Venice has been hit by the second highest flooding event in the history of the city, just a few centimetres lower than in 1966 © 2019 Shutterstock
It has taken the disastrous flood that hit Venice on the night of 12-13 November to remind us all that the city is as great a mortal danger as in 1966, the year that has gone down in history as its great flood.
Over half a century on, the considerable efforts made to limit the effect of high tides and to restore the natural environment do not seem to have worked. What can be done now to save one of the most beautiful creations of mankind?
It is clear that a new impetus has to be given to the way in which Venices systems are governed, and Unesco is the only institution with the international authority and power—if it chooses to use them—to impose more speed and a new course of action.
This July, its World Heritage Committee chose not to discuss the situation of Venice and not to put it on its list of World Heritage Sites in danger. Despite this decision, Unesco should now address the greatest danger facing the city—the water that gave birth to it over a thousand years ago and that now threatens to kill it.
This weeks tidal flood was 187cm above mean sea level, enough to put St Marks Square under a metre of water and flood 80% of the city. It was the second highest flooding event in the history of the Serenissima, just a few centimetres lower than in 1966—194cm—when the world first became aware of the citys fragile condition.
That was a real turning point in the approach to Venice. A strong international movement led by Unesco released a flood of public and private money to restore monuments and the urban fabric, maintain and renew the infrastructure, improve the ecological and hydrological conditions of the lagoon environment, and plan and build the tidal defence barriers, an essential part of the citys protective system. In 1973 a Special Law was passed in the Italian parliament that mobilised €8bn for all these works, and much has indeed been done in the last half century to restore the citys invaluable cultural heritage.
In spite of this, however, Venice remains mired in apparently insoluble problems: the lagoon environment is in an ever more precarious state; it loses sediment with every low tide to the sea; it is polluted and subjected to the passage of colossal cruise liners, while the water level is rising inexorably.
Above all, Venice has not yet been protected against the high tides that regularly invade the town. Mose, the mobile defence barriers, whose design has engaged a generation of engineers and planners, and whose construction was launched with great fanfare 16 years ago, is still not operational, and nobody can tell when, and if, it ever will be.
Despite the difficulties Mose has faced throughout its long history, it is the only hope we have at present of holding back the force of the tidal waves. There has been opposition from the outset in the 1990s, when its size, cost and high environmental impact aroused resistance from both the Left and the Greens, and it took until 2003 for the Italian government finally to launch its construction. Since then, there are have been delays, cost overruns, and a major corruption scandal in 2013 that led to the dismantling of the group of businesses that had been building it.