Disclaimer: This article was authored by a University of Glasgow student as part of a data journalism traineeship offered by ClimateTracker.org. This organisation is not affiliated with the Glasgow Guardian, and the paper received no remuneration for this article’s publication.
The pictures of Venice taken aback by rising water are not new to Italians, especially for those who witnessed the 1966 flood and the ones ever since. In November, the tide reached its highest level in the past 50 years. With legendary venues like the Acqua Alta Bookshop bearing the burden of years of awful urban planning and little regard for Italian culture and nature. When the climate crisis hits the fan, one can be assured that the myopic state of Italian regulators will be even more blatant than it already is. For a country that keeps signing international agreements on adaptation and mitigation, Italy seems painfully unequipped to understand that the fight for the environment is the same for one of the richest historical legacies, if not the most delicate and beautiful in the world.
Investment in infrastructure such as the MOSE lagoon barrier has been for years syphoned into tenders, which have been either invalidated or cancelled. Outrage has mounted among residents in regard to endemic corruption, with Venice left vulnerable and penniless as it awaits the structure’s completion, which has now been postponed to 2021 and will amount to 5.5 billion euros - nearly five times the original budget. Worse is yet to come, with the city paying the price of a series of policies and approvals that had little to do with preserving it, and more with feeding into the growing fossil fuel and chemical industry nearby. The result is an area prone to diseases, erosion, and increasing climate change events which might erase la Serenissima from the map of the world as we know it. In his book Fatti e Misfatti, Professor Luigi D’Alpaos stresses how many issues could have been avoided by simply looking at available hydro-graphic maps of Venice to become aware of the impact on natural canals. What went wrong?
The Canale dei Petroli experiment
The Malamocco settlement lies between the Lido and the Pellestrina, parts of the barrier of islands protecting the lagoon from the Adriatic Sea waves. Once one of the most populated villages in the area, Malamocco has given its name to the more notorious Canale dei Petroli, which links it to the landside district of San Leonardo in Marghera. The canal was built between 1964 and 1968 to provide a larger space for oil tankers on their way to the petrochemical facilities around the port. The new infrastructure was meant to be an alternative to the 1925 Vittorio Emanuele III canal. The latter, which connected Marghera to the Giudecca Canal, has its starting point less than 2,5 kilometres away from the landmark St Mark’s Square and was considered too shallow and not wide enough to support a growing industrial traffic. The decision continues to have negative consequences on the lagoon’s fragile environment. One of them is caused by the creation of casse di colmata from the natural debris dug out, which should have been used as artificial islands for another industrial hub. Only three were completed before a 1973 law ruled them to be dangerous for the lagoon, and yet their presence continues to disrupt the water renewal and increase the level of acqua alta.
Stefano Boato is an engineering professor at the Istituto Universitario Architettura Venezia and a member of the regional Commission for the Safeguarding of Venice. He has repeatedly attacked the gap between the current works and the provisions contained in five “special laws”, promulgated in the aftermath of destructive cases of acqua alta. In a 2017 report, he explains how repeated deep-dredging was carried out to enlarge existing canals for the benefit of both industrial transportation and cruise ships. The technique has damaged the caranto layer on which the wooden foundations of Venice lie. Therefore, seafloor erosion has worsened as tidal currents found a weakened target. All five laws have recognised the threat, but Boato believes that no protection plan has so far tackled these problems. Even more concerning are the wishful statements by inter-ministerial representatives on bringing the lagoon back to its original state after years of mistreatment: in the preceding decades, the lagoon bed has deepened from 40 cm to 1.2 metres and only appears to be worsening as time passes.
Map of the Venice Lagoon, pointing out the key nodes for the large ship routes.
The cruise ship ban
At this point, Venice is the victim of any political decision, no matter how well-intended. In August, large cruise ships were ordered to move to the Canale dei Petroli starting from December. The ban was agreed on in order to keep them away from the St Mark’s Basin and avoid incidents like the one in June, where Msc Opera crashed against a small ferry and damaged the local pier. Paradoxically, the numerous smaller ships navigating inner rivers and canals will not be touched by the measure, in an attempt to prevent losses for tourist operators and the Marittima passenger port. 502 cruise ships brought 1.56 million passengers to Venice in 2018 alone, which explains the reticence to drastically change the current situation. To make things worse, new dockings will have to be built in Marghera to welcome an even higher number of ships, all the while prioritising commercial flows worth 12 times the touristic ones (around 6 billion euros per year). It remains a mystery how that could occur without bringing a 40-thousand-ton ship close to a delicate production area, or how accurately safety measures can be introduced in only a few months.
Map of the Lagoon outlining the most polluted sites and areas at risk. Source: UNESCO.
Moreover, it does not feel like the authorities have a clear picture of how one action impacts the lagoon in many other indirect ways. Even with cruise ships being redirected away from the UNESCO historical site, the action would require a further enlargement of the Canale dei Petroli and the consequent deepening of the lagoon bed. Works around the Vittorio Emanuele canal will also be necessary to put less pressure on the basins around the city centre. With rising sea levels and sustained man-made alterations, Venice’s unique setting will be doomed. Ironically, ENI’s massive oil refinery, which firstly brought up the case for digging the problematic canal, is now focusing on green chemicals and bio-fuel. It is also one of the major firms believed to pollute the lagoon. Indeed, a UNESCO report accused industrial, agricultural, and domestic discharges of contributing to environmental deterioration, due to inadequate water purification systems. Adding to the misery is the scale of the health impact, which sees Marghera score high in national investigations on fatal illnesses provoked by exposure to pollutants such as dioxin.
Whatever strategy is followed, the optimism around fossil fuels and other production activities back in the 1960s is now a curse for the architectural gem as much as the community it hosts. It is difficult to say whether there is any hope left for a city whose ancient motto was “Peace be to you Mark, my Evangelist”. After all, his basilica is a victim of high waters like the buildings which surround it.
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