That sinking feeling
...is what Dominic Standish gets, watching the reluctance of environmentalists to save Venice from the seas
On my first day in Venice I proposed to my wife on the Rialto bridge and we were married there eight months later. Now, my attachment to Venice is more than romantic - I live nearby and spend weekends visiting its galleries, museums, churches and monuments. Predictions that Venice is 'sinking' suggest that I should speed up my exploration of this wonderful city.
'Acqua alta', or high water, is a constant problem that has led to the frequent use of raised walkways on flooded footpaths. Finally, after 15 years of research, a consortium has developed a solution. Project Moses envisages mobile floodgates submerged at the three entrances to the lagoon. When high tides arrive, the gates would rise above the surface to protect the city.
But in December 1998 the environment minister, Edo Ronchi of the Green Party, issued a decree halting Project Moses, after a report claimed that the project would not maintain the environmental equilibrium of the lagoon and could restrict the use of the port. In February 1999, Enrico Micheli, the minister for public works, insisted that Ronchi's decree was illegal. In March, a committee chaired by prime minister Massimo D'Alema discussed the matter and declared that the possibility of adapting Project Moses to environmental concerns should be explored, before a final decision is made at the end of this year. Meanwhile, Venice will have to pursue old solutions, such as raising pavements and dredging canal floors.
It may be true that marine life in the lagoon would be affected and the port would be restricted on occasions when the barriers went up. But surely saving the city is more important?
Concern over the impact of Project Moses on marine life in the lagoon is based on fears about global warming which may well be over-exaggerated. Environmentalists have claimed that sea levels will rise so much during the next century that the gates will always be up. The sea level has risen by 23 centimetres this century. But recent measurements by the Italian national research council show that this has slowed during the past 25 years.
Environmental groups such as Italia Nostra and Legambiente have criticised industry over the rise in water levels, and called for the closure of Canale di Petrolio, the artificial channel in the lagoon used by tankers. Yet chronicles show that high waters have been ravaging the lagoon since 527 AD, so the local petrochemical industry can hardly be the cause.
More convincing explanations for the 'sinking' have been put forward by Randolph Guthrie, chairman of Save Venice Inc. The city is part of the African geological plate which is diving under Europe and pulling Venice down at the rate of 2.5 centimetres every century. In addition, because the Adriatic sea is enclosed it produces an unusual phenomenon called the 'sessa', a rocking of water rather like in a bathtub. Meanwhile, a south wind brings water-saturated air that precipitates in the Veneto region, low pressure that causes the seas to rise in a bubble, and a current of water to the north into Venice.
The objections to Project Moses seem to have less to do with new environmental problems than with political changes: in particular, the growing influence of Green Party politicians. Although the mayor of Venice, Massimo Cacciari, has only a smattering of Greens within his administration, he has clearly been influenced by his righthand man on lagoon defences, the Green Maurizio Calligaro. Leading Green Party member Ronchi has exerted considerable influence as environment minister in the current and previous governments. It was Ronchi who brought in the team of 20 advisers that advised the government to ditch Project Moses.
The postponement of Project Moses at the behest of the environmental lobby came after it had been approved by an independent panel of five international experts, and by the Italian Ministries of Public Works, Culture and Transport. A prototype has already been tested and is now parked next to the city's arsenal. The project has been examined by Professor Jean-Marie Martin, director of the European Commission's Environment Institute, who stated his team's 'unanimous' conclusion that 'though by no means perfect, the project was the best solution to defend Venice from high waters'.
Venice is one of those examples of an incredible human achievement forced into being by necessity. In the fifth and sixth centuries, refugees from the countryside took shelter in the marshes of the lagoon to escape barbarian invaders. Support for buildings was formed by driving down wooden poles that still stand below stone foundations. Without oxygen contact, the wood is as solid as a thousand years ago. The city is now subsiding at the average long-term rate of two to four centimetres per century. But as the sea level rises, various associations have indicated that, without Project Moses, it may not be worth continuing to finance the restoration of old monuments. The city of Antonio Vivaldi and Marco Polo deserves more.
Reproduced from LM issue 122, July/August 1999