Keeping Disaster Beyond the Gates
By Chris Lehmann
All empires are ultimately destined to be history’s flotsam, but Venice seems poised to make this much more than metaphoric prophecy-speak. The North Adriatic lagoon over which the city arose on alder poles well over a millennium ago is rising steadily, and Venice’s once rare acque alte (high waters) are becoming extremely commonplace. Flood tides of more than 31 inches inundated the city on 99 occasions in 1996; the more general recent annual average is 50 high tides a year — still enough so that most of the city’s inhabitants of ground-floor residences have moved either up or out. By comparison, the city’s Piazza San Marco, which floods at a 27-inch tide, was flooded only seven times in 1900, and 20 times a year throughout the 1950s. Over the 1970s, it flooded 1,013 times.
The greater frequency, and deeper volume, of Venice’s flooding has a number of causes: the ill-advised dredging of the lagoon to deepen shipping lanes for oil tankers; the pumping of the groundwater beneath the city for industrial development; the neglect of the city’s canals, building walls and general infrastructure since World War II (to this day, Venice has no modern sewage system, relying on the lagoon’s high and low tides to flush its wastewater out to sea). But the most potent source of Venice’s modern sogginess is also the one over which Venetians have the least control: the steady rise of sea levels in response to global warming.
In “Venice Against the Sea,” veteran American journalist John Keahey describes the remarkable architectural history that unwittingly placed the once-noble republic in its current plight, and surveys the bitter present-day political disputes over what can be done to stem the tide. As he explains at the outset, Venice is, in geographical terms, a quite literal freak of nature. “A lagoon is theoretically a transitional phase in the building up, or breaking down, of things terrestrial,” he writes. “If left undisturbed over a relatively short period of time, a lagoon becomes either land or sea. . . . The artificial restraints early Venetians built into their lagoon have fought this natural cycle until this very day.”
Indeed, what’s been remarkable about Venice’s defiance of nature’s course is that it’s been so successful for so long: By laying the foundations of Venice on wooden pilings, the city’s fathers actually placed it on a layer of exceptionally solid earth beneath the lagoon’s sediments; the water surrounding the poles encased them in a vacuum that worked to steady them further; and the alder “became stronger — almost petrified — with each passing century.”
This ingenious balancing act has kept Venice afloat — and, just as important, protected from would-be attackers — for centuries. It’s only with the recent rise of the surrounding seas that so much of Venice has become so regularly waterlogged. Keahey reports that “the earth’s temperature increased by at least 1.1 degree Fahrenheit . . . over the last century. Within the last twenty-five years, temperatures seem to be rising at a quicker rate.” This may not seem like such a dramatic shift — except that by some estimates, the world today is “only five to nine degrees warmer” than it was during the Ice Age. And as the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change has concluded, the last century’s warming has produced a “rate of sea-level rise . . . about ten times greater than the average rate over the last 3,000 years.”
But the global, inevitable sweep of a hotter climate is just one of Venice’s problems. It is also saddled with the task of formulating some strategy of civic flood protection in a postwar Italian polity that is all but allergic to long-term planning of any kind. After the Allied powers vanquished Mussolini in 1943, they re-engineered the structure of Italy’s government, pitting scores of rival national parties against one another in frail and ever-shifting parliamentary coalitions — and for good measure, they instituted a new layer of regional government, which added another 20 bureaucratic sectors to mediate between municipal and national bodies. The idea was to prevent Italy from reuniting into an authoritarian or fascist power, and it succeeded beyond anyone’s wildest dreams; in the 55 years between the end of World War II and the turn of the 21st century, Italy went through 58 national governments.
It’s scarcely surprising, then, that even as the waters in Venice continue to rise, the pace of political change is glacial. In 1973 — already seven years after the worst flood in the city’s modern history — the national government finally passed a vaguely worded “special law” calling for a “united effort” to safeguard Venice, recommending in particular the construction of retractable gates that would rise out of the water as flood conditions worsen to repel the Adriatic’s tides, and keep the lagoon below flood levels. A full decade later, the Consorzia Venezia Nuova (CVN) was founded; it is a private consortium of corporations charged with defining the scope of Venice’s flood troubles and mandating the solution. The CVN has been pressing steadily for the gates’ construction, but its corporate composition, as well as its tight connections to the country’s political class, has made it vulnerable to charges from understandably cynical citizens that it’s out to feather the n! ests of the contractors, engineers and civic leaders on its board and in its orbit.
Meanwhile, environmentalists and civic preservationists claim that the gates would cause still more damage to the lagoon — and point out that much of the flooding within the city could be manageably contained with less disruptive infrastructure improvements, such as sealing canal walls and better floodproofing for buildings, walls and bridges. Moreover, opponents of the gates plan argue that even by the best estimates, the gates would only be operable for the next hundred years, at which time engineers would have to devise some massive new remedy for still-higher rising tides. But Silvio Berlusconi’s new center-right government unexpectedly announced last year that it intended to move forward with the gates’ construction.
Keahey — author of “A Sweet and Glorious Land,” an account of his re-creation of Victorian novelist George Gissing’s tour of Italy’s Ionian coast — is an admirably dispassionate chronicler of the alternately epically stalled and intensely heated controversy over Venice’s fate.
He’s clearly animated by a great love for the city, but he also possesses a reporter’s healthy skepticism about the deeply politicized state of the debate, as well as an infectious curiosity about how all things Venetian work, and could be made to work better. As a result, ardent Venice preservationists will find precious little consolation in this smoothly written, cautionary account of the far-ranging worldly forces that are pushing one of the world’s most magnificent cities ever farther below sea level.
— The Washington Post, April 2, 2002
Swimming in Culture, Drowning in Water
By FRANCIS X. ROCCA
Venice is sinking and always has been. When refugees from barbarian invasions first abandoned the Italian mainland for the Venetian lagoon in the fifth century, the sedimentary mud they stepped on had been compacting for thousands of years. And the rising Adriatic, fed for some 20 millennia by melting Alpine glaciers, was already encroaching. Thus the builders of the Most Serene Republic, in the words of the historian John Julius Norwich, sank “their foundations into shifting sands.”
The city’s slow descent has become part of its poetic myth, lending poignancy to the tourist fairyland of canals and gondoliers. Anticipating its disappearance, Lord Byron foretold: “A cry of nations o’er thy sunken halls./ A loud lament along the sweeping seas.” The art critic John Ruskin called Venice “a ghost upon the sands of the sea, so weak — so quiet — so bereft of all but her loveliness.” In art and literature, this sense of inexorable decline has blended naturally with the air of exquisite decadence that clings to the city of Casanova. Thomas Mann famously saw in Venice a setting for disordering passion amid waters bringing pestilence and death.
Sinking has almost come to seem an eternal characteristic of the place, yet over the past century this ancient tendency has turned critical. As journalist John Keahey reports in “Venice Against the Sea” (St. Martin’s/Thomas Dunne, 296 pages, $25.95), St. Mark’s Square was inundated seven times in 1900 and 99 times in 1996. The worst flood in the city’s history occurred on Nov. 4, 1966, when water more than 6 feet above sea level made 5,000 people homeless. Carcasses of cats, dogs and rats floated in the canals; electricity went out for a week; and the water turned black with spilled diesel fuel. This disaster inspired the founding of more than 30 organizations around the world, including Save Venice in the U.S., dedicated to preserving the city’s art and architecture. After all, it could happen again, as bad or worse.
Italy, too, is taking steps. In December, the government finally approved plans for a set of 79 floating barriers that will keep dangerously high tides out of Venice’s lagoon. These hollow walls, 65 feet wide and up to 100 feet high, will ordinarily lie flat and filled with water on the floors of the channels connecting the lagoon and the sea. When necessary, the barriers will fill up with compressed air and rise on their hinges, far enough in just half an hour to keep out tides 10 feet above sea level. The barriers will sway back and forth, absorbing the waves’ impact, until the danger is past, when they will refill with water and return to their usual hidden positions.
The barrier idea was first proposed in 1970. Bureaucratic sclerosis partly explains the delay but so does the opposition of environmentalists, who believe that the barriers will upset the ecology of the lagoon and thereby poison it. One critic has denounced the so-called MOSE project (a technical acronym as well as the Italian name for the prophet who split the Red Sea) as an instance of “technology-driven artificialization.”
Yet, as Mr. Keahey recounts, the lagoon no less than the city owes its survival to artifice and technology. From the 14th through the 18th centuries, Venetians manipulated nature on a vast scale, diverting major rivers to keep the lagoon from silting up and building walls to stem erosion of the barrier islands between the lagoon and the sea.
The point was to preserve the city’s strategic position, which was shielded from land and maritime attack; but independence ended with Napoleon’s conquest in 1797, and the industrial age that followed did not respect the fragility of Venice and its lagoon. More channels for shipping, and deeper ones, boosted the influx of sea water, leading to higher tides. Tapping ground water under the lagoon accelerated the sinking of the land.
But the industrial development most threatening to Venice, in Mr. Keahey’s view, is one of world-wide scope: carbon-dioxide emissions that heat up the planet. According to a United Nations panel on climate change, to which the author repeatedly refers, sea levels could easily rise far enough in the coming century to keep St. Mark’s Square under water year-round.
Of course there are those who argue that the U.N. panel has overstated the effects of global warming. Bjorn Lomborg, the self-described “skeptical environmentalist,” is only the most recent. Others have predicted far smaller sea rises and even cast doubt on the link between sea level and climate change. Mr. Keahey might have acknowledged their dissent.
For whatever reason, the Adriatic is rising. But what to do about it? Mr. Keahey, after going over the problem and various proposed solutions in often redundant detail, comes to no conclusion of his own. He tells us that today’s maintenance efforts — dredging and repairing canals, raising the city’s pavements, shoring up the edges of barrier islands — are insufficient to keep St. Mark’s Square dry without MOSE’s floating barriers. But he also notes that the flooding he witnessed on a visit in November 2000, when unusual wind conditions raised the waters of the lagoon higher than those of the Adriatic, would have been even worse had the barriers been in place. So is Mr. Keahey for MOSE or against it? He doesn’t say.
Based on the evidence in “Venice Against the Sea,” one can easily believe that the barriers, although very costly, would at least be better than nothing. The strongest objection to them — that ever-higher tides would require so many closings as to prevent the natural ebb and flow that cleanses the lagoon of contaminants — seems a defect that could be mitigated through trial and error.
An even more fundamental question that Mr. Keahey raises without even trying to answer is: Why bother? Why spend billions of dollars saving an anachronism while, as Mr. Keahey puts it, “thousands die in raging floods in Mozambique and Bangladesh”? The best reply is to note the millions of people, many humble day-trippers, who visit Venice each year to glimpse the relics of civilization in a sublime state. And a precarious one.
Mr. Rocca is a writer in Vicenza, Italy.
— The Wall Street Journal, March 8, 2002
Venetians should start learning the backstroke
By Frank Bures
Venice is dying.
That’s the sober message of John Keahey’s new book, “Venice Against the Sea.” The city is slowly sinking, Venetians are fleeing, oceans are rising, and the Adriatic’s waves are lapping at the bricks like a ticking clock.
It’s a dark thought, that Venice could slip into the sea. In its glory, the Serenissima controlled much of the Mediterranean. It was one of the most powerful cities in the world and, as an independent republic, the longest-lived democracy ever (1,500 years). Venetians are credited with inventing modern capitalism and the banking system that made them so rich. In the 1200s, Venetian shipyards turned out a ship a day.
The 20th century, however, was a different story. Decades of neglect and industrialization took their toll on the city’s infrastructure. Much of the old city has been bought up by wealthy foreigners; locals have moved inland. Today, Venice has become a living museum, filled with treasures from other lives, than a city with a life of its own. You can’t even find a good pizza there.
But more recently, and more ominously for the city, are the growing episodes of acqua alta or high water, that force Venetians to walk on duckboards and in golashes. Keahey writes with this premise: Over the coming decades, the condition will only get worse.
Keahey’s book centers on this problem, one faced not just by Venice, but by coastal cities around the world. In the next 100 years, sea levels will rise, not just because of melting icecaps, but because of expanding oceans: With rising temperatures, water molecules expand and the oceans get bigger.
What does this mean for Venice? It means something has to be done to keep the city from gradually being submerged and corroded by salt. This has been clear since the 1966 flood, when more than six feet of water washed across the city and caused massive damage.
One solution Keahey seems to endorse halfheartedly is a series of mobile gates that could be raised during high water to hold back the tide. In typical Italian style, this was first proposed in 1970, and in the following 30 years, committees were formed, and the project was debated and postponed; funds were solicited, then allocated, and finally used elsewhere.
Opposition to the mobile gates from locals and environmentalists has grown. Meanwhile, governments have risen and fallen and done nothing about Venice.
Corruption, intrigue, and an entire city in peril – this is all good drama. But Keahey spends most of the book talking about the minutiae of global warming, scientific reports, the intricacies of tidal movements, repairs to city canals, and the feasibility of gates.
Sadly, the larger picture gets lost in these details. What does all this mean for the people who live there and have lived there for centuries? What does it mean for us? Why is it that outsiders and foreigners want the gates, while Venetians don’t? What does the dilemma tell us about the kind of world we live in? Why is Venice, and this book about it, important?
These are all avenues not followed in “Venice Against the Sea.” Nevertheless, it’s a well-reported book, and Keahey is a brave man for walking into the labyrinth of Italian politics. There is much good information here about Venice and its problems, and Keahey’s take is refreshingly cleareyed: His Venice is far, far from the Tuscan sun, and his history of the city is fascinating.
Unfortunately, when he moves into modern times, the book shifts into low gear and the story is overwhelmed by reams of data and long passages only a climatologist could love.
Why do we want to save Venice? That is the central question that goes unanswered. The outside world has a love affair with the city that people who live there do not. Are we saving it for ourselves or for them?
The book ends with this statement from the city’s mayor: “All those who are using Venice for their own interests must make a contribution to preserve the myth.” What that myth is, we are left to wonder.
Christian Science Monitor
Time and tide: Saving Venice
By Scott Eyman
Venice is a miracle. It even feels like a miracle, bathed in a strange, pearly light that’s as much a treasure as any Titian.
After Rome fell, Venice ruled the eastern Mediterranean for more than 500 years, not through military means but simply by controlling commerce. In those years, the Piazza San Marco was truly the center of the civilized world.
But since Napoleon ended the Venetian Republic in 1797, Venice has been the Miss Havisham of cities, subsisting on its dense, baroque architectural and sense of the past, and reliably sending writers and artists into orgasmic states.
Everything about the city is jury-rigged, especially its construction. The immense stone palaces are essentially held up by an interlocking series of wooden poles, 10 to 15 feet long, buried in the mud of the Venetian lagoon, that have been nearly petrified by the passing centuries. Oak planks were laid across the top of the pilings, followed by Istrian marble, an impermeable stone serving as a sort of foundation, followed by rows of brick.
The miracle is in terrible trouble, but then, Venice has been in trouble for a long time. There are at least five levels of pavement in St. Mark’s Square beneath the level where the tourists and pigeons now congregate — as the sea rose over the years, the Venetians just raised the pavement.
The sea gave birth to Venice, and now the sea is taking her back. A hundred years ago, St. Mark’s was covered by water at extreme high tide about a half-dozen times a year; in 1999, knee-high water was present in St. Mark’s Square 99 times. That, however, was minor compared to the catastrophic floods of 1966, when a storm arrived at the same time as high tide and deposited 6 feet of water in the city. Homes and businesses were devastated, and dozens of historic buildings were damaged. To this day, you can see the waterline from that flood on hundreds of buildings.
That was the worst flood ever, but as recently as November 2000, a sirocco pushed nearly 5 feet of water into the city, flooding 93 percent of the historical center. Scientists believe that, if nothing changes, by 2055 most of the center of Venice will be underwater on a daily basis.
John Keahey’s Venice Against the Sea is a journalist’s account of the struggle to save one of the world’s great cities, even as its own population bails out, in both senses of the phrase.
The population that totaled 184,000 in 1950 is down to 60,000. Eighty percent of the 10 million yearly visitors are day-trippers from cruise ships — few stay in the hotels.
Between the rising water that has seeped into the bricks and caused them to begin crumbling, the exodus of the population and the corresponding deterioration of services, Venice is growing less livable every year, if no less enchanting.
What can be done to save it?
In the long term, nothing. In another 200 years or so, barring divine intervention, Venice will drown. The primary vehicles for short-term survival are giant gates to be built just beneath then. When the alarm for high tide is sounded, the gates will rise above the water and prevent flooding.
A similar project was installed in the London borough of Greenwich, near the Millennium Dome, and has worked very well. The English installation took about 10 years, while the Italians have been wrangling over everything for fully 30 years, with no sign of construction anytime soon. (In that time, the cost has ballooned from $367 million to around $3 billion.)
Smaller projects are happening, notably $24 million being spent to revamp the subsurface and drainage system of St. Mark’s Square so that routine high tides will be kept out.
Keahey seems to think that much of the bottleneck is a function of natural Italian attitude, which, in terms of Venice, can be summarized as “What is the problem? The water goes up; it goes down. No one is hurt. This has been happening for centuries, and we are still here!”
Italians are instinctive anarchists. The trains reliably run on time, but the people are essentially sybarites and work in order to live, not the other way around. Their attitude toward government is that it is an amusing irrelevance, which is why there is a new Italian government about every 18 months. This, remember, is the nation that elected a porn star to the legislature — which, now that I think of it, is a more sensible protest vote than Ralph Nader or Pat Buchanan.
To get by, the Italians rely on guile and a bewildering bureaucracy. At one point, the Italians were taxing at 12 percent the foreign money that, you should pardon the expression, was flooding into Venice to finance restoration. At the same time, they were withholding their own money.
Venice in Peril, one of 29 private groups funding art restoration projects, began work at the Church of the Madonna dell’ Orto in Cannaregio — the parish church of Tintoretto — on the theory that it would take about $1 million and two years. It took four times the money and 10 years — the building disintegrated nearly every time it was touched, and massive amounts of the structure had to be rebuilt, using, of course, original materials and methods.
It would be easier to accept Keahey’s unease about laissez-faire Italians and resolute Americans if it wasn’t for the immediate example of 30 years of politicized stalling over the Everglades. And don’t expect our government to do anything about rising ocean levels until the Intracoastal begin slapping at CityPlace.
Venice Against the Sea is well-researched and cleanly written, but it has a provisional feel about it — a report from the front lines about a city that, along with Paris, is itself a work of art.
Whether Venice can survive for another millennium won’t be known for a good 10 years. That book, still to be written, will, one hopes, have a more upbeat ending than Keahey’s.
– Palm Beach Post
May 5, 2002
“Venice is in trouble,” writes John Keahey. The city is sinking into the sea. It has lost six feet over the last millennium and soon will lose more. The problem has become so bad that hotel concierges routinely distribute rubber boots to guests, and tourists cross historic squares on elevated boardwalks. Long-time residents flee not only the rising water, but also the rising cost-of- living and the rising industrial pollution.
Venice, according to Keahey, “is evolving into a crumbling museum.” Once, of course, it was an economic powerhouse with global reach; later it became the repository of some of the finest art and architecture in the world. Now it’s sinking, largely due to the remorseless facts of geography, but also because the city’s residents have abused their underground water resources.
In Venice Against the Sea, Keahey offers a detailed description of what’s gone wrong–and explores how the city might be saved, at least temporarily, through innovative engineering. This is a book anybody who has fallen in love with Venice will want to read, yet it issues a stark warning for people in coastal cities all over the world. If sea levels continue to rise, Venice’s bleak fate may also be their own.
— John Miller/Amazon.com, Jan. 2002
Venice has inspired innumerable authors to praise its cultural treasures. Garry Wills (Venice: Lion City) continues a line that stretches back to John Ruskin and earlier. But their panegyrics, and the vital tourism industry, will sink if the Venetians can’t defend their city against the Adriatic Sea. The problem is hardly a novel one, having existed since the earliest inhabitants found refuge from the disorder of the Dark Ages in tide-washed mudflats. Living on mudflats proved so safe that to preserve the city, Venetians over the centuries have diverted rivers and built dikes to prevent their lagoon from silting up. Thus, the city’s environment is largely artificial, ironically enough, environmentalists fulminate, so far successfully, against further artificial measures such as constructing gates and locks. Keahey’s informative, readable report is based largely on interviews he conducted in 2000 with the principals – engineers, architecture aficionados, and politicians. The legions of Venice lovers will not want to miss Keahey’s reality check on Venice’s future.”
— Gibert Taylor, Booklist, Jan. 2002
“Venice is sinking” is no Chicken Little squawk, and journalist Keahey (A Sweet and Glorious Land, 2000) explains why and what is being done (or not being done) to counter the trend in this cogent and fluent piece of urban history.
Venice has had its highs and lows – as befits a place whose city fathers include Alaric the Visigoth and Attila the Hun – but none so fraught as those last 50 years. As Keahey trimly unravels the situation, a combination of manmade miseries – including everything from the industrial pumping of well water, the filling of canals, the diversion of waterways, all the way to global warming – and natural ones, such as the compression of the silt bed, are spelling the doom of the city, its art and architectural wonders.
The beauty of Keahey’s study is its breadth of approach, covering not only the specific environmental problems besetting Venice, but also presenting a geological history of the town and the lagoon, the evolution of its urban morphology, and lovely interludes of his own late-night travels about Venice, as atmospheric as Whistler nocturnes. But what reveals the nature of Venice’s plight most of all is Keahey’s dissection of the Venetian political system, back through the period of the Republic – which impacts the way business is done to this day – though especially the period since WWII.
What becomes clear is that a long-term problem for the inundation of Venice couldn’t be a worse fit for a politics of patronage and favors and an elephantine bureaucracy. A perfect example is in the one best approach to the flooding – gates to control water flow – that have been stymied by a combination of vested interests, misallocations of funds, and conflicting impact worries.
Yet as Keahey notes, “humans, in the end, will have nothing to say in the matter.” Nature will have its way: Venice is going down. There is still time to see it. Bring your boots.
— Kirkus Reviews, Dec. 1, 2001
Built on a lagoon, Venice is now in constant danger of becoming a new Atlantis, explains journalist Keahey (A Sweet and Glorious Land) in this fascinating look at the ecological disaster facing the city of canals. Not only is sea level “sixteen feet higher than it was six thousand years ago when the lagoon was formed,” a situation made increasingly worse by global warming, but the foolish extraction of ground water for industrial uses has accelerated the city’s sinking. Indeed, a catastrophic flood in 1966 was a clear warning, and in 1996 there were “ninety-nine tides over thirteen inches,” all of which flooded St. Mark’s Square. Keahey writes perceptively of Venice’s ecology and history — its mythic founding by descendants of Trojan warriors, its involvement with the Crusades and the development of medieval trade routes — quoting a wide variety of sources from Livy to Jan Morris to scientists at the 1997 Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. While the situation looks dire (malfeasance on the part of the Italian government has only made things worse), Keahey investigates several possible solutions, like a potentially promising plan for barrier gates similar to the ones London uses to control the Thames. This informative book examines an urban environmental crisis in the making.”
— PublishersWeekly, Jan. 28, 2002