Venice: After the flood

The Moses scheme promised to save Venice from a watery grave. But the election of a new mayor has put a question mark over the project

Nearly 30 years after the great flood that brought home to the world the fact that Venice could go under the waves, the Italians are still trying to decide what to do about it.

With the advantage of hindsight, we can see the disaster of 4 November 1966 as the first warning rumble of global warming, nature clearing its throat prior to telling us loud and clear that the whole planet was in dire trouble. And Venice, built on millions of wooden piles in the lagoon barely above water level, was the canary in the coal mine: the first European victim.

It was on that day in November 1966 that a rare combination of abnormally high tides, rain-swollen rivers and a fierce Sirocco wind filled the Venice Lagoon to bursting and sent floodwaters thundering through the canals to a height of 6ft 4in.

It was the worst flood in the city's history. Thousands of residents were pinned in their homes for days, and art works valued at $6bn (£3.2bn), stored on ground floors or in cellars, were ruined. Venice, neglected and quietly rotting ever since the defeat of the Venetian Republic by Napoleon more than a century and a half before, was suddenly recognised as a city in dire need.

Help, advice and money poured in, and a debate began on how to keep the flood waters at bay. The tide of 4 November may have been unique, but damaging tides of less dramatic proportions had over the preceding decades become an annual reality. What was needed was a way to keep them out.

The man-made Venice Lagoon has three inlets from the sea. The industrialisation of the lagoon during the 20th century, the destruction of sand banks and their replacement by concrete ones, and the digging of canals to allow big ships to enter, have made the lagoon far more vulnerable to floods, experts say. Conditions inside and outside are today more or less the same.

The only practicable way to keep out the high tides, engineers decided, was to have gates fixed to the lagoon floor that would hinge upwards to close it off to at times of emergency. And so the Moses scheme was drawn up, envisaging 78 massive gates, each 28m wide and 18m long, fixed to the lagoon floor.

The politicians then sat down and chewed the idea over. For the best part of 30 years. There were a hundred different views on the project, and the damage it could do. It wouldn't work at all. It would cause the lagoon to fill with stagnant water, it would kill of the lagoon's ecological diversity. It was a scam by capitalist corporations to make a killing at the city's expense. Governments in Rome came and went - at the rate of about two per year - without taking the difficult decision.

Finally, three years ago, then Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi cried "Basta!" and set the project in motion. The first stone, bearing his name and ceremonially set in place by him, is now at the bottom of the lagoon.

Mr Berlusconi was mad for his grands projets, the most pharaonic of which was the plan to build the world's longest single-span suspension bridge from Calabria to Sicily. But Moses was not pharaonic, it was merely necessary, and very, very long delayed: every year the number of days in which life in Venice ground to a halt due to acqua alta (high water) was increasing.

Finally, the project got under way. Yesterday the firm set up to run it, Concorzio Venezia Nuova, said that it's going well - 25 per cent of the work has been done, and out of a total cost of €4.1bn (£2.8bn), €1.58bn has been received and €1bn spent. Moses is due to be completed by the end of 2011.

At least, that was the completion date until yesterday. But now the project has been thrown into utter uncertainty. The Italian politicians are at it again.

Moses became Mr Berlusconi's baby, which obviously makes it fair game to the other side when they get into power, like other babies of his. (The far more questionable Messina bridge is almost certainly for the scrap heap). But the specific problem in Venice is that one centre-left mayor, Paolo Costa, who favoured the gates, has been replaced by another centre-left mayor, Massimo Cacciari, who doesn't. A member of the centrist Margherita ("Daisy") party, his stand is strongly supported by the unreconstructed communists of Rifondazione Comunista, and by the greens of the Verdi party.

Mr Cacciari, a professor of philosophy by trade whose black-eyed, heavily bearded, brooding presence lends gravitas to many television current affairs programmes, has been Mayor of Venice once before. During his last stint several years ago, his advice to his citizens regarding the acqua alta was "go out and buy gumboots". His opposition to Moses has always been firm. And yesterday, under his guidance, the Venice government decided to urge Rome, which has the final say on what happens to the Moses project, to undertake a thorough re-examination of the whole thing.

Now the decision on what to do about Moses goes to a grand government committee involving Transport and Infrastructure and other ministries, before the government decides how to proceed.

Supporters of the project hope it will soon be back on track - centre-left governments before 2001 had backed it, and Prime Minister Romano Prodi, confronted by opponents before the election, asked them, "What possible alternative is there?"

But there will now be a delay. And for the ordinary people of Venice, delay means disaster. It's unacceptable. "Life in the city is already next to impossible," Graziano, a Venetian born and bred, said yesterday. "The quality of life in Venice is very low and getting lower. For many people this is the last straw."

Quality of life in Venice - low? Venice remains one of the most delicious destinations in Europe, with its wall-to-wall upmarket boutiques, posh hotels, gorgeous churches, its galleries and museums, and Harry's Bar full of people in linen cream suits drinking Bellinis. Venice is the playground of the rich, how can it be so bad for the poor?

The fact is that Venice has been experiencing a drastic, high-speed hollowing syndrome that will probably only cease when the last real Venetian has decamped to Mestre, just across the water. With its absence of motor traffic it has always been a highly inconvenient town in which to live (as opposed to popping in for a visit). It's also very expensive, and with the arrival every year of more tourists that gets worse and worse.

In 1950 the population was about 184,000. Now it's down to one-third of that, and still shrinking. And it's a vicious circle. The more people leave, the more ordinary amenities like grocery shops and bakeries disappear with them, making life more difficult for those that remain. Venetians are becoming strangers in their own home town.

British economist John Kay, the author of The Truth About Markets, has recently argued that Venice can only be saved by being run like the theme park it is increasingly becoming. "An enterprise that is used to provide entertainment for the masses is best placed to run the city," he says.

But such a cynical argument ignores the fact that more than 60,000 ordinary Venetians continue to live in the city, providing its real flavour - even if they seem to be increasingly neglected by the authorities.

The flight from Venice helps to explain, according to Graziano, why the majority on the city council is anti-Moses. "Twenty years ago the Christian Democrats held mass rallies of Venetians demanding that the sea gates get built to stop the flood waters. That doesn't happen today because the demographic balance has shifted.

"Now the mass of voters are over in Mestre, and they are not threatened by the floods. So they don't care about Moses. And so the debate gets hijacked by environmentalists who raise a noise about the damage to the ecology of the lagoon - but the lagoon is an artificial creation, man created it and has constantly modified it. It can't be right to say we don't lay hands on it any more. That's just menefregismo!" - "don't-care-ism."

Britain's Venice in Peril fund has been involved in the city since the great flood of 1966, and has been campaigning for the building of the gates for many years. Three years ago, they hosted a major conference in Cambridge with 130 scientists from many different countries. The overwhelming verdict was that Moses is a must.

Yesterday the chairman of the fund, Anna Somers Cocks, said that with global warming threatening unprecedentedly high rises of water levels all over the world, "nobody can be sure how high the water is going to rise".

"During the conference, one of the Dutch scientists said that Moses 'will only buy the city some time'. The Intercontinental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) is predicting rises of between nine and 88cm in this century, which is an enormously wide span. Nobody knows for certain what the result will be in the Adriatic. Moses is designed to be able to withstand a rise of 16 to 25cm.

"But what is ridiculous is that people should still be discussing issues which are already beyond doubt. Rowing over the gates takes up the political energy that should be devoted to deciding what is to be done next."

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
ebooks
ebooksA special investigation by Andy McSmith
News
An iceberg in Ilulissat, Greenland; researchers have been studying the phenomena of the melting glaciers and their long-term ramifications for the rest of the world (Getty)
news
Environment
environment
Arts and Entertainment
Hugh Jackman bears his claws and loses the plot in X-Men movie 'The Wolverine'
film
Arts and Entertainment
'Knowledge is power': Angelina Jolie has written about her preventive surgery
film
News
Zayn has become the first member to leave One Direction. 'I have to do what feels right in my heart,' he said
peopleWe wince at anguish of fans, but his 1D departure shows the perils of fame in the social media age
  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: Junior Web Designer - Client Liaison

£6 per hour: Recruitment Genius: This is an exciting opportunity to join a gro...

Recruitment Genius: Service Delivery Manager

Negotiable: Recruitment Genius: A Service Delivery Manager is required to join...

Recruitment Genius: Massage Therapist / Sports Therapist

£12000 - £24000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: A opportunity has arisen for a ...

Ashdown Group: Practice Accountant - Bournemouth - £38,000

£32000 - £38000 per annum: Ashdown Group: A successful accountancy practice in...

Day In a Page

Election 2015: How many of the Government's coalition agreement promises have been kept?

Promises, promises

But how many coalition agreement pledges have been kept?
The Gaza fisherman who built his own reef - and was shot dead there by an Israeli gunboat

The death of a Gaza fisherman

He built his own reef, and was fatally shot there by an Israeli gunboat
Saudi Arabia's airstrikes in Yemen are fuelling the Gulf's fire

Saudi airstrikes are fuelling the Gulf's fire

Arab intervention in Yemen risks entrenching Sunni-Shia divide and handing a victory to Isis, says Patrick Cockburn
Zayn Malik's departure from One Direction shows the perils of fame in the age of social media

The only direction Zayn could go

We wince at the anguish of One Direction's fans, but Malik's departure shows the perils of fame in the age of social media
Young Magician of the Year 2015: Meet the schoolgirl from Newcastle who has her heart set on being the competition's first female winner

Spells like teen spirit

A 16-year-old from Newcastle has set her heart on being the first female to win Young Magician of the Year. Jonathan Owen meets her
Jonathan Anderson: If fashion is a cycle, this young man knows just how to ride it

If fashion is a cycle, this young man knows just how to ride it

British designer Jonathan Anderson is putting his stamp on venerable house Loewe
Number plates scheme could provide a licence to offend in the land of the free

Licence to offend in the land of the free

Cash-strapped states have hit on a way of making money out of drivers that may be in collision with the First Amendment, says Rupert Cornwell
From farm to fork: Meet the Cornish fishermen, vegetable-growers and butchers causing a stir in London's top restaurants

From farm to fork in Cornwall

One man is bringing together Cornwall's most accomplished growers, fishermen and butchers with London's best chefs to put the finest, freshest produce on the plates of some of the country’s best restaurants
Robert Parker interview: The world's top wine critic on tasting 10,000 bottles a year, absurd drinking notes and New World wannabes

Robert Parker interview

The world's top wine critic on tasting 10,000 bottles a year, absurd drinking notes and New World wannabes
Don't believe the stereotype - or should you?

Don't believe the stereotype - or should you?

We exaggerate regional traits and turn them into jokes - and those on the receiving end are in on it too, says DJ Taylor
How to make your own Easter egg: Willie Harcourt-Cooze shares his chocolate recipes

How to make your own Easter egg

Willie Harcourt-Cooze talks about his love affair with 'cacao' - and creates an Easter egg especially for The Independent on Sunday
Bill Granger recipes: Our chef declares barbecue season open with his twist on a tradtional Easter Sunday lamb lunch

Bill Granger's twist on Easter Sunday lunch

Next weekend, our chef plans to return to his Aussie roots by firing up the barbecue
Joe Marler: 'It's the way I think the game should be played'

Joe Marler: 'It's the way I think the game should be played'

The England prop relives the highs and lows of last Saturday's remarkable afternoon of Six Nations rugby
Cricket World Cup 2015: Has the success of the tournament spelt the end for Test matches?

Cricket World Cup 2015

Has the success of the tournament spelt the end for Test matches?
The Last Word: Justin Gatlin knows the price of everything, the value of nothing

Michael Calvin's Last Word

Justin Gatlin knows the price of everything, the value of nothing