This year, the MOSE Project, an infrastructural megaproject in the lagoon around Venice, is supposed to near its completion after almost 15 years of building, a massive corruption scandal and severe cost overruns and delays.
From a perspective of sustaining a unique natural and cultural site, this is clearly the most interesting project in Europe in the last decades, whether one believes it will actually be a success or not. Strangely enough, however, it has received little attention outside the lagoon itself.
What is usually called Venice is in fact a group of 118 small Islands, that started to develop in the fifth century AD and is situated in a lagoon at the northwestern end of the Adriatic sea. The lagoon stretches some 51 kilometers from the reclaimed marshes of Jesolo in the north to the drained lands beyond Chioggia at the southern end. The shallow waters of the lagoon are protected by a line of sandbanks, whose three gaps allow passage of the around one meter tides and the city's maritime traffic. On the sandbanks are many small settlements, some of them centuries old.
The city and its lagoon were added to UNESCO's list of world heritage sites in 1987. According to UNESCO the whole city is an extraordinary architectural masterpiece in which even the smallest building contains works by some of the world's greatest artists such as Giorgione, Titian, Tintoretto, Veronese and others. The Venice lagoon covers 50,000 km², and nature and history have been closely linked there since the 5th century when Venetian populations, to escape barbarian raids, found refuge on the sandy islands of Torcello, Jesolo and Malamocco. The city and lagoon form an inseparable whole of with Venice as the pulsating heart and unique artistic achievement.
The MOSE Project
While Venice is first of all famous for its incredible cultural riches and history, it is also known for its many floods. The biggest flood in the last century was the flood of November 4th 1966 when Venice, Chioggia and the other built-up areas in the lagoon were completely submerged. It was an abnormal occurrence of high tides, rain-swollen rivers and a severe sirocco wind caused the canals to rise to a height of 194 cm. Thanks to subsidence of the city and the ever rising sea level, the threat of floods is in fact increasing year by year.
After the historical flood in 1966 the first Special Law for Venice declared the problem of safeguarding the city to be of "priority national interest" and it was the beginning what would eventually lead to the MOSE project. Mose, the Italian word for Moses, is an acronym for Modulo Sperimentale Elettromeccanico, which means Experimental Electromechanical Module. The name aptly alludes to the story of Moses parting the Red Sea. The project claims to prevent flooding through the installation of 78 mobile gates at the three inlets, the Lido, Malamocco and Chioggia, which will separate the Venetian Lagoon from the Adriatic Sea. The gates lie at the seabed and are filled with water. With tides above 110 centimeter, the water is replaced by compressed air and the gates will come to the surface. According to MOSE, the system of gates will be able to prevent floods with tide levels up to 3 meters, which is more than forecast for the next hundred years.
The MOSE project officially started in 1991 but was inaugurated in 2003 by Silvio Berlusconi, the then-prime minister, and was due to be completed by 2012 but is now expected to be operational in 2018 or even 2020.
Corrupt from the start
The 1991 Memorandum of Understanding between the Magistrate for Venice Waters and the Consorzio Venezia Nuova (the New Venice Consortium) two of the main actors around MOSE, can be seen as the formal start of the project. The signing took place only some months before the European regulations on contract awards took effect, allowing companies registered in other EU countries to run for open tenders. And the contract expressly established that work can be subcontracted without conducting any public bidding. This would create the space for corruption that developed for over two decades and allegedly took a major cut from the MOSE budget.
In 2014 a huge corruption scandal broke and 35 people were arrested, among them Giorgio Orsoni, the then major of the city. In addition, the former culture minister and president of the Veneto region, an MP from the Forza Italia party of Berlusconi, was arrested later after parliament allowed for his arrest. The arrests were the result of a three-year investigation by the Guardia di Finanza, Italy's tax police, into alleged bribery, kick-backs, extortion and money laundering. Meanwhile, it was proven that huge sums of money were paid to politicians and others to be able to work in the MOSE project. A number of managers pleaded guilty and were condemned to prison sentences of less than three years which means that they did not go to prison because in Italy with less than three years you benefit the privilege of parole freedom. Many suspects had a so-called "shortened trial" or "rito abbreviato". By denouncing other accomplices, the indicted managers obtained large discounts to the penalties. The former mayor of Venice did not plead guilty and will be tried later, while the former president of the Veneto region, Giancarlo Galan, received a prison sentence.
In a detailed report by Counter Balance, a coalition of European NGO's, campaigning to prevent negative impacts resulting from major infrastructure projects, it is explained how the corruption was not an incident but was planned from the start.
The consequences for the natural environment
Though MOSE claims to not only prevent floods but also benefit the environment, many point at the damage that will be done, and is already done in the lagoon. We spoke with Erla Zwingle, an American journalist living in Venice, married to a Venetian, for 22 years. She has been following the project and communicated with experts for years and publishes about this at her site. Asked about the consequences for the lagoon she says:
»It is destined to be a catastrophe for the lagoon. The changes in the force of the tidal flow were already noted in the city's canals even before construction started (as soon as the channels were deepened to accommodate the caissons). Changes of this sort naturally have irresistible effects on the morphology of the lagoon below the surface, and inevitably also on the barene (the marshy wetlands), which suffer erosion, among other effects. With the plants and microorganisms becoming deranged or even destroyed, naturally the fish and the birds are also affected. We have seen changes in the migration patterns of certain fish. I have no doubt that birds are also having to adapt. It's not just a question of the force of the tidal flow, but changes in water temperature and also salinity.«
The damage has not gone unnoticed abroad but seems to have very little impact on local decision makers. In 2014, UNESCO threatened to put Venice on the list of endangered heritage sites, a list made up of primarily African and Asian sites, because of the threat of huge cruise ships that are still allowed to visit the city in great numbers as well as all the construction work that is done in the lagoon. When a UNESCO mission visited the city again in 2015, no progress was made while the cruise ships are just one problem besides many other, like inadequate funding, excluding civil society, no prohibition of tankers in the lagoon etc.
Long before UNESCO took action, the EU already noticed serious problems for the environment. According to a statement by the EU:
In authorising the construction of the dams, the Italian authorities did not correctly follow EU laws for the protection of nature, including inadequately assessing the impact of the project on the protected areas and failing to propose all the necessary mitigation and compensation measures.
As a result, written warning were sent to the Italian government in both 2005 and 2007 but the case was closed in 2009 after Italy made a number of promises to limit the impact on the environment.
A sustainable solution for the next hundred years?
The most important question, off course, is whether Venice will be save among increasing climate change and rising sea levels. Though the official narrative holds that Venice will be safe for at least a hundred years, many activists and others have serious doubts. And they seem to have some support by scientific experts.
Professor Paolo Lanapoppi from Italia Nostra Venezia, an NGO that is among the critical voices opposing MOSE, does not belive in the project:
»We have serious doubts. A very serious engineering firm, called PRINCIPIA, on request of the Venice Mayor (not of an environmentalist organization) sent a very heavy set of documents (hundred of pages) and concluded that at the present state of scientific knowledge it is not possible to predict with certainty the behaviour of the movable doors under certain heavy weather conditions. It could be that they would enter a state of bad resonance and substantially collapse.«
A recent study by Evelpidou & Pirazazoli (2015) confirms the worries of Lanapoppi. After an analyses of the whole project they write:
The MOSE gates cannot face a sea-level rise because they are not a water tight barrier. Their oscillations with waves will enlarge the spaces between the gates and will permit sea water to raise the lagoon level even when the gates are closed.
They also point at the PRINCIPIA study and the fact that MOSE engineers ignored the results. And the scientists go so far to conclude the whole project will need to be demolished after it is finished. An unorthodox vision on preventing floods comes from Jack Hontiveros, an American inventor from San Francisco that aims to produce technologies that make flood control simple:
»If you research the rainfall for days when Venice flooded, you will find that the floods always coincided with heavy rains. If the high tides in the Adriatic Sea were responsible for the flooding of the lagoon, then it would flood even during dry days, and that is not the case.«
He points out that the threat of flooding should be approached from the mainland. Instead of building gates to fight the incoming sea, one should build systems that control the flow of water from the mainland into the lagoon. And besides that, the gaps between the different sandbanks around Venice should not be closed with gates but instead be made wider, to enable the water from the mainland to exist faster into the sea.
This revolutionary idea faces obvious opposition from people who point at the far reaching ecological consequences. The whole lagoon would potentially be turned into a mere bay and lose much of its unique ecosystem. For now, it remains to be seen how MOSE will function in practise when it is finally operating at some point in the future. Despite the criticisms, the only thing that is sure, after all, is the continuance of the project.
TEXT BY: Edgar Tijhuis