31 July 2020

The Guardian: “Deep trouble: can Venice hold back the tide?”

The next day, another acqua alta of 1.56 metres broke a record, flooding 75% of the city, giving Venetians a real scare, but now, a year on, that has paled in the face of a new record flood recorded on 12 November 2019, of 1.87 metres, the highest in more than 50 years, flooding over 85% of the city. Lesser record highs hit in the following days. The flood caused millions in damage, and two deaths – one man who tried to restart a water pump was killed by electrocution, and another was found dead in his home. The extended flooding has disheartened many among the city’s depleted population of 53,000, with some now thinking that there is no future for Venice.

But the threat from flooding has been growing for some time. The problem first came to global attention on 4 November 1966, with the record 1.94 metre acqua alta flooding 96% of the city. The city was unprepared, and waist-high, stinking, muddy, oily water destroyed housing, shops, goods and art treasures on all the islands and lagoon shorelines.

Neal E Robbins

Speaking of places in imminent threat from global warming and rising ocean levels, Venice is probably the most high profile example. The issue is known for well over half a century, but mitigation measures have been slow and inadequate, both technologically and administratively, according to this article. It is a poor indicator of our future response to the growing threats posed by climate change.

A tourist pushes her floating luggage in the flooded Piazza San Marco
A tourist pushes her floating luggage in the flooded Piazza San Marco on November 13, 2019 Luca Bruno / AP

The lockdowns caused by the coronavirus pandemic in the spring have shown us a rare vision of a cleaner environment, at the expense of frantic human activity. While completely switching off is impossible, we should find a better balance between leisure and travel on one hand, and preserving and protecting vulnerable areas. In the case of Venice it would be sensible to reduce heavy cruise ship traffic, and in the medium term to push for electric powered ships to at least cut down the air and water pollution caused by fossil fuels. I fear though that in the rush to reopen and restart economic growth few people will take this into consideration, and we’ll be miss an unique opportunity to reform.

Tending to arrive on the busiest weekends, each liner can pour as many as 5,000 passengers into Venice, and sometimes there are six or seven in port at once. Venice is already straining under the weight of 30 million tourists a year. The ships generate terrible air pollution, and most of them burn “bunker fuel”, which has up to 2,000 times more sulphur content than diesel. On entering and exiting, they make waves that erode seawalls and foundations. Their propellers stir up and wash away lagoon sediments, turning the water brown.

After the Costa Concordia ran aground and capsized off the Tuscan coast in January 2012, killing 32 people, Italy passed a law forbidding ships to come closer than two miles from the coast, except where there was no alternative – so it did not apply to Venice. The government banned ships of more than 40,000 tonnes from the Giudecca canal, but has insisted, for economic reasons, that passage for such boats should continue until other arrangements can be made. The exception has prompted international protest, regular demonstrations in the city and expressions of concern from Unesco over the risk to Venice, which is a World Heritage Site.

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