U.S. Water News Online
VENICE -- When the highest tide on record swept over Venice
on Nov. 4, 1966, people all over the world gasped in horror at the
damage wrought on this fragile city and its artistic wonders.
Venetians are used to the "acqua alta," or high water, higher than
normal tides that have always affected their lagoon city, submerging
many streets and piazzas several times a year.
Residents pile up sandbags, wear thigh-high rubber boots -- beige
with heels for elegant ladies -- and get on with life.
But 1966 was a turning point, a wake-up call that showed the world
how vulnerable Venice was, spurring Italy to adopt a special law to
Now, after 37 years of proposals and counter-proposals,
bureaucratic delays and political disputes, Italy says it has the
final answer, the master plan that will turn the tides.
It is known as Mose, Italian for Moses, though it is only by
chance that it shares a name with the biblical figure who was saved
from the waters of the Nile. The name is actually an acronym for the
project's full technical title.
"This is what the citizens of Venice, of Italy and of the whole
world were waiting for," trumpeted Infrastructure Minister Pietro
Lunardi after Moses got the final go-ahead this month.
It consists of 78 flood barriers, 65-feet wide and up to 92-feet
high, that will be fixed to the lagoon bed by massive hinges at the
three "mouths" that link it to the Adriatic Sea.
At normal times, the barriers will be full of water and lie flat.
When an exceptionally high tide is on its way, they will be pumped
full of air and raised, creating a dam.
The idea is to let normal tides in and out of the lagoon, which is
essential to preserve its delicate ecosystem and flush out polluted
waters that run into it from surrounding agricultural and industrial
But when a tide of 3.7 feet or more is on its way, the barriers
are designed to stop the choppy waters of the Adriatic from pouring
in. A normal tide is 2 feet, while the 1966 acqua alta reached 6.4
Luigino Stefani, who was 13 at the time, recalled the damage of
1966. "The water reached a level no Venetian alive could remember
seeing before, or has ever seen again," he said.
"It wrecked everything. And when the water was gone, the city was
covered in stinking rubbish, tons of it, and millions of rats. I
shall never forget the sight of those rats."
The Moses project is scheduled to be ready in eight years and cost
$2.3 billion, to be paid for by the state.
And that is where some of its many detractors come in. Critics say
the bill is simply too high for a system that protects Venice only
from extreme tides.
The municipality opposed Moses for years, arguing it would not
protect St Mark's Square, which is low-lying and thus often flooded
even by moderate acqua alta.
The city authorities eventually gave way, but only after obtaining
guarantees that a series of complementary measures, such as raising
the pavements of some streets, would be carried out at the same time.
"Moses will protect us from extreme danger, but unfortunately we
in Venice have our feet in the water routinely. Moses alone cannot
solve this problem," Venice Mayor Paolo Costa told Reuters.
The high waters became more frequent and persistent in the course
of the last century, because Venice sunk 4.7 inches while the sea
level rose by 4.3 inches.
With the cost of the extra work added to Moses, the total bill
goes up to $6 billion, according to some estimates. But not only the
cost of the project is controversial.
Environmentalists say there have been insufficient studies into
the impact of Moses on the lagoon. They say construction will disrupt
a unique ecosystem and if the dams turn out to be harmful to the
environment it will be too late.
"A fraction of that money could have been spent on lower-impact,
reversible projects," said Paolo Perlasca, head of the environmental
group WWF for Venice and its region.
A short vaporetto ride away, back in Venice, in a frescoed palazzo
two steps from the Grand Canal, a consortium of companies that is the
state's sole contractor for Moses has glossy brochures and CD-Roms
galore to defend the project.
"This is absolutely the best solution in existence to protect
Venice from the acqua alta," said engineer Giovanni Mazzacurati, head
of the consortium, which has placated objections from every quarter
in its drive to get Moses built.
Most Venetians are in favor of Moses, according to the most recent
opinion poll. It found in November that 73 percent feared Venice
would one day be completely submerged, and 67 percent were eager to
see construction start.
But many are worried that the delays that have plagued the project
since its inception some 20 years ago will continue.
"It took them 37 years just to make their minds up and now they
say in eight years it will be ready. I don't want to speak badly of
my country, but it would be amazing if they finish on time," said
Stefani, shrugging his shoulders.
"I hope I live to see it. I'd like to know if it will work."
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