No Life Raft for Venice
Venice, sept 26, 2017 - In many ways the project to save Venice from
disappearing below rising ocean levels has become one of those real-life Italian
melodramas during which illicit fortunes are made until the project is
abandoned because it has run out of funds.
For years the agonizing Life Raft for Venice known as MOSE has
infuriated citizen and environmentalists who protest periodically by blocking the
cruise ships with small boats. Many argue huge cruise ships are now able to sail
in ever greater numbers through the center of Venice thanks to deepened channels
dug out by this Save Venice scheme.
In a nation accustomed to scams sixteen executives, politicians,
engineers and even the governor of the region have faced or are still facing
charges that allege for the last ten years they steadily siphoned off a good
part of the 5.5 billion euros of public monies destined for the MOSE.
Not surprisingly this month the consortium of companies cobbled together
to realize the MOSE - basically a steel and cement barrier blocking the Adriatic
Sea from entering the lagoon of Venice during high tides - has announced it is broke.
However the consortium which has already gobbled up 5.5 billion Euros, has now
requested the government to give them another three hundred million Euros in
emergency funds to continue with a public works unlikely to ever function - or be
Worse, for the first time the consortium admitted maintenance of
the MOSE would cost the city of Venice or the government in Rome ninety
million Euros every year. If that was bad news so was the tender for new
project directors to replace those in jail or still facing charges. Many if these
eager individuals vying for the vacated jobs have been associated with other
dubious public works.
For the uninitiated it suffices to know Venice is often flooded during
high tides, or 'king tides' when large parts of the city, especially around St Mark's
Square, are under water forcing residents and tourists to walk on hastily raised
duckboards or wear knee-high gum boots. Plans to reduce this flooding of the city
have been bandied for generations but it took a consortium of major Italian
corporations to come up with a project many experts immediately defined as
'harebrained.' The basic idea was to built steel barriers that could be raised and
lowered hydraulically at the two entrances through which water from the Adriatic
Sea enters and exits the lagoon of Venice. But the design obviously proved
After ten years the barrier has still to lift off the seabed and the
consortium admits the structures are now crusted by barnacles, have rusted
and have been badly damaged by mildew. And the electric plant to lift them
was never built.
The design of the MOSE was so intricate it's execution so precarious
and its envisaged maintenance so exorbitant critics immediately denounced it as a
white elephant and a money laundering scheme. Yet these critics were instantly
silenced by charges of defamation filed by a consortium with no shortage of
lawyers and political clout.
But as the years passed, the high waters of Venice kept rising, the
unfinished barriers sat passively on the sea bed and judges hearing new
defamation charges began to dismiss them and rule 'this criticism is legitimate.'
Wit he gravy days over critics like Vincenzo di Tella, a specialist
in underwater construction, were exonerated and able to openly argue why the
project was an abject failure and the barriers to save Venice could have been
done far cheaper, far more effective and ecologically acceptable if one took the
advise of experts like those in Holland, the nation probably with the best and
most effective sea barriers. But such alternate schemes were always dismissed
by Silvio Berlusconi's former governments whose members often had close ties
to the MOSE consortium.
In the end it became increasingly apparent the deepening of the
entrance channels, supposedly to accommodate the barriers, enabled ever larger
cruise ships to enter Venice and sail along St Mark's Square and down the
Giudecca Canal to the port of Venice. This tourist bonanza allowed the merchants
of Venice to make more money, deaf as usual to warnings the city foundations were
being irreparably damaged by the cruise ships.
The European Union ordered Italy to suspend the cruise ships
sailing through Venice because the displacement volume of these vessels
endangered the delicate infrastructure of a city built on tree trunks sunk into
water. But the suspension lasted only a few weeks. Then the ships sailed as
usual - and in ever greater numbers.
Lately, to silence the critics, there has been a promise to build a port
away from the current port to accommodate cruise ships without them passing
through the city, a project envisaged for some distant yet to be fixed future and
surely to be headed by yet another consortium.
In the meantime an average eight cruise ships a day, each carrying
between 3000 and 4000 passengers, have become a windfall for a city living on
tourism and made up mainly of shops and restaurants. Venice once had a quarter
of a million residents. Today it has 45,000 residents. The rest fled the narrow
alleys and streets jammed by mass tourism and an atmosphere polluted by smoke
emissions from cruise ships that operate their diesel generators around the clock
even if moored. This has turned Venice (a city where people walk or use a water
bus) into one of Europe's most polluted metropolis according to European pollution
In the meantime the MOSE refuses to die while insurance companies and
courts work out who pays for the misappropriation of funds, whether the
barriers are viable or a mere 'pie in the sky' scam, if a cheap, quick alternative can
be found and whether the foundations of the city have been permanently damaged by
By the time all this is settled La Serenissima, the over 1000 year
old Venice, might well be gurgling out its venerable existence below the lapping
waters of its lagoon.
Uli Schmetzer is a former foreign correspondent for Reuters and the Chicago Tribune.
He is the author of four books all available on Amazon and Kindle. He lives part of the year in Venice.