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Waters Close Over Venice. Rapacious investment in tourism will destroy the fabled city
By Shaul Bassi*
https://www.nytimes.com Nov. 15, 2019

*Mr. Bassi teaches at Ca Foscari University of Venice.

VENICE On Wednesday night, Venice suffered the worst flooding in half a century. Most of the time, acqua alta comes across as local folklore: the piazza filled with water, the gleefully splashing kids and the amused tourists. You put on your rubber boots and go about your life. But recently there have been more and more soaring floods. At dinnertime, we received the text messages and heard the sirens with the four distinct tones announcing the highest-possible water levels.

And then the sirens sounded again the last tone eerily prolonged and we knew that something terrible was about to happen. Two violent winds the warm southern sirocco and the cold northern bora started howling together, and with the full moon, the rising tide and the torrential rain, the perfect storm was engulfing Venice.

The sirens start when the water rises to 110 centimeters (3 feet 6 inches) above sea level. Up to 140 centimeters (4 feet 5 inches) is considered manageable; shopkeepers know they have to elevate their merchandise and electrical appliances.

Our social media was bursting with alarming reports: Water had risen to a calamitous 160 centimeters (5 feet 2 inches) above sea level. Then it rose to 170 centimeters (5 feet 5 inches) and then to 180 centimeters (5 feet 9 inches). Safe on a high second floor, we saw the plants in our inner courtyard floating on water. From our windows, hit hard by the wind, we observed the boundary between street and canal dissolve. Our anxiety was tempered only by the fact that our small son had already fallen asleep.

We had one fateful measure in mind: the record-breaking 194 centimeters (6 feet 3 inches) that wreaked havoc on the city in 1966, causing the irreversible exodus of tens of thousands of people.

We called family and friends, shared information online and tried to separate the genuine accounts from the inescapable fake news. Water eventually stopped rising at 187 centimeters (6 feet 1 inch). We saw clips of streets turned into torrents; the sturdy ferries rocking like paper boats; vaporettos (waterbuses) sunk and vaporettos tossed on land; gondolas stacked on one another like a game of pickup sticks; the narrow street I walk every morning invaded by a water taxi; outer walls collapsed; trees uprooted.

In the morning, Venice came together to help friends and neighbors: the newspaper seller you pass by every morning whose booth has been washed away and everything lost; the father of five who works hard at his restaurant to provide the best therapies to his autistic son; the students living in the most vulnerable housing; the books turned into pulp at your favorite bookstores; and your beloved museums penetrated by the muddy liquids.

The St. Marks Basilica, a millenary religious and civic symbol, is inundated, and a 60-year-old board member asked if he could weep in public. A person has died in Pellestrina, one of the islands dividing the lagoon from the sea. Schools and universities are closed, and sanitation workers work night and day.

The ultimate irony is that of Bangladeshi migrants, many of them climate refugees, who mop the floors of their shops and sell disposable boots to the ill-equipped passers-by.

We drew comfort from the countless people taking to the streets to help pick up the debris and succor the needy. I told my 75-year-old mother to stay home, but she ignored me and went to clean up our public clinic.

There is also rage and resentment. Everybody is talking about Mose, a project to build a barrier at sea to defend Venice from the relentless threat of high tides. The estimated $6.1 billion project, whose construction started in 2003, remains unfinished and marred by corruption and cost overruns.

But we are not innocent victims of the elemental gods or the conniving politicians. Many fellow Venetians are perfectly happy to profit from the mindless economy that is making tourism the only game in town, despoiling Venice of its residents and students, and losing all the care and expertise needed to preserve this fragile and wonderful place.

The flooding is all but a natural catastrophe, caused by the indiscriminate tampering with an ecosystem nurtured by Venice for centuries, the impact of the cruise ships, threatening new intrusive excavations of the lagoon and the rapacious investment in tourism.

The politicians are immediately making passionate pleas, invoking funds, tax cuts and the completion of the Mose, which might work but may end up saving only a simulacrum.

We need to look beyond the logic of emergency and simple technical solutions. The cultural historian Salvatore Settis has called Venice a thinking machine that allows us to ponder the very idea of the city, a place where people have a unique way of interacting to produce unparalleled beauty in a sustainable way.

We tend to forget that Venice has been for centuries an exceptional technological and ecological achievement. To live up to that tradition, we need a new political vision.

I feel that two cities coexist here: A national Venice and an international Venice. They mostly lead parallel lives, occasionally crossing paths at ribbon-cutting ceremonies. Local politicians seek local solutions by appealing to national policies. International institutions have made Venice a world capital of art and culture but take its social fabric for granted.

The public representatives of Venice need to partner with the international organizations that consider the city world heritage to address the key problems of over-tourism, pollution and gentrification.

To make Venice a safer city with the Mose project or an alternative technology would solve only the short-term situation. Venice could become an international laboratory, under the aegis of major transnational organizations and research institutes, where leading scientists, scholars and artists tackle the environmental crisis and formulate solutions that apply to all coastal cities in the world.



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