VENICE UNSAVED BY ULI SCHMETZER Nothing can be more exasperating then the realization that nefarious financial interests are wrecking the environment with the false excuse of saving it. This global tendency applies also to the lagoon city of Venice. More and more Venetians suspect these days the four billion dollar project to ‘Save Venice’ from flooding is padding certain pockets while leaving their city to sink deeper into its lagoon. Perhaps too late, in view of the massive dam and barrier constructions already under way, Venetians are calling for help from friends and sympathizers abroad to stop the gigantic project. The idea of the protesters is to paralyze, or at least disrupt, the dumping of thousands of tons of concrete and metal poles onto the maritime floor where environmentalists warn it will destroy or compromise the delicate ecosystem of the lagoon in which Venice and other islands have thrived and survived for the last 1,500 years. In a construction-crazed Italy (resembling a building site these days) the plight of Venice’s recalls the war in Iraq: The fake clarion call to save a country in reality was a call to destroy it first so it can be rebuilt at vast profits and its resources exploited by the destroyers. In Iraq Halliburton was awarded the monopoly to supply and rebuild. In Venice the Venezia Nuova Consortium, linked to major Italian companies, was also awarded a monopoly. Already the first slices of a 3.7 billion euro ($4.2 billion US) State fund set aside for the project to rescue Venice from drowning have been handed over to the builders. Those not yet blinded by the PR hype about salvation, rescue of a global patrimony and Good Samaritan work have long suspected the consortium’s massive mobile barriers to block exceptional high tides at the three canals connecting the lagoon to the Adriatic Sea will only benefit certain bank accounts but not the city of Venice. (Just as anyone of intelligence has realized the war in Iraq is highly profitable for some.) In Venice – if critics are right - the monumental constructions of the eighteen floodgates will alter the lagoon’s physiognomy forever, obliterate the habitat of birds in the lagoon, remove five million cubic meters of sediment, create artificial islands with power stations and control towers and weaken the foundations of a city it is supposed to fortify. Not surprisingly most independent hydro-engineers, the World Wildlife Fund and UN agencies like UNESCO have condemned the Save Venice system as outdated by thirty years, excessively expensive, unnecessary and destructive to the life of the lagoon and its islands – the most famous of which is Venice. But the construction is going ahead undaunted. This in spite of allegations the project may be illegal since the consortium was created without a public tender, was awarded a monopoly over all construction and planning and was given the green light without consulting the people of Venice. More baffling still, the basic law of Venice - scrupulously followed for 1,000 years - stipulates all projects to construct dams, dykes or change river-beds must be reversible. But the consortium’s so-called ‘M.O.S.E.s’ project (he who divided the waters) is irreversible. Perhaps the most ludicrous part of this multi-billion rescue effort is the already accepted result by the project architects that the ‘M.O.S.E.s’ will NOT stop Venice from sinking. It will not stop huge tankers and passenger liners from entering the lagoon. In fact it will make it easier for ever bigger vessels to enter the lagoon and the port of Venice, a lucrative enterprise. Nor will this ‘Moses’ stop the ‘acqua alta,’ (high water) the average fifty times a year when exceptional high tides flood parts of Venice, among them Saint Mark’s Square. (During acqua alta tourists walk on duckboards and Venetians don rubber boots.) In the end all the expensive concrete-and-metal monstrosity will do for Venice is to raise floodgates during freak high tides. These ‘freaks’ occur four or five times a year. Some engineers already argue the pressure on these floodgates could be so acute during a particularly high tide the gates might burst with the apocalyptic effect of a burst dam for the city of Venice. Even the designers of the barriers agree if the sea level rises by 50 cms in the near future their floodgates become ineffective. So why the rush to launch this highly dubious project? One can only deduce neither Cassandra-like warnings nor expert opinions can halt the avarice for a share of these public works. Despite more and more opinions to the contrary the builders, backed by a massive public relations campaign, insist their system will safeguard Venice from the waters of the Adriatic, at least during exceptional high tides. Sadly the opponents and critics of the project have neither the funds nor the human resources to counteract years of indoctrination of a Venice saved by ‘Moses’. The project is based on the reality that water from the Adriatic Sea flows through three channels into the vast lagoon where Venice nestles as a man-made island built on tree trunks rammed deep into the floor of the shallow waters. These channels act like a flushing system for the lagoon. Depending on the tides seawater flows in one channel, washes, replenishes and purifies the lagoon and then flows out through another channel - or vice versa. The lagoon itself has a unique ecosystem made of brine, fresh water (from rivers) and sea water. Some local wildlife and fish species are found nowhere else in Europe. For 1,500 years Venetians realized any tampering with this marvel of nature could be disastrous for them, their city and the abundance of wildlife on and under the lagoon. In its long history the city had many enemies. But none of them have been as destructive as the State of Italy. Even the conquering Napoleon who told the last Venetian Doge: ‘The Republic no longer exists’ only pilfered some of the city’s artifacts (returned later) and tore down one church. Yet the Italian State tends to ignore the delicate eco-balance of the lagoon. In the years after World War II Italy built its sprawling and mega-polluting Marghera petrochemical complex right on the doorsteps of Venice. Between 1950 and 1970 alone the water pumped from the lagoon for this complex lowered the ground level of the city of Venice by 10 centimeters. (Since 1902 Venice has sunk 23 cms). Petrol tankers for Marghera began to enter the lagoon. These required deep dredging of shipping lanes (up to 20 meters) despite a law from the days of the Republic that no shipping lane must exceed a depth of four meters. Next came a period of local apathy: Between 1965 and 1995 the city of Venice failed to clean its canals, a chore their forefathers considered indispensable to maintain both the health of the city and the lagoon. The purification of the canals improves the circulation of tide water and washes out accumulated waste. In the end it was the abominable stink rising from the neglected canals that rekindled a frantic cleaning campaign ten years ago. Faith the M.O.S.E.s will save Venice from sinking is zero. In private even some of corporate beneficiaries and local politicians doubt the project will ever be completed or will last the distance of the envisaged eight year construction period. Governments in Italy tend to change. The legitimacy of a project can be interpreted in different ways, depending on the political climate and those in power. The ‘M.O.S.E.s has already enough high profile detractors to scrap it at a moment’s notice. (The project was approved and then inaugurated in 2003 under the premiership of Italy’s controversial billionaire businessman Silvio Berlusconi. ) What if after the initial frenzy to grab as many funds as possible the whole project will end up as a scene of sunken cement and metal, half completed floodgates, mountains of dug-up sediment and partly completed man-made islands? The scope of the ‘destruction’ can be awesome: Five million cubic meters of sediment are to be excavated including parts of the hard layer of clay on which Venice is anchored. Into these cavities the builders will dump 12,000 cement piles, eight million tons of rock and 50,000 tons of metal sheets. Coastlines protected by European Union law would be devastated and when the floodgates are completed (if ever) anodes to protect their huge metal gates will release about 10 tons of zinc into the lagoon each year. This toxic metal could find its way into the food chain. For those interested scores of alternative projects have been proposed, cheaper, faster, more effective, but most important - all of them reversible. The M.O.S.E.s is not. The alternative experts who argue for far a less monumental Moses feel one of the first initiatives should be a ban on the towering multi-storey passenger liners and other large vessels entering Venice. Their passage shakes the city in its frail foundations as they pass along the Riva in front of the Doge’s palace. Next the connecting channels to the Adriatic could be made narrower allowing less water to pass during high tides. The city foundations and walls should be reinforced and shored up, speed limits (in effect on paper) rigorously enforced and less expensive and removable floodgates designed. (One design offered can be built in two years at a fraction of the price of the Moses.) Historically the city fathers of Venice always carefully weighed up - sometimes for years, sometime for centuries - any project intending to change their watery environment before granting it the go-ahead. Even then the go-ahead carried the proviso: If the system does not work dismantle it. It was this kind of wise caution that helped the City on Water to survive for more then a millennium. (ends) WWW.ULISCHMETZER.TK