Venice Is Really Sinking: How Corruption & Overtourism Have Worsened the Acqua Alta Problem

By Kate B.
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Photo Courtesy: Miguel Medina/AFP/Getty Images

Located on the Venetian Lagoon, an enclosed bay in northeastern Italy, Venice is a city made up of 118 small islands, all of which are linked by more than 400 bridges. Given monikers like "The Floating City," Venice touts its unique waterfront features, causing many to tease that "it’s sinking." However, as of November 2019, Venice really is sinking — or being overtaken by water. And that once tongue-in-cheek expression has become a very pressing problem.

According to reports, about 3 feet of standing water still fills the cafes and businesses that flank St. Mark’s Square. Meanwhile, the city’s famous gondolas, which can’t make it under the now-low-hanging bridges, are beached. The damage to the canals and historic sites — including the renowned St. Mark’s Basilica — has put Venice’s designation as a UNESCO World Heritage Site in jeopardy.

The recent acqua alta (high water) isn’t the city’s first time contending with drastically rising tides — there were devastating floods in 1966 too — but the recent influx of water has caused a staggering $1.1 billion in damages. Art historian and UNESCO’s former Venice advisor Wolfgang Wolters spoke to Germany’s DW News, saying that unlike the floods of 53 years ago, it's "clear that the problem [today] is man-made."

Acqua Alta in the Wake of Corruption & Climate Change

For 900-plus years, Venetians have found ways to combat rising water levels, namely by blocking rivers and building up the lagoon’s naturally occurring barrier islands. Nonetheless, these small-scale measures are no longer adequate. In the past, floods like these occurred every few decades; now they happen every few years. To make matters worse, the 1960s saw the construction of the Canale dei Petroli, a channel dredged to allow oil tankers access to the city’s mainland. This was built without much regard for the lagoon’s delicate ecosystem — or the need to protect against future flooding and rising water levels.

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Photo Courtesy: Pictured: Venice with typical, pre-flood water levels via Martin Falbisoner/Wikimedia Commons

In the early 2000s, the government (finally) realized it needed to shield the city from the Mediterranean’s potential tidal waves and floodwaters. To that end, the city commissioned a so-called flood wave protection system designed by MOSE, a consortium of state-of-the-art engineering and construction firms. In essence, MOSE designed a series of movable barriers on the lagoon’s floor, which, according to Rolling Stone, would "inflate with air and rise up and create a temporary wall to protect the city."

However, the project has been a resounding failure: Costs swelled from $1.7 billion to a whopping $6 billion; engineers didn’t account for today’s higher sea levels; mussels have infested the infrastructure; and even though the barriers won’t be fully operational until 2022 (11 years behind schedule), many of the structures are already corroded. To make matters worse, 35 people — from politicians to civil servants — were arrested in 2014 on corruption and bribery charges related to the project. Needless to say, the project has stalled. Like time, climate change stops for no one, causing the recent acqua alta in November to reach heights of 6 feet above sea level.

With virtually no modern-day protections in place, the city’s historic structures and works of art face utter ruin. The ninth-century crypts beneath St. Mark’s Basilica are completely flooded — as are the first floors of many homes and businesses — and warm-water worms, carried into the lagoon from the Mediterranean, have begun gobbling up the city’s wooden infrastructure. Additionally, salt poses a huge threat to Venice’s world-famous art, in particular the immovable frescoes painted on the walls and ceilings of historic buildings. Art historian Sven Taubert explained to DW News that the new "permanent moisture" brought on by flooding attacks buildings by "[pushing salts] into areas of the building where they simply don’t belong. At that point, they crystalize and bloom on the walls."

How Flooding Intersects with Overtourism

With a highly romanticized place like Venice, it’s easy to mourn the loss of the city’s art and architecture. However, we — and Venice’s government — should be turning our attention to the locals. Over the course of the last decade, Venice has become the birthplace of "overtourism" — that is, it’s is extremely popular and extremely over capacity. According to The Guardian, approximately 28 million visitors arrive in Venice annually, while roughly 2,000 once-permanent residents abandon the Floating City each year. This aligns with DW News’ findings: Reportedly, only 55,000 inhabitants still live in the city’s center, compared to the 175,000 residents who lived there 60 years ago. Infuriatingly for Venetians, floodwaters haven’t deterred visitors, but instead provided (insensitive) new selfie opportunities.

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Photo Courtesy: Filippo Monteforte/AFP/Getty Images

In the weeks following the initial influx of floodwaters, things haven’t returned to normal. Trash litters the streets. Business owners have gutted the wrecked ground floors of their buildings. "It’s a city that for over a thousand years has built a wonderful equilibrium between a human component, ecological component, art [and] nature," Shaul Bassi, director of the Center for Humanities and Social Change at Ca’ Foscari University of Venice, told NPR. "And in the last century, we have basically almost destroyed that balance."

Despite Venetians’ large-scale protests against tourism and its ill effects, the problem persists. Venice’s government continues to invest in the industry, and cruise ships continue to cause erosion — both of infrastructure and daily life. To appease locals, the government proposed instituting an "entrance fee" for tourists. Although government officials may believe this would satisfy them and, in a financial sense, aid ongoing infrastructure issues, most Venetians feel this is a far cry from the change that’s needed. After all, an entrance fee isn’t going to solve overtourism, protect the city against the consequences of climate change or finish MOSE’s barriers. Instead, it will make the city even more like Walt Disney World’s EPCOT — the suggestion of a city, not a real place rife with real crises and full of real people.