July 5, 2005


VENICE UNSAVED

Nothing can be more exasperating then the realization that nefarious financial
interests are wrecking the environment with the false excuse of saving it.

This global tendency applies also to the lagoon city of Venice.
More and more
Venetians suspect these days the four billion dollar project to â
€˜Save Venice’ from flooding is padding certain pockets while leaving their
city to sink deeper into its lagoon.

Perhaps too late, in view of the massive dam and barrier constructions already
under way, Venetians are calling for help from friends and sympathizers abroad
to stop the gigantic project.
The idea of the protesters is to paralyze, or at least disrupt, the dumping of
thousands of tons of concrete and metal poles onto the maritime floor where
environmentalists warn it will destroy or compromise the delicate ecosystem of
the lagoon in which Venice and other islands have thrived and survived for the
last 1,500 years.

In a construction-crazed Italy (resembling a building site these days) the plight of
Venice’s recalls the war in Iraq: The fake clarion call to save a country in
reality was a call to destroy it first so it can be rebuilt at vast profits and its
resources exploited by the destroyers.

In Iraq Halliburton was awarded the monopoly to supply and rebuild. In Venice
the Venezia Nuova Consortium, linked to major Italian companies, was also
awarded a monopoly. Already the first slices of a 3.7 billion euro ($4.2 billion US)
State fund set aside for the project to rescue Venice from drowning have been
handed over to the builders.

Those not yet blinded by the PR hype about salvation, rescue of a global
patrimony and Good Samaritan work have long suspected the consortium’s
massive mobile barriers to block exceptional high tides at the three canals
connecting the lagoon to the Adriatic Sea will only benefit certain bank accounts
but not the city of Venice. (Just as anyone of intelligence has realized the war in
Iraq is highly profitable for some.)
In Venice – if critics are right - the monumental constructions of the eighteen
floodgates will alter the lagoon’s physiognomy forever, obliterate the habitat
of birds in the lagoon, remove five million cubic meters of sediment, create
artificial islands with power stations and control towers and weaken the
foundations of a city it is supposed to fortify.

Not surprisingly most independent hydro-engineers, the World Wildlife Fund and
UN agencies like UNESCO have condemned the Save Venice system as
outdated by thirty years, excessively expensive, unnecessary and destructive to
the life of the lagoon and its islands – the most famous of which is Venice.

But the construction is going ahead undaunted. This in spite of allegations the
project may be illegal since the consortium was created without a public tender,
was awarded a monopoly over all construction and planning and was given the
green light without consulting the people of Venice. More baffling still, the basic
law of Venice - scrupulously followed for 1,000 years - stipulates all projects to
construct dams, dykes or change river-beds must be reversible. But the
consortium’s so-called ‘
Mo.S.E.s’ project (he who divided the waters)
is irreversible.

Perhaps the most ludicrous part of this multi-billion rescue effort is the already
accepted result by the project architects that the ‘Mo.S.E.s’ will NOT stop
Venice from sinking. It will not stop huge tankers and passenger liners from
entering the lagoon. In fact it will make it easier for ever bigger vessels to enter
the lagoon and the port of Venice, a lucrative enterprise. Nor will this ‘Mosesâ
€™ stop the ‘acqua alta,’ (high water) the average fifty times a year when
exceptional high tides flood parts of Venice, among them Saint Mark’s
Square. (During acqua alta tourists walk on duckboards and Venetians don
rubber boots.)

In the end all the expensive concrete-and-metal monstrosity will do for Venice is
to raise floodgates during freak high tides. These ‘freaks’ occur four or
five times a year. Some engineers already argue the pressure on these
floodgates could be so acute during a particularly high tide the gates might burst
with the apocalyptic effect of a burst dam for the city of Venice. Even the
designers of the barriers agree if the sea level rises by 50 cms in the near future
their floodgates become ineffective.

So why the rush to launch this highly dubious project? One can only deduce
neither Cassandra-like warnings nor expert opinions can halt the avarice for a
share of these public works. Despite more and more opinions to the contrary the
builders, backed by a massive public relations campaign, insist their system will
safeguard Venice from the waters of the Adriatic, at least during exceptional high
tides. Sadly the opponents and critics of the project have neither the funds nor
the human resources to counteract years of indoctrination of a Venice saved by â
€˜Mo.ses’.
The project is based on the reality that water from the Adriatic Sea flows through
three channels into the vast lagoon where Venice nestles as a man-made island
built on tree trunks rammed deep into the floor of the shallow waters. These
channels act like a flushing system for the lagoon. Depending on the tides
seawater flows in one channel, washes, replenishes and purifies the lagoon and
then flows out through another channel - or vice versa. The lagoon itself has a
unique ecosystem made of brine, fresh water (from rivers) and sea water. Some
local wildlife and fish species are found nowhere else in Europe.

For 1,500 years Venetians realized any tampering with this marvel of nature
could be disastrous for them, their city and the abundance of wildlife on and
under the lagoon.
In its long history the city had many enemies. But none of them have been as
destructive as the State of Italy. Even the conquering Napoleon who told the last
Venetian Doge: ‘The Republic no longer exists’ only pilfered some of the
city’s artifacts (returned later) and tore down one church. Yet the Italian
State tends to ignore the delicate eco-balance of the lagoon. In the years after
World War II Italy built its sprawling and mega-polluting Marghera petrochemical
complex right on the doorsteps of Venice. Between 1950 and 1970 alone the
water pumped from the lagoon for this complex lowered the ground level of the
city of Venice by 10 centimeters. (Since 1902 Venice has sunk 23 cms). Petrol
tankers for Marghera began to enter the lagoon. These required deep dredging
of shipping lanes (up to 20 meters) despite a law from the days of the Republic
that no shipping lane must exceed a depth of four meters.

Next came a period of local apathy: Between 1965 and 1995 the city of Venice
failed to clean its canals, a chore their forefathers considered indispensable to
maintain both the health of the city and the lagoon. The purification of the canals
improves the circulation of tide water and washes out accumulated waste. In the
end it was the abominable stink rising from the neglected canals that rekindled a
frantic cleaning campaign ten years ago.

Faith the Mo.S.E.s will save Venice from sinking is zero. In private even some of
corporate beneficiaries and local politicians doubt the project will ever be
completed or will last the distance of the envisaged eight year construction
period. Governments in Italy tend to change. The legitimacy of a project can be
interpreted in different ways, depending on the political climate and those in
power. The ‘Mo.S.E.s has already enough high profile detractors to scrap it at
a moment’s notice. (The project was approved and then inaugurated in 2003
under the premiership of Italy’s controversial billionaire businessman Silvio
Berlusconi. )
What if after the initial frenzy to grab as many funds as possible the whole
project will end up as a scene of sunken cement and metal, half completed
floodgates, mountains of dug-up sediment and partly completed man-made
islands?

The scope of the ‘destruction’ can be awesome: Five million cubic meters
of sediment are to be excavated including parts of the hard layer of clay on
which Venice is anchored. Into these cavities the builders will dump 12,000
cement piles, eight million tons of rock and 50,000 tons of metal sheets.
Coastlines protected by European Union law would be devastated and when the
floodgates are completed (if ever) anodes to protect their huge metal gates will
release about 10 tons of zinc into the lagoon each year. This toxic metal could
find its way into the food chain.

For those interested scores of alternative projects have been proposed,
cheaper, faster, more effective, but most important - all of them reversible. The
Mo.S.E.s is not.
The alternative experts who argue for far a less monumental Moses feel one of
the first initiatives should be a ban on the towering multi-storey passenger liners
and other large vessels entering Venice. Their passage shakes the city in its frail
foundations as they pass along the Riva in front of the Doge’s palace. Next
the connecting channels to the Adriatic could be made narrower allowing less
water to pass during high tides. The city foundations and walls should be
reinforced and shored up, speed limits (in effect on paper) rigorously enforced
and less expensive and removable floodgates designed. (One design offered
can be built in two years at a fraction of the price of the Moses.)

Historically the city fathers of Venice always carefully weighed up - sometimes
for years, sometime for centuries - any project intending to change their watery
environment before granting it the go-ahead. Even then the go-ahead carried the
proviso: If the system does not work dismantle it.
It was this kind of wise caution that helped the City on Water to survive for more
then a millennium. (ends)