TCS Daily

Venice's Sinking Ambition

By Dominic Standish - April 3, 2003 12:00 AM

The sirens sound across Venice to warn us that the increasing problem of acqua alta (high water) is forecast. Out go the raised planks to walk above the floods and on go the Wellington boots. But Project Mose to part the seas could provide a solution.

Project Mose is designed to protect the three entrances to the lagoon that surrounds Venice with 79 movable barriers. The barriers would remain below the surface of the sea until high tides and flooding of the city are predicted. Then they would rise up and block the sea from the lagoon.

Initial approval for mobile gates was given in a 1973 law and Project Mose's conceptual design was finished in 1989. But it was not until 6 December 2001 that the current Italian government gave the project preliminary approval. It didn't take long for environmental groups to react. "Today the city's destiny rests on a pretentious, costly and environmentally harmful technological gamble," said Gaetano Benedetto from Italy's World Wildlife Fund (WWF).

Paolo Pirazzoli, a geophysicist at the French National Centre for Scientific Research, has argued that since Project Mose was originally designed it "has not been subsequently adapted to the predictions of greenhouse gas buildup-related sea-level rise which have been foreseen since 1982." Environmentalists have claimed that high sea levels will mean the gates will frequently block the 'flushing' of the lagoon into the sea, making it more polluted and affecting marine life. So forget romantic rides on Venice's gondola boats. For the eco-friendly visitor, Greenpeace has been running 'poison' tours to what it claims are 'toxic' parts of the lagoon.

Yet 67 percent of Venetians who live with acqua alta are in favour of Project Mose, as are 62 percent of Italians (ISPO Survey, autumn 2002). Several environmental reports have indicated that while Project Mose will not protect Venice forever, it is the best solution for the foreseeable future.

In 1995, the government ordered an Environmental Impact Assessment to examine the project with a college of experts and input from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT). The team of international marine engineers and geophysicists concluded that the mobile gates would protect Venice from flooding even if the sea level rises dramatically over the next 100 years. "The bottom line is that the gates work," stated the team's leader, Rafael Bras of MIT. "To argue that the design of the barriers did not consider sea-level rise is just wrong. The barriers, as designed, separate the lagoon from the sea in an effective, efficient and flexible way, considering present and foreseeable scenarios," he added.

Despite this assessment, environmentalists have fought hard to block Project Mose. The Italian Green Party first participated in government in 1996 and took control of the Environment Ministry. The Ministry expanded and brought in environmental non-governmental organisations, such as conservationists Italia Nostra, to help manage a wider remit.

In 1998, the Environment Ministry produced a report criticising Project Mose. The Environment Minister, Green Party member Edo Ronchi, issued a decree stalling the project. In 2000, the Regional Administrative Tribunal for the Veneto (TAR) ruled this decree invalid. But the Green Party made abandoning Project Mose a condition of their participation in the new 2000 government led by Giuliano Amato.

The Green Party is not represented within Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi's current government. On 29 November 2002, Berlusconi's government pledged the first financial instalment of € 450 million for Project Mose's development from 2002-2004. Stefano Lorenzi of WWF Italy responded by stating: "It is maybe forgotten that Project Mose was already blocked in December 1998 for its inefficient environmental impact in maintaining the equilibrium of the lagoon's ecosystem."

Since the Green Party lost its representation within central government, environmentalists have resorted to court action. In February 2003, WWF Italy and Italia Nostra turned to the TAR Tribunal to present the case for reinstating the 1998 report and decree blocking Project Mose.

However, the Green Party is still powerful in Venice's local council, which contributed towards delaying definitive approval for Project Mose at the government's Committee for Policy, Coordination and Control (Comitatone) meetings on 4 and 25 of February 2003. Chaired by Berlusconi, the Comitatone was due to meet again on 27 March to make the final decision on Project Mose. But Venice's daily newspaper, Il Gazzettino, reported "slippage" postponing the meeting until 4 April or later.

Berlusconi had promised to lay Project Mose's first stone at the beginning of February 2003. The recent delays seem to be due to a combination of the influence of environmentalists, the distractions of the war in Iraq and the well-established Italian tendency to procrastinate.

'Venice against the Sea,' (2002) a book by John Keahey, quotes an observer concerned about the "can do" attitude of the current government. Unfortunately, these concerns appear to be unfounded. Don't hold your breath waiting for the definitive approval and construction of Project Mose. Let's hope Venetians won't have to hold their breath if Venice is submerged.

Dominic Standish is completing his PhD on Venice and environmental risks.

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