“Planetary alarm” for an “ecological disaster” in Venice?
The environmental group Italia Nostra (Our Italy) dramatically declared impending catastrophe in Venice during a national press conference on 4 July.
Cristiano Gasparetto, a member of the board for Italia Nostra’s Venice chapter, announced that Venice risks becoming an “ecological disaster.” Alessandra Mottola Molino, Italia Nostra’s President, explained that “We need to launch a planetary alarm”, as reported in the UK’s Daily Telegraph here: Venice \'risks losing its soul due to mass tourism\'
A series of claims are listed to support this imminent disaster. Each of these claims is questioned in the forthcoming book Venice in Environmental Peril? Myth and Reality (UPA, late 2011) by Dominic Standish. Here are the series of claims and a preview of why they should be questioned:
* “The lagoon city risks ‘losing its soul’ as it struggles to cope with 60,000 tourists a day, nearly double the number it can sustain, according to Italia Nostra.” Why can’t Venice “sustain” approximately 30,000 tourists a day in 2011 if the city welcomed and coped with many more visitors over 200 years ago? “[I]n the year 1775 the number of those who arrived on the eve of the Ascension day, amounted to 42,480, exclusive of the preceding days,” wrote Johann Wilhelm Von Archenholtz in 1785 (Von Archenholtz 1785, 37; cited in Davis and Marvin 2004, 36). Now “[t]ourists account for approximately 30% of the daily city users,” according to an OECD (2010, 75) assessment of Venice. Although Venice does get very busy with tourists, improved infrastructure and technology mean that the city copes much better now than in the past.
* “Venice faces an ‘irreversible’ environmental catastrophe unless visitor numbers are capped and cruise ships are restricted.” Why should tourism be capped, which would limit the number of people who can enjoy the city? How would the number of visitors to the city be capped? An entrance fee would discriminate against less wealthy tourists. Moreover, what is the evidence of this irreversible catastrophe? The wake of cruise ships “erodes the delicate mud banks and wooden piles on which the city is built, Italia Nostra said.” Waves that damage Venice are primarily caused by tens of thousands of boat trips around Venice every day by water taxis, cargo boats, public water buses and private vessels. Cruise ships are a very small proportion of boat traffic through Venice and create minimal waves. Instead of blaming cruise ships, constructing a subway through the Venetian lagoon could drastically reduce boat trips and wave damage. But Cristiano Gasparetto of Italia Nostra identifies the subway as another cause of “ecological disaster.”
* Finally, Lidia Fersuoch, the President of Italia Nostra’s Venice chapter, claims that the mobile barrier dams being built to protect Venice from its highest floods will permanently block the Venetian lagoon from the sea. “In 100 years the sea level will be such that the barriers will have to remain closed all the time, blocking the natural exchange of sea water that is (the lagoon’s) very life source.” Between 1897 and 1983, the relative sea level (RSL) in Venice rose by 23cm, with 12cm of the 23cm RSL rise due to subsidence and 11cm caused by rising sea levels (Cecconi 1997, 1). The IPCC (2007, 2) establishes that global sea levels rose from 1961 by an average rate of 1.8mm/year (0.07 inches/year), and it has been estimated that rising global sea levels added 5cm (2 inches) to the water level in Venice between 1970 and 2005 (Istituzione Centro Previsioni e Segnalazioni Maree 2009). Yet the OECD (2010) notes that, “since the Mediterranean has registered stationary and even falling sea levels in recent decades, its take-up of global average sea level rise could be lower than in other places” (OECD 2010, 158).
There is so much uncertainty regarding climate change forecasts that it is impossible to predict dam closures accurately. Carbognin et al (2009, 7) emphasize the uncertainty of predictions and that climatic changes such as meteorological storms could substantially alter water dynamic perspectives for Venice. The scientific uncertainty about the consequences of climate change for Venice’s mobile dams does not prevent dramatic and definitive claims about what will happen in one century’s time. Shouldn’t we observe how the mobile dams function after they begin operation (predicted in 2014) before passing judgement on their effectiveness?
The impact of the dams “will change Venice as we know it” warns Fersuoch. Venice has always changed and we need to play an active role in changing it for the better. Policy decisions should be governed by our understanding of Venice’s past and present circumstances rather than fears about the future.