‘Venice can be saved.’ As tides rise, City of Canals seeks solution.

Why We Wrote This

High tides in Venice could push population decline, locals worry. But for now, the floods have brought the City of Canals a wave of volunteers. This story is part of an occasional Monitor series on “Climate Realities.”

Andrea Merola/ANSA/AP
A woman tries to cross a flooded street during high water in Venice, Italy, Nov. 15, 2019. Over the course of a week, three high tides hit Venice with a magnitude it has rarely experienced.

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Over the course of a week, three high tides hit Venice with a magnitude it has rarely experienced. The threat has focused global attention on the formidable challenges this city faces, from climate change to the impact of mass tourism and population decline. 

The most dramatic high tide, which reached about 6 feet, was the worst that Venice has endured since the great flood of 1966 that looms large in collective memory. 

The rapid succession of acqua alta, or high tides, had a catastrophic effect on local infrastructure. There are also worries that the floods could be a tipping point for many Venetians. The city’s population has declined from 175,000 in 1950 to just 52,000 now.

A glimmer of hope did emerge from the unprecedented flooding. Hundreds of volunteers arrived from all over Italy to help clean up the worst of the damage. Some converged on a celebrated bookshop in the heart of the city. Ironically named Acqua Alta, the store was badly affected by the flooding, with the water turning hundreds of books into soggy pulp. 

Chiara Tonello, one of the bookshop staff, says, “We have to endure.”

Like all Venetians, Paolo Brandolisio is accustomed to dealing with the high tides that periodically hit the city.

As a maker of slender wooden oars for gondolas, he knows well the ever-shifting dynamics of Venice’s watery world. But he was shocked, like so many others, by the unprecedented series of tides the city suffered over the last week.

“In the last few years, we’ve seen a lot more high tides. It’s the frequency that is concerning,” says Mr. Brandolisio, standing knee-deep in his flooded workshop, where he makes and repairs oars for Venice’s 450 gondoliers.

He managed to save his most precious pieces of machinery, including a lathe and an electric belt saw, but a machine for sucking up sawdust was lost to the flood as well as supplies of timber, including much-valued chunks of walnut wood. 

“I’ve got a lot of clearing up to do,” he says, ruefully watching a sleek black cormorant paddle past his front door, along what would normally be a dry alleyway. 

Over the course of a week, three high tides hit Venice with a magnitude it has rarely experienced. The threat has focused global attention on the formidable challenges this city faces, from climate change to the impact of mass tourism and population decline.  

The most dramatic high tide, which reached 1.87 meters (about 6 feet), was the worst the city of canals had endured since the great 1.94-meter flood of 1966 that looms large in collective memory. 

The rapid succession of acqua alta, or high tides, had a catastrophic effect. Dozens of churches, including Venice’s iconic St. Mark’s Basilica, have been damaged by the corrosive salt water that swept in from the lagoon. The owners of shops, bars, and restaurants had to resort to portable pumping machines to sluice the dirty water out of their premises.

As eerie flood-warning sirens sounded over the city, dead seagulls floated past luxury fashion outlets, while the force of one flood was so great that it swept a sturdy newspaper kiosk off its foundations. It sank to the bottom of a canal.

There are worries that the floods could be a tipping point for many of the city’s inhabitants, including artisans like Mr. Brandolisio who help make up Venice’s unique social fabric. The city’s population has declined from 175,000 in 1950 to 60,000 a decade ago and just 52,000 now. 

In a pharmacy near the Rialto Bridge, an electronic counter chronicles the exodus in bright red numbers. Venetians are pushed out by high rents, the cloying impact of more than 20 million tourists each year, and the daily difficulties of living here. This is a city with no cars and no big supermarkets. Groceries have to be carted home in little trolleys, up and down the stone steps of the numerous arched bridges.

AP/File
The Doge's Palace (left) and St. George's Church (center) sit several feet underwater in Venice, Italy, during an infamous flood in 1966. The high-water mark hit 74 inches on Nov. 12, 2019, flooding more than 85% of the city.

Venice’s last chance?

A glimmer of hope did emerge from the unprecedented flooding. Hundreds of volunteers arrived from all over Italy to help clean up the worst of the damage. 

Some converged on a celebrated bookshop in the heart of the city where volumes are stacked high on shelves and crammed into an old gondola and enamel baths. Ironically named Acqua Alta, the store was badly affected by the flooding, with the water turning hundreds of books into soggy pulp. 

A group of young Italians turned up to offer help in moving dry books to higher ground.

“We came to give a hand,” says Camilla Frank, who is Venice born and bred. “The high tides are happening more often. The city is not prepared for these extraordinary events. And it’s getting worse.”

Sloshing around in knee-high water, the volunteers worked around half a dozen cats that sat on piles of books and looked on nonchalantly.

“These floods have been really incredible, as bad as the big flood of 1966,” says Chiara Tonello, one of the bookshop staff. “We have to endure, we have to keep going because unfortunately a lot of people are abandoning Venice.” 

Venetians are discussing population decline and other key issues ahead of a Dec. 1 referendum on whether the city should be cut in half administratively.

Currently, Venice City Council administers not just historic Venice – the islands in the lagoon – but also a big chunk of territory on the mainland called Mestre, an area of refineries and container terminals, as well as Marghera, an industrial port. 

Campaigners who are in favor of the split say the referendum is crunch time for Venice – a chance for the city to have its own dedicated mayor.

“A mayor looking after just Venice would have more time to dedicate to the things that really matter to the city,” says Jane da Mosto, head of We Are Here Venice, a think tank working on the acute challenges facing the UNESCO World Heritage city. “Under the present system, mayors cannot keep up with the complexity of running two very different cities.”

Venice’s leaders should be actively luring new residents to make up for the population decline, says Dr. da Mosto, an environmental scientist.

“The quality of life here is so attractive that it should be like putting a pot of honey in front of bees,” she says.

New hotels should be obliged to donate money to public housing in order to keep Venetians in the city, she suggests. Restaurants should be compelled to employ a certain percentage of people who live in Venice. Research institutions, universities, and other organizations should be lured to the city, bringing new jobs, in order to move away from the tourism monoculture.

“I definitely think Venice can be saved,” says Dr. da Mosto. “But the referendum is the last chance for Venice.”

Still no “Moses”

A plan to try to protect the city from high tides is deeply contentious. It is a flood barrier called Moses, after the Old Testament figure who held back the waves of the Red Sea. 

It involves 78 massive hinged gates affixed to the seafloor across the three narrow channels that separate Venice’s lagoon from the Adriatic Sea. When a high tide of 1.1 meters (3.6 feet) or more is forecast, the 300-ton panels will rise up and block the sea.

But the infrastructure project has been dogged with problems. Work began in 2003 and was supposed to have been completed several years ago. There have also been huge cost overruns – it was meant to have cost around €2.5 billion ($2.8 billion), but so far €5.5 billion ($6.1 billion) has been spent. Five years ago, 30 people connected with the flood barrier were arrested in a massive corruption scandal, accused of embezzling public funds.

There may not be much public confidence in Moses, but for now it is the only game in town. 

“There is no plan B,” Luigi Brugnaro, the mayor of Venice, told the Italian press last week. “Too much money has been spent but we need to get it working as soon as possible.”

Mention the project to many Venetians – it is known as Mose in Italian – and many raise their eyebrows or snort with derision.

“It’s a scandal – an old, inadequate project that has still not been finished,” says Matteo Secchi, the president of an activist group called Venessia.com – a nod to the city’s name in Venetian dialect. “The Dutch used to have half their country underwater but they manage to prosper. We should have given the project to them. They have the expertise.”

The new normal 

In a flooded alleyway in the Castello district, bags of rubbish float in the water and locals splash their way through the flood in rubber galoshes. 

Poking his head out of his front door, Alessandro Guggia is concerned that the high tides are eroding not just the fabric of the city but the morale of its inhabitants. 

“We are used to flooding and we know how to deal with it, but my generation has never seen anything like this,” says Mr. Guggia, who works in a hotel. 

Like many Venetians, he blames the shifting weather phenomena squarely on climate change.

“About 90% of my classmates from school have left Venice because living here is a constant battle,” he says. “Sooner or later, people’s resilience will run out.”

This story was produced with support from an Energy Foundation grant to cover the environment.

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