Too Little ... Too Late!
I wrote in my ramblings at the beginning of the 2010-2012 issue of the NAG Magazine that in 1970 and in pursuit of a dream I found myself on a valporetto chugging along the Grand Canal past the fading, peeling and damp splendour of what had once been the Most Serene Republic of Venice.
So, I confess that for me Venice has always been the starting or ending point of a journey: never my destination. And, more than likely, that, at least in the past, was my loss since I am led to believe that the Venice I would have experienced in 1970 was a much nicer, less crowded one.
Fifty years ago, Venice was already beginning to sink under the weight of tourists and cruise ships, as well as sinking into its lagoon. Just four years before I sat on that valporetto, Venice had been subject to an all-time record tidal surge, and during the winter after my first visit, I remember seeing film of St. Mark's Square again inundated with water. I also remember the 'Venice in Peril' appeal, and hearing about plans to defend the city against the Adriatic.
What became of those plans?
On Saturday 16 November 2019, I picked up an article by Lorenzo Colantoni in WIRED (Corruption and delay drown Venice as it loses its fight against flooding | WIRED UK) which, following on from the latest and, since 1966, most serious inundation of the city, gives a dismal and depressing and probably very accurate answer to my question.
Of course, you can stray a little further and make the comparison between what is happening in Venice and why, and what is happening elsewhere on the Blue Marble. You can take the analogy further to this Sceptered Isle and the feeling that it too is threatened by a high tide of political machination, fake news and falsehood.
And, finally you can home in on the latest developing crisis and begin to feel more than a little discomforted by the thought that it's not only Venice which is in peril, and to ask not so much 'What became of those plans?', as 'What are the plans?' ... and 'Is it a case of too little ... too late?' as our so-called studentified neighbourhoods try to survive yet another challenge not of their making and drown under another sort of tide.
CORRUPTION & DELAY DROWN VENICE AS IT LOSES ITS FIGHT AGAINST FLOODING
A set of barriers that could have stopped near-record floods in Venice have long been delayed, leaving the ancient city exposed to disastrous water levels
Venice is underwater. On Tuesday night the Italian city was hit by its highest tide in more than 50 years – with water levels reaching 187cm, just seven centimetres shy of the all-time record of 194cm set in 1966. This was followed by more tidal surges later in the week, which closed St Mark’s Square and kept schools shut for the third day in a row.
These extraordinary tides have put the spotlight on the despairing state of the city’s attempts to fight the rising waters. High tides are not new to Venetians, but they have become higher and more frequent over the years: between 1875 and 1951 the tide had been greater than 110cm only 30 times. From 2014 to 2018, this happened 34 times – almost seven times a year.
Venice’s acqua alta – the local term for the high tides that occasionally hit the city – is caused by a combination of astronomical tides, human alteration of the lagoon and weather factors, particularly the sirocco and bora winds that push the waters of the Adriatic Sea towards the city. As climate change is steadily increasing the occurrence of extreme weather events in Italy and particularly in the Veneto region, the acqua alta is threatening the survival of a city already straining under the weight of unsustainable tourism. But its chances for survival lay in plan the city is still far from delivering, and in countermeasures it has not finished in almost twenty years.
Even though climate change is already violently knocking on its doors, Venice is utterly unprepared to fight it. Its administration only published a very general document in 2014, Venezia Clima Futuro, which is supposed to be translated into an actual plan by 2020 – a bit too late for a city which, in 2012, spent an entire month between November and December underwater almost on a daily basis. Meanwhile, the regional government for Veneto, led by the right-wing party Lega, has steadily voted against support measures for climate change adaptation and mitigation. The latest of these votes took place in Venice during the November 12 high tide: councillors had to flee while the water was flooding the council hall.
The main hope for Venice lays in the MOSE project, 78 metal barriers divided into four major blocks installed at the three canals that form entrances to the Venetian lagoon. These would rise to block the flow of water when the tide level surpasses 110 centimetres – it could also be done for smaller tides, but this would excessively limit the traffic of ships to the touristic port of Venice and to the nearby industrial port of Marghera. An apparently ideal solution, which could have saved the city from Tuesday’s flood – if only it was working.
The original plan stated that the €5.5 billion (£4.71bn) project was to be finished by 2011, but the MOSE is not yet completed, ravaged by corruption scandals and technical difficulties due to its experimental nature. A 2014 investigation into the botched plan lead to 35 arrests, including the region’s governor, Giancarlo Galan. The commissars who took on the management of MOSE discovered the employment of sub-standard materials and poor design in some components, which led to further delays. “However, more than 90 per cent of the infrastructure is ready,” says Monica Ambrosini, an architect working for Venezia Nuova, the consortium which is running the project. “The elements are there: we need only a few more installations, which will be completed by June 2020, and then a year of testing. By 2021 we expect the MOSE to be running.”
Despite Ambrosini’s optimism, other issues trouble the future of the project, foremost maintenance costs: the consortium estimates €100 million (£85m), but also admit the high uncertainty surrounding this value. And such expenses could spike if technical problems have been underestimated, or if extreme events require a more frequent use of the infrastructure. As the project was detailed between the 1980s and 1990s without any knowledge of climate change, this is likely to be expected.
Meanwhile, decadent, beautiful Venice suffers. The damage to the cultural heritage by the latest high tides is hard to quantify; the San Marco Basilica, the most iconic church of Venice, has been flooded for the sixth time in 1200 years – three times in the last twenty years alone. Sea water climbed up inside its walls because of capillary action, and brought with it salt, which could destroy frescos, marbles and even threaten the very structure of the Basilica in the months to come. More than 50 other churches have been damaged, and the same happened to thousands of other historical buildings in the city. Venice was dragged to its knees by this week’s events: if this is going to be the new normal for the city, it’s very survival is at risk.
The MOSE could play a key role in saving Venice, but alternative solutions are available. Other countries also dealing with rising waters have shifted from traditional engineering solutions to new adaptation measures focused on using natural processes to mitigate the impact of weather events rather than using brute force to defend against it. The Netherlands is at the forefront; Luca Sittoni, an Italian from the Veneto region and programme manager at the Dutch think tanks Ecoshape and Deltares, has worked extensively on adaptation measures and nature-based solutions.
“The MOSE will likely do its job to prevent the impact of emergency flooding, but we need a different approach to save Venice in the long term,” he says. “We need to focus on managing the Venetian lagoon and its surrounding environment in a sustainable way, through small diffused technologies improving resilience. Re-naturalise areas which could slow the tide and accepting that some buffer zones could go underwater are two of the many options available. But we need to understand above all that we are not dealing just with a city, but with a living, larger system, that human development is endangering to a point of no return.”