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Venice condemned by politics

Lagoon barriers rejected by the Green minister of the environment

Last month, the Italian minister of the environment, Edo Ronchi, rejected the proposed mobile barriers at the three openings from the lagoon of Venice into the Adriatic as ecologically damaging and unnecessary. In doing so he was throwing out the conclusions of last year’s report, commissioned by the Italian government itself, in which five leading experts from institutions including MIT and the Institute for Environmental Studies in Amsterdam declared the barriers to be ecologically safe and effective defences (see The Art Newspaper No. 84 September 1998, pp.36-38; No. 85 October 1998, pp.1, 8-9 ).

The future for Venice is now down to a special committee chaired by the prime minister, Massimo D’Alema, which includes the ministers of the environment, of public works, of culture; local politicians and the mayor of Venice.

If this also rejects the barriers, the proposals for defending the city range from the reasonably sensible, such as raising the ground level in the low lying parts of the city, to the downright eccentric, such as pumping water into the subsoil below Venice to lift it higher in the water.

Why do the Italians have such difficulty in deciding how to protect the world’s most beautiful city?

Much of it comes down to the cat’s cradle of coalitions that is Italian politics at the State, regional and city levels. Thus, Massimo D’Alema upsets the Greens at his peril because he depends on their support to stay in power, and the minister of the environment is a Green. Mayor Cacciari of Venice is also dependent on Green support for his position, which explains why his statements about the barriers have hitherto been ambiguous.

And yet the evidence for a declining state of affairs is incontrovertible. St Mark’s Square was under more than a metre of water again last month, and will be dozens more times this year. At the beginning of the century, the square was flooded about seven times a year; by 1989 it was forty times a year and in 1996, it was ninety-nine times.

The seaweed lines on the marble steps to the Venetian palaces show how much higher the water now laps than when they were built. This is partly because the whole of north-east Italy is subsiding, and partly because, after the war, water was extracted from the subsoil by the factories on the nearby mainland (this has now ceased).

In addition, as we all know, the seas are rising. Scientists world-wide generally agree that by the middle of the next century, the waters will be about 20cm higher everywhere, including the Mediterranean.

Weather patterns are also changing, leading to more low pressure systems and storms. So quite apart from the frequent small floods, the risk of a storm surge tide (a low pressure system coinciding with a high tide and strong wind) of the kind that put the whole of Venice under nearly two metres of water in 1966 is greater than ever. Experts say that it is not a question whether it will happen, merely when.

South-East England, the Netherlands, parts of the eastern seaboard of the USA, have all accepted the global situation and are planning for the future.

They are preparing to add billions to the money they have already invested in their sea defences. By contrast, Italy, which has this especially fragile and lovely creation to protect, has managed to turn the issue into a punchball for party politics.

Back in 1981 a scheme for mobile barriers at the three openings between the lagoon and the Adriatic was first developed and went on being improved, until in 1992 the prototype was tested successfully. It works on the principle of a series of hinged flaps which normally lie invisibly on the sea bed but are raised when needed. When down, ships and tides can move through the mouths of the lagoon as usual.

But over the last ten years, opposition in Italy to these barriers has grown. The Green objection is that the lagoon has been as sinfully mistreated as the rain forests of the Amazon: by deepening the shipping channel for tankers to reach the petrochemical works; by building fish farms; by polluting the lagoon with phosphates washed down from farms in the hinterland and with chemicals from the factories.

If we could only return to the good old ways of the Venetians under the doges, they say, then the flooding problem would be much reduced (but they dare not predict by how much, nor does anyone in this camp concede that the world ecology bears no relationship to what it was 200 years ago—which is paradoxical, considering that they are ecologists).

The short-term pragmatists’ objection is that, because the barriers are expensive—an estimated $2.5 billion spread over the eight years they would take to build—there might be less money for the other things that need doing in Venice, such as dredging the canals. This seems to have contributed to the apparently perverse reluctance on the part of the Venetian mayor to see his city protected.

There is a fundamental confusion in people’s minds which leads them to think that it is a choice between ecological virtue or some kind of barrier, when it is not a question of either/or, but both.

The lagoon must be looked after as tenderly as when the doge used to wed the waters with a ring, and yet it must also be accepted that conditions have changed fundamentally, and that new measures must be taken to protect Venice. The historical Venetians themselves did not shrink from innovations, such as the great sea walls that still defend the lagoon.

It must also be accepted that no solution will be final. Just as the Thames Barrier comes to the planned end of its economic life after fifty years, in 2030, and will be succeeded by something else, so the price of keeping Venice for our grand-children will be endless vigilance and expense.

Is Venice worth the expense?

An evaluation of the risk and cost benefit involved needs to be made for the city, if only because the people who say that the barriers are too expensive have already, however unconsciously, decided that Venice is not worth the investment. With their vast Deltaplan for defending themselves from the sea, the Dutch have already brought such cost/risk evaluation down to a fine art and could give lessons in how to proceed.

All that is needed is the will to do these things. In the early Nineties, a European politician called Carlo Ripa de Meana, an Italian, suggested that Venice should be declared independent of Italy, a sort of San Marino, so that the chaotic politics and bureaucracy would no longer get in the way of looking after it properly. Italian public opinion was deeply offended and the idea was rightly derided.