| A VENETIAN RIDDLE
VENICE, Italy –May 29, 2012 To prevent the sea from burying this city of waterways and ancient history Silvio Berlusconi’s government launched a spectacular 1.5 bill Euro (two billion dollar) rescue operation four years ago. Its target was to tame flooding high tides from the Adriatic Sea with gigantic steel barriers.
Today the cost of the project has blown out to 5.5 billion Euro amid growing suspicion it was never intended to save Venice but to ensure the world’s largest cruise ships can enter the Venetian lagoon and sail by St Mark’s Square - to the delight of paying passengers and the profit margins of Venetian merchants and officials.
The drama does not end there: Experts now have doubts the barricades - an ambitious engineering feat often criticized as impractical, overprized and easily replaced by more modest projects - will actually work or was ever intended to work. Apparently the designers cannot guarantee the mighty steel barriers may not break up, allowing a wall of retained tidal water to wipe out this one thousand year old urban jewel with a man-made tsunami.
Executives and engineers of the project (which is run like a secret society by a consortium of thirty companies that have been given extraordinary autonomous powers by Berlusconi) are simply fired or asked to resign if they express criticism and concern.
An investigation this month by the State-run RAI3 ‘Report’ program - one of Italy’s most viewed - made the project (known as M.O.S.E. ) appear like a money-laundering scheme to enrich friends and the friends of friends. Funds, the program found, are easily available while other public projects across Italy are at a standstill and cities are without federal finance in a nation wrecked by economic woes and loan freezes.
But money does have a way to end up in anonymous pockets in Venice.
For the last three years the annual international Venetian Film Festival on the Lido has been staged next to a huge crater extending for an entire block. Il Buco (the hole) was dug out as foundation for a new and long heralded Cinema Palace - until the builders abandoned palace and hole claiming they had found deposits of banned asbestos buried in the subsoil – a presence that should have been known before the hole was dug.
Ever since Il Buco was left gaping and a two way beach-side road was reduced to a one-way road no one has been able to find out what happened to the sixteen million Euro set aside for the Palace. The city’s amazingly unconcerned mayor, Giorgio Orsoni, told a TV interviewer the case of the hole was ‘funny.’ He said it cost 3.5 million Euro alone to dig the hole and it would cost another six million Euro to close it. Just in case anyone asked why his city has not filled in Il Buco the mayor protested: “The municipality of Venice is already in debt to the tune of 400 million Euro.”
With the prestigious Venice film festival only three months away residents of the Lido – site of Il Buco – still wonder who gave the order to cut down nearly a hundred old pine trees to make space for the cinema palace which is unlikely to be ever build.
Mayor Orsoni (who seems to know little about anything or too much about everything) has been unable to shed light why the trees were felled during one night and who executed this nocturnal axing when the architects admit their plan for the cinema palace did not include the felling of a single one of the shady old pines.
But the main mystery in the Venetian riddles concerns the 650 multi-storey cruise ships that pass every year along the lagoon, floating by St Mark’s Square, a spectacle cruise ship companies promise their three to four thousand passengers on each vessel.
The passing of these ships through the delicate ecosystem of the lagoon and parts of the Grand Canal and the Giudecca Canal has become a Europe-wide scandal. It disgusts not only environmentalists, engineers, and waterway technicians but thousands of non-commercial Venetians in a city whittled away to just 60,000 residents but with four million tourists each year who jam waterways and narrow alleys.
For years technicians and engineers have provided irrefutable evidence of the damage caused by the propellers and the water displacement volume of these cruise ships to the delicate architecture, infrastructure and ecosystem of a city built on calcified tree trunks. Worse, air pollution of each ship (whose diesel generators are switched on day and night while moored at the port of Venice) expel carbon dioxide equivalent to that of 15,000 automobiles.
In the wake of the outrage following the infamous disaster of the Italian cruise ship Concordia (which foundered on a beachside reef) the Ministry of Environment banned large passenger ships from entering Venice. The ban lasted just over a week before shop keepers and cruise ship companies ‘convinced’ the politicians to rescind it - though similar stay-offshore regulations continue to exists for the rest of Italy.
In Venice, a tourist Mecca, money for those who run the city and the province speaks far louder then preservation and heritage.
The RAI3 program Report not only detailed the weird projects and companies active in Venice but traced baffling administrative links and ownerships between the various Venetian projects. ‘Report also found rampant nepotism. Wives, husbands and daughters have senior posts in the consortiums while government officials and those involved boldly tell interviewers: ‘There is no conflict of interest.’
A former senior technician of the MOSE project, Lorenzo Fellin, said on camera he was told to ‘shut up’ or leave when he pointed out a prototype of the MOSE barriers had jammed grips during a test. He advocated calling for an international tender for the construction of the barriers. Denied he resigned in protest.
Fellin told RAI3 the consortium of thirty companies involved in the project decided their barrier version was functional. He said all such decisions are facilitated by the fact the consortium controls, plans, executes and tests all aspects of the MOSE project without outside interference or access.
Maria Giovanna Piva, former head of the Department of Venetian Waterways and once a staunch supporter of the MOSE project changed her mind recently when she doubted the mysterious barriers would really work or could be trusted not to break down. She demanded independent testing but was immediately told by the Ministry for the Environment to resign her post.
“They rang me two or three times a day. They said if you resign we give you a job in Bologna only two hours from your home (in Venice). But if you don’t resign we might have to send you to Palermo,” Piva told RAI3 TV.
She resigned, perhaps frightened by the kind of warning usually attributed to the Mafia rather then a government ministry.
While most Venetians were initially content a solution had been found to the periodic flooding of their city a growing segment of citizen began to demonstrate against the MOSE and the cruise ships. Protesters using their boats and holding up placards were recently charged with ‘polluting the lagoon.’
For years now the MOSE project has widened and deepened the miles-long access canals (from the Adriatic) into the lagoon. Deeper canals will considerably increase rather then decrease the volume of water entering at high tide and flooding the city. But in compensation, of course, dug out canals will allow even the world’s largest cruise ship to sail along St Mark’s Square.
And that’s what it is all about.
Uli Schmetzer, a former foreign correspondent and author of four books (available on www.amazon.com with the digital version on Kindle) lives part of the year in Venice.