Death of Venice

This month a construction consortium will start pouring millions of tons of rock and cement into the Venice Lagoon – one of the Mediterranean’s most important wetlands. The consortium claims the dam project will ‘save’ the city from flooding. But the project failed its environmental impact assessment, threatens the ecology of the lagoon and – with global warming and rising sea-levels –may not even protect Venice anyway. Tony Zamparutti reports from Italy.

Venice was built on low islands and sandbanks in the middle of a rich coastal lagoon. For over 1,000 years storm surges have washed exceptional high tides into Venice’s squares and alleys. Venetians call them acque alte – high waters – and, typically, they last two to three hours at a time. In November 1966, however, pounding rain and an exceptional wind-swept tide flooded nearly all the city streets for 24 hours. The storm focused world attention on Venice.


The reason? Venice is sinking. Since the early 1920s mainland factories have tapped underground freshwater, depressing the land under Venice in the process. By the time pumping was finally stopped in the 1970s Venice had sunk by about 12 centimetres (almost five inches) – a small but important altitude change for a sea-level city.


In addition, deep shipping channels were dredged through the lagoon’s three inlets to transport raw materials – including crude oil for a neighbouring petrochemical complex. The deeper channels brought stronger currents, speeding the Adriatic’s high tides towards Venice, exacerbating flooding and eroding the lagoon’s salt marshes. And, the final nail, the northern Adriatic has risen by about 10 centimetres over the past century.


Today waters wash across St Mark’s Square – Venice’s best-known landmark and lowest point – 50 or more times a year. Heavier storm surges now flood higher sections of Venice, too, forcing residents to don waterproof boots to reach their offices and schools.


The Proposed Solution


To stop the flooding, Consorzio Venezia Nuovo (the New Venice Consortium) has proposed a gigantic dam system: a line of 78 huge metal containers – each at least 20 by 20 metres in size – nestled in underwater foundations stretching across the three inlets between the Adriatic and the lagoon (each inlet is up to half a kilometre wide). For most of the time the hollow containers would be filled with water. To stop a storm surge from the Adriatic, air would be pumped into the containers – causing them to rise like enormous teeth across the inlets.


At the consortium’s public information centre in Venice’s Campo Santo Stefano visiting school groups are shown video animations(accompanied by light music) of the blocks rising silently to the surface. As they do so, gulls circle overhead. A dream solution?


What the videos fail to tell you...


The video fails to mention a number of important facts.


1  The proposed dams failed their official environmental impact review in 1998.


The consortium wants to dredge about 5 million cubic metres of the lagoon’s bed and dump almost eight million tons of rock and 700,000 tons of concrete in its place. At the Lido inlet, the consortium wants to build a new, artificial island. Over 50,000 tons of sheet metal would be submerged in the form of the containers.


3  During long closures the dams could bottle up industrial and agricultural pollution in the lagoon, which is now flushed by the regular tides. The city also lacks modern sewage treatment. The 1998 review noted that predicting exceptional high tides is an uncertain business. The dams would need to be raised following many false alarms, thus increasing pollution risks.


Anodes to protect the metal gates from sea-water corrosion would release over 10 tons of zinc into the lagoon a year. The toxic metal could accumulate in the food chain.


5  The consortium’s project ignores a fundamental cause of flooding in Venice – the deep shipping channels through the lagoon’s inlets. The consortium wants to open them even further, replacing their current V shapes with straight cuts across the full width of each inlet. This, warns Paolo Perlasca of WWF/Italy’s Venice office, risks accelerating erosion in the lagoon and endangering its remaining salt marshes and mud flats, which are protected (at least on paper) by the European Union’s Habitats Directive.


The dams would be expensive to build. The consortium estimates total costs at €3.4 billion. But, as Professor Andreina Zitelli (co-author of the 1998 impact assessment) says, the system has never been tried at full scale. Any cost estimate is highly uncertain. Zitelli says the ‘estimates have changed so many times, they seem to be invented’ to suit the political moment.


If the dams are built, the consortium could then reap millions of dollars a year for their operation and maintenance. These costs are also extremely difficult to estimate, as the underwater structure would face ongoing corrosion and encrustation and would require extensive maintenance.


8  The dams may not even protect Venice from flooding. Global warming and sea-level rise could make them obsolete within a few decades. Renowned Venetian climate change scientist Paolo Antonio Pirazzoli writes that the dams ‘could hardly cope with a relative sea-level rise much greater than about 0.3 metres’. In its 2001 report, the UN’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change gives as its most likely estimate for 2100 a 0.48-metre sea rise. The UN’s worst-case scenario forecasts this rise occuring within a few decades. Pirazzoli also predicts that water would pass between the dams’ containers, which would be an important factor during long closures. Also, in Venice’s worst flooding (as in 1966) torrential rains and swollen rivers add to the rising tides.


Overall, warns former Green Party senator for Venice Giorgio Sarto, the consortium proposes risky surgery rather than addressing the underlying illness affecting Venice and its lagoon. Moreover, Sarto notes, the project completely ignores a key prescription of Italy’s 1984 special law for Venice. In language that presages the precautionary principle, the law calls for all interventions to be ‘experimental, gradual and reversible’. So why is Italy’s government investing so much attention – and potentially billions of euros – in what Pirazzoli describes as ‘an obsolete project to save Venice’?


Power behind the consortium


The New Venice Consortium was set up by the Italian government almost 20 years ago as an ‘exclusive concessionaire’ with a mandate to safeguard Venice, and unite private and state-owned companies vying for what promised to be fat public works contracts to protect the city.


As exclusive concessionaire, Sarto explains, the consortium holds a monopoly on state-funded work to ‘save’ Venice and protect its lagoon. This covers everything from strategic planning to research, project design and construction. And since 1984 the Italian government has provided the consortium with €2.4 billion to study the lagoon’s ecology and hydrology, rebuild sea walls along the lagoon’s barrier islands, restore salt marshes and much more besides. All without any competitive bidding.


Behind the consortium (holding 40 per cent of its shares), is Impregilo spa – a Milan-based construction giant that builds dams, highways and power plants in over 40 countries.


The consortium’s strength is further enhanced by powerful political allies. These include Veneto Region president Giancarlo Galan (also a member of Italian prime minister Silvio Berlusconi’s right-wing Forza Italia Party) and Venice’s centre-left mayor Paolo Costa.


The supervision of the concessionaire provided by the national government’s office in Venice (the Magistrato alle Acque), has been weak at best. The consortium rather than the magistrato holds nearly all the technical capacity and knowledge, explains Sarto. The magistrato has hardly ever made a proposal that differs from the consortium’s position. After almost 20 years, Sarto says, that’s ‘a bit curious’. Another critic of the scheme is more colourful: as in a science fiction movie where aliens take over the minds and bodies of humans, ‘if you cut the magistrato’s fingers, instead of blood the consortium will ooze out’.


But prominent critics are few. In Venice itself, many experts are co-opted. Stefano Boato of local green think-tank Ecoistituto del Veneto notes that the consortium hires specialists in fields from architecture to ecological science to hydraulic engineering. Some contracts go to university labs and departments, others go directly to consultants and professors. For example, in 1999 local newspaper La Nuova Venezia revealed that the consortium had paid Marino Folin, rector of IUAV (one of Venice’s two universities) over 480 million lira (about €250,000) for a feasibility study. It’s all legal, Boato says, but there’s always an element of self-censorship – especially for those who would like their contracts renewed.


The consortium and its allies are masters at PR. In January 1999, a month after Italy’s national Environmental Impact Assessment Commission failed the project, four professors from the Massachusets Institute of Technology (MIT) flew to Rome and held a press conference criticising the decision. The dams, they said, were the best solution for Venice. They spoke, the Italian press reported, for MIT and for the ‘international scientific community’. Few papers noted that they were paid consultants to the consortium. With its powerful, legally sanctioned role and its combination of PR savvy, technical expertise and political connections, the consortium has pushed its dam project steadily – like a steamroller.


Attempts to reform the state’s curious institutional structure in Venice have come to naught. For example, a 1995 law ended the system of exclusive concessionaire. Sarto recounts that the following year, the senate passed his resolution calling on the government to carry out this law immediately. Nothing happened. Nor has Italy’s government created an independent strategic planning office for Venice and its lagoon, despite official decisions to do so.


Even European law has been interpreted in unexpected ways. Responding to the Green Party and Italy’s leading environmental agency Italia Nostra in 1999, the European Commission opened an investigation into whether EU directives requiring competitive bidding for government contracts had been violated. Brussels initially took a hard line, Sarto says. But two years later the commission closed the case, accepting a proposal from the Italian government: components of the dam project (perhaps worth half its total value) would be open for bidding, but the bidding would be organised not by the government but the consortium. Thus, Sarto says, the concessionaire was given even more power.


Stage right… Berlusconi


Since the re-election of Berlusconi in April 2001, business and politics in Italy have become two faces of the same coin. The prime minister is the country’s richest man and owner of a sprawling media empire that includes three national TV networks. Berlusconi’s government has shown little interest in the environment: last October, his environment minister sacked 23 of the 40 members of the national environmental impact commission, including Professor Zitelli. The government appears to have wiped Zitelli’s negative impact assessment ruling from its memory.


Last year the new government allocated €450 million for the first tranche of the dam project: a series of ‘complementary works’, including shipping locks to appease the Port of Venice (the only major economic interest with reservations about the scheme). Berlusconi has cut all other national money for Venice: all its funds for architectural restoration, for the city’s unique maintenance needs, and more.


Flooding is not Venice’s only environmental crisis. The nearby petrochemical complex is a highly polluting time bomb. In November, a toxic fire there nearly engulfed storage tanks containing deadly phosgene gas. In addition, mechanical clam-fishing techniques are destroying the ecology of the lagoon’s shallows. And motorboats bringing tourists and cargo through the city erode the canal walls – the foundations of Venice’s palaces.


In Venice opposition continues. In September both the city and the provincial councils voted against the ‘complementary works’. In December an environmental alliance called Salvare Venezia con la Laguna (Save Venice with its Lagoon [SVL]) presented its strategy to restore the lagoon’s equilibrium. Unlike the consortium’s risky surgery, SVL targeted Venice’s underlying illness). And in January political parties in the city sponsored public debates on the dams.


What Venice needs, wrote US scientists Albert Ammerman and Charles McClennan in the journal Science two years ago, is ‘fresh thinking in the search for new, alternative solutions’. In Rome’s halls of power, however, there’s only one official project. And time is running out: Italy’s national government is threatening to give a final go-ahead to the dams, and Berlusconi himself has promised to go to Venice soon after to inaugurate construction.


Tony Zamparutti is a former official of the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development’s environment directorate, and a member of Salvare Venezia con la Laguna – the environmental alliance opposing the New Venice Consortium and its dams .


A green action plan for Venice


1  Reduce the depth of the inlets between the Venice Lagoon and the Adriatic. These three ‘mouths’ are now dredged open wide to the sea, allowing into the lagoon strong currents that speed high tides to the city and erode the lagoon’s rich salt marshes. In particular, an oil tanker channel dug in the late 1960s cuts a deep wound across the shallow lagoon. SVL wants to reduce the depth of the Lido inlet from 10 metres back to six metres, that of the central Malamocco inlet from 15 to 12 metres (sea-going ferries and cargo ships could still enter), and that of the southern Chioggia inlet from nine to eight metres.

2  Increase the three inlets’ ‘dissipative capacity’ (their ability to slow tide surges). Protective jetties would block storm winds from the south (the sirocco winds) and so protect the lagoon. And large, removable baffles called pennelli would reduce the width of each inlet in the autumn and winter, thus further slowing tides during Venice’s high-water season.

3  Re-open the lagoon’s fishing valleys – the valli da pesa.  Like all open waters, the valli da pesa should be state property. However, wealthy families have taken them over for personal profit and private hunting (birds are attracted by the wealth of fish), thus closing the valleys to the tides. Re-opening these 8,500 hectares of lagoon would allow exceptional tides to expand further, rather than flooding Venice.

4   In parallel, Venice needs to be raised.  This work is already underway. As the city renovates water, gas and power lines under its streets, its contractors bring new fill. This raises the alleys and squares by (usually) just 20–30 centimetres, which is enough to keep away frequent flooding. US archaeologist Albert Ammerman explains that Venetians regularly raised their city in this way over the centuries. The renewal of the practice follows a 200-year hiatus. However, no work of this sort has yet been done on the lowest part of the city – St Mark’s Square. Curiously, the consortium is responsible here. Many environmentalists in Venice ask whether the long delay is a stratagem, for the square’s frequent floods – shown in newspapers around the world – seem an integral part of the consortium’s PR campaign for the dams. The action plan, together with ongoing work to raise the streets of Venice, would drastically cut the number of floods in the city – possibly to one or two a year. This would return Venice to the situation of a century ago. Moreover (as SVL tells exasperated Venetian businesses), it will take the consortium at least eight years to complete its dams. The action plan, on the other hand, could start working in months. The ‘green’ proposals are innovative, relatively inexpensive and environmentally sensitive.

In its strategic action plan, the environmental alliance Salvare Venezia con la Laguna (SVL) proposes a long-term strategy that focuses first on restoring the natural equilibrium of the lagoon.