH, but contrary to the Government Office, they said that the number of complaints did increase - although they did play the phenomenon down by saying that it's a natural process during the spring. But as we already mentioned above, the data actually increased in comparison to data from the same period of the previous year.

What we know from the proposal we acquired is that on 28 October 2018, the Budapest Government Office notified the Mayor's Office that the number of rats is exceeding the contractual limit under which RNBH was supposed to keep the population. The proposal also says that this value is already in the range considered to be dangerous to public health, so it is safe to assume that Budapest is well past its former rat-free status. We had sent our questions to the competent authorities, but we haven't received any answers.

We turned to our readers to get a picture about the extent of the problem, asking them to let us know if they encounter any rats in Budapest. As you can see in the gallery above, a reader told us about a rat that appeared in his V. district home and chewed through the pipes running under the kitchen furniture, and his insurance did not cover it, as the company told him that it's the responsibility of the municipality. Another reader from the II. district said that a rat climbed up the sewage pipes and jumped out of their toilet, running into the kitchen. As it was a Sunday, they ended up calling a private exterminator, costing them 100 000 Forints including the damages. We have even received a picture of a rat in an VIII. district healthcare institute - we are currently checking the veracity of that location.

All in all, in the first 24 hours we have received 130 accounts of rat sightings. We have created a heatmap from that data, based on which, the most heavily affected areas seem to be the areas surrounding Kálvin square, Oktogon and the outer part of Andrássy road, the vicinity of Széll Kálmán square, and the streets near Kerekerdő park.

Experts say that there are currently no areas in Budapest that could be considered rat-free, and the warm weather expected in the upcoming months will only help to worsen the infestation.

This article is based on the information contained in Index's extensive coverage of the issue.

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